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“Proud To Be An Atheist” Barry Duke, editor of The Freethinker A talk given to the Brighton and Hove Humanist Group on 3 May 2005 I was 12 when I consigned God to the dustbin of disbelief. The deity was sent to join Santa Claus and the fairies when, for the umpteenth time, he failed to deliver when I knelt down to pray. My last attempt at communication with god was an important one too: I wanted him to stop a school bully making my life a misery. The very next day, the bully waylaid me on my way home from school, and sent me home with a bloody nose and two black eyes. So I dispensed with God’s less than useless services and turned instead to a higher authority - my much more reliable Uncle Charlie, who was heavily into physical fitness and boxing. He gave me a crash course in self-defence, and a month later it was the bully who went home with two black eyes and a bloody nose. Apart from having the satisfaction of conquering the little thug and seeing him in tears, I learned a very important lesson: that self-confidence and a strong will is far more effective than prayer when it comes to overcoming life’s adversities. At that stage of my life, I had never heard the word atheist. But about six months after giving the bully a taste of his own medicine, I overheard my parents use the term to describe a neighbour. When I asked what it meant I was told the person concerned was “did not believe in God”. “Oh, so I am an atheist too,” was my response. I relished the sound of the word and repeated it several times, determined to commit it to memory. The parents were shocked. “You must NEVER use that word to describe yourself,” I was warned. “It could get you into serious trouble.” Later, in my teens and growing up in apartheid South Africa, I realised what they meant, for then, under a Christian nationalist regime, the words “atheist” and “communist” were practically synonymous, frequently interchangeable – and invariably used to describe practically anyone who opposed the regime. As news spread of my own opposition to, and loathing of, the South African regime, and its evil bedfellow, the Dutch Reformed Church, I grew accustomed being accused of being “an atheist” or “a communist” – or both. I never bothered to deny either, and decided instead to adopt both terms as labels of honour. I should point out that, while I was not a member of the Communist Party, which had been outlawed and was operating as an underground organisation, I did sympathise with its aim of ridding the country of apartheid, and had many friends who were members. Some years later, on a visit to the United States, I was amazed to discover that there, too, people equated atheism (which, I must stress, is politically and morally neutral) with communism. It happened in San Franscisco at the home of a pen-friend who had invited me to holiday with him. During my stay, he handed me a leaflet advertising a forthcoming debate at Berkeley University about homosexuality. On the panel were Jewish, Christian and Muslims representatives. “Where is the atheist?” I asked. He looked at me strangely, than said, “I don’t think are any in California”. I laughed, and said: “Well, is one now!” “You’re not an atheist are you?” When I said, oh yes, my host replied, “well, that makes you a communist, and I am not sure a communist is welcome in my home. So I packed my bags and left. The next place I was asked to leave was the United Nations Building in New York. The Ayatollah Khomeini had just come to power in Iran, and had embarked on a vicious programme of turning his country into an Islamic theocracy. I had skull and crossbones stickers printed, replacing the skull with an image of Khomeini, and added the words RELIGION KILLS! I was in the process of plastering the walls of the UN building with these stickers when I was seized by two security guards and escorted off the premises. If anyone were to do that today they would probably wind up behind bars. If anything things have become worse under George W Bush’s administration, as this quote by Mike in Dissident Voice seems to indicate: “Face it, atheism in America is a lonely experience. Atheists are widely distrusted and there is a palpable undercurrent of discrimination directed at them, even though it is less noticeable than the prejudice aimed at other groups. In many ways, atheists are social pariahs, America’s leper colony.” My closest brush with real danger as a result of my atheism occurred in the late sixties in the small rural town of Vereeniging (a word very few Brits can ever pronounce, and a place fewer would ever want to visit – it being the buckle of South Africa’s bible-belt). I was sent by the Johannesburg Star to cover a public meeting called by an ultra-nationalistic, neo- Nazi group who thought that the ruling nationalists had gone soft. On entering the village hall, armed with camera and notebook, a deathly silence descended on the room. Affecting a nonchalance I certainly did not possess, I walked to the front of the hall, found an empty seat and sat down. The man chairing the meeting, a beetle-browed, bull-necked, red-faced Afrikaner, got up and bellowed into his microphone: “I see the liberal English press has sent a Jew- boy jockey to spy us.” I shouted back, “I might be short, but I am a journalist, not a jockey, and I am an atheist, not a Jew.” There was a sinister rumbling all around me. Several very large men then pounced on me, and I was physically thrown out of the hall, and onto a muddy patch of turf. The man who drove me to Vereeniging was a burly African called James. He leapt out of the Star’s company car, a white Mercedes, grabbed me, and manoeuvred me back to the vehicle. But before we could get in, we found our ourselves backed against the car by a screaming mob, some carrying pick handles, others guns. “Don’t panic, boss,” said James. “I’ve got a big knife under my jacket. I will protect you.” This was the last thing I needed to hear. I hissed at him: “Show a knife and we are both dead men.” Sensibly, he kept it hidden, and stoically we both submitted to a roughing up. Cut, bruised and bleeding, we were a sorry sight when we were finally allowed back into the car – but still managed a weak last laugh. In our get-away dash, James spun the wheels of the Mercedes with such ferocity that they sprayed the jeering mob from head to toe with mud, cow shit and wet turf. “Hah”, exclaimed James, “Look boss, now they are all black – just like me!” Declaring myself an atheist in that den of god-fearing fascists was, on reflection, the most fool- hardy thing I have ever done, but, to this day I am proud of the fact that did it. My next brush with antagonism towards my now very overt atheism (I had even taken to wearing self-designed button badges declaring my godlessness), was in the UK. Surprisingly, this did not come from religious zealots, but from a number of people had who donned the mantle of humanism. They thought that, while it was perfectly OK to be a non-believer, the word atheist was to be avoided at all costs because was too hard-edged, dogmatic and confrontational. They felt that, even though THEY had rejected religion, it was their duty to respect the beliefs of others. In a nutshell, these humanists wanted to be seen as being reasonable and nice. There is nothing nice about me where religion is concerned. I steadfastly refused to call myself a humanist, and would not buy into their line of reasoning – and today I am rather glad I held my ground. For it is my belief that this tolerance of the intolerable has led to a situation where, in a country which is the least godly in the world, the religious today have a disproportionate amount of power, influence and privilege - and this is set to increase whatever party wins the next election. It also irks me that a perfectly respectable word should be regarded as being offensive by so many non-believers, who, bizarrely, are still casting about for other labels. The latest – and to my mind the most ridiculous, is to replace atheist, humanist, rationalist, agnostic, freethinker or secularist with the word “bright”. Given that the vast majority of the population have little or no idea what an agnostic, or a humanist or a rationalist or a bright is, but are pretty well aware of what an atheist is, I believe we should be making every effort to use the word far more often. It matters not a jot that the religious choose to imbue the word atheist with all manner of absurd meanings. These can easily be refuted, as I am about to demonstrate. A while back Dr Peter Masters, pastor at the Metropolitan Tabernacle, London, produced a leaflet about atheism. In chapter 1 of the amusingly-titled The Cruelties of Atheism, Masters kicks off by asserting that the "fear of God" is required to turn people away from vile acts or sin. When one sets out to commit some dastardly act, "an awareness that God exists may startle the conscience, and a powerful restraint will be felt". Sean Ellis, a British atheist and architect of the Luminous website, argues: “While this may be the case, it does not address the possibility that the conscience may be startled by other things, such as rational consideration of consequences, or fear of very real secular authority. “It is also limited by the claim that it is the fear of God that does the startling, which tells us nothing about the reality of the God behind the fear. “If this is the case, then a purely illusory figure would do just as well, as long as the fear was still induced. Many of us suffer from irrational fear of one sort or another, and it is possible to induce fear of illusory figures into children with no great effort. “In the majority of cases, these bogie men are dispensed with after childhood, but continued pressure and conditioning into adulthood seems to allow a significant number of people to retain a very real fear.” Masters goes on to say that “the great objective of atheism is to get rid of this unwanted restraint – the fear of reprisals from God.” It is this statement upon which most of the rest of the pamphlet stands, and ultimately falls. Although SOME atheists may reject the idea of God for this reason, it is by no means prevalent or indeed common. Most atheists reject the God concept as simply superfluous, not because it interferes with their conscience, says Ellis, and poses this question:” If Masters' thesis really were the case, what would be the effects? Countries with a largely Christian population (and Masters is clearly talking about the Christian God here) should have a much lower rate of "vile acts" than more secular countries. A comparison of the murder rates between the USA and the UK may be instructive here. According to recent polls, the country with the clearly higher murder rate is also the country with the clearly higher percentage of people professing belief in the existence of the Christian God. On this evidence alone, the theory seems to fail. An interesting point is raised at the end of this section, where Masters defines an atheist as "a person who is determined to get the instinctive awareness of God completely out of his mind." One would object to this on two counts. First, that there is no evidence that there is indeed an instinctive awareness of God in anyone’s mind, and second that the ridding of this (should it exist) is the purpose for becoming an atheist. Masters presents the standard weak/strong atheist divide, which he refers to as "passive atheists" and "ardent, aggressive" non-believers. He clearly states that weak atheists are ignorant dupes who have "been persistently lied to by militant atheism and have absorbed the lies." He goes on to lay the blame for this squarely at the feet of the media, which he believes to be "controlled by atheists". "The first point to make about atheism,” says Masters, “is that in God's sight it is not a credible intellectual opinion, but a sin." This is the opening paragraph of the third section of his leaflet, and perhaps the most significant of his errors. If the purpose of the pamphlet is to make atheists see the error of their ways, then suggesting that it upsets God is exactly the wrong way to go about it. This is the exact equivalent of attempting to convince people that Santa Claus exists because if you don't believe in him it makes him really angry. Masters misses the whole point that arguments from authority, especially with God as the authority, will convince no-one of sceptical bent. Then comes a long passage blaming the current status of this country on atheism's "own system of ethics". The country’s morals, Masters asserts, are in a lamentable state. How does he know this? Because the media tells him so. But the British media has to be untrustworthy because, in his own words, it is controlled by atheists! The religious aren’t very strong on logic. In fact, it is equally plausible to blame the current government for the state of the nation. But, unfortunately for him, the current Labour government is easily the most God-friendly political party in the UK today. Perhaps, suggests Ellis, we should return to the state of the nation that prevailed when last the Church had sway over the majority of the country. This was called the Dark Ages, and with good reason. Apart from destroying the nation’s morals, atheism, according to Masters, is intensely cruel in its effects. It has unleashed "lust and violence on a scale that would never exist, but for its influence." "Whenever we read about suffering people let us be clear that this is ALL the cruelty of atheism," he writes. In that case, how can he explain that the largely secular countries of Northern Europe are mostly comfortably off, whereas the Christian countries of South America and parts of Africa have levels of poverty that cause suffering on a gargantuan scale? Are atheists so powerful that they can cause suffering at such distance? Was the suffering in Bosnia, or the sectarianism of Northern Ireland the fault of atheism? No, it was due to a struggle between different sects of God worshippers. As we all know, nothing provokes greater violence than the schisms that exist with religions, and I shall break here for a moment to tell you a joke that demonstrates my point precisely: A fellow was walking across a bridge one day, when he saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump off. The first man ran over and said, "Stop! Don't do it!" "Why shouldn't I?" said the would-be suicide. The man replied: "Well, there's so much to live for!" He said, "Like what?" The rescuer said, "Well, are you religious or an atheist?" He said, "Religious." The man replied: "Me too! Are you a Christian or Jew?" He said, "Christian." "Me too! Are you Catholic or Protestant?" He said, "Protestant." “Me too! Are you Episcopalian or Baptist? He said, "Baptist! "Wow! Me too! Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord? He said, Baptist Church of God!" "Me too! Are you Original Baptist Church of God or are you Reformed Baptist Church of God?" He said, "Reformed Baptist Church of God!" "Gosh me too! Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation 1915?" He said, "Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation 1915!" Enraged, the first man yelled, "Die, heretic scum!" and pushed him off the bridge. Under the heading “Atheism is arrogant and impotent” Peter Masters does come very close to making a valid point when he claims that atheism is "comfortless," and on that point Ellis broadly agrees. “It is comforting not to have to see the world as it really is, not to have to rely on yourself, to be told that you are loved unconditionally. It is comforting to belong to a group, to detach yourself from everyday problems, to be assured that you will live forever. If comfort is being lied to like this, then "comfortless" is a compliment. Perversely, Masters then claims that atheism "bribes its way into human hearts." But he has just claimed it was "comfortless." Are these two statements not contradictory? It certainly seems so. Atheism "tells us that there is no reason why we need ever suffer another pang of conscience." This assumes that basis of conscience must rest only in fear of a supernatural authority. Evidence gleaned by study of humans indicates that it is, in reality born, of societal pressure, upbringing, conditioning and enlightened self interest. The evolution of moral behaviour and justice has been extensively studied, and does not seem to be linked in any way to irrational fear or supernatural influence. As an aside, this for me, says Ellis, underlines the fundamental difference between the believer and the sceptic. The believer will look to scripture (of whatever kind) for answers, and in most cases be content without ever relating what he has learned to the real world. The sceptic observes the world, and changes the "scripture" to fit. Thus the man who reads the Bible (Leviticus 11:21-22) will believe that beetles have four legs. The man who counts the legs on a beetle believes it has six. Believe what you like, but I reserve the right to check it against reality before I believe it too. More tosh about atheism appears in a booklet written by Nicky Gumbel, the man who launched the notorious Alpha Course. In “What about other Religions?” he wrote: “In every heart there in a hunger for God…Deep down no one is satisfied by materialism; we know there is more to life. There is a god-shaped gap in the heart of every human being. This hunger drives us to search for God. It is one of the explanations as to why there are so few atheists in the world, and why so many seek after God. When I pointed this passage out to my friend Bill McIlroy, he caustically commented: It is beyond me why these evangelists always speak of a “god-shaped hole in people’s hearts, and never their brain!” Leaving aside this nonsense about holes in the heart, a far more important issue is Gumbel’s claim that that “there are so few atheists in the world.” It goes without saying that everyone human is born an atheist (as not a Muslim, as Muslims insist). What happens in the ensuing years is both important and profoundly depressing – namely saddling children with religious belief. And, in this country a push for an increase in the religious indoctrination of the young has become relentless. With the blessing of the government, faith schools are increasing at a worrying rate, and, if the Tories win the next election, will continue to do so. When I recently researched an article for the Freethinker regarding the religious composition of the planet, the most accurate figures, derived from several different but reliable sources, indicate that there are roughly 2 billion Christians, 1.3 billion Muslims, 900 million Hindus and 360 million Buddhists. The fourth largest bloc are non-believers, who make up 850 million of the world’s population. However, these figures were challenged by Dr William Harwood, the Canadian writer and academic, who claims “The most reliable calculation of various belief systems is that there are one billion Christians, one billion Muslims, one billion Hindus, one billion adherents of all other religions, and two billion non-theists. Harwood correctly observes that non-believers living in large theocracies would be far to frightened to reveal their atheism, and would automatically, if wrongly be counted as believers. I chose to call my talk Proud to be an Atheist, because, for me, atheism means living a life free of belief in the existence of a creator. Why should I be proud of this fact? Simply because its sets me apart from people whose lives are fettered by unreason, superstition and dogma – and who then try their damndest to fetter others with absolutely no regard to the consequences. I do not claim that there is no God. I possess enough humility to admit that I simply do not know whether or not such a creator exists – and, more to the point, nor do I care. To claim with absolute certainty that God does not exist would make me guilty of the same intellectual arrogance as those who say with absolute certainty that God does exist. But I would say that, on the evidence to hand, there is nothing to prove to me that a beneficent, interventionist god exists, or has ever existed. I am also proud to be an atheist because it puts me in the same company of a great many people I admire most – people like Gore Vidal ,Kurt Vonnegut Jnr and James Baldwin to name but three who did so much to shape my thinking when I was a young and voracious reader. But most important of all is the fact that, when I proclaim my atheism, I am distancing myself from the immense amount of harm that religious fanaticism has done – and continues to do - to humanity. Ladies and gentlemen, I say it is time for non-believers everywhere to reclaim the word atheism and use it with pride!
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