Thursday, 18 September 2008

Should I call myself an Atheist?

Whilst listening to an old interview with Neil De Grasse Tyson on the “Point of Enquiry” Podcast the other day I felt myself pondering Neil’s comments on the pro’s and cons of identifying ones self as an Atheist. Neil made a very good point that it’s far better to advertise yourself by what you are, as opposed to what you are not. The example he gave, is that as a non golfer he doesn’t feel the need to identify himself as an agolfer, so as a non theist why bother identifying yourself as an atheist. My immediate thoughts were that this sounds like a reasonable and convincing stance, so why does it sit slightly uneasily with me. Having pondered it for a while I think it’s due to am imperfect analogy. This is because the majority of the worlds population are not golfer’s, and it’s not considered a key attribute that governs many aspects of peoples lives that must be treated with respect. Hence there’s no need to disassociate oneself from it if it just doesn’t happen to fluff your pigeon. If golf was treated in the same way by society as religion then when you check in at the casualty department for some treatment you may well be asked if you prefer a sand wedge to a 9 iron when completing your admission form (I’m not a golfer either so I apologise if my metaphor is not quite logical). If I where asked such a silly question by the triage nurse I would feel the need to qualify the fact that I was not in fact a golfer and that I find the question pointless and irrelevant. If the majority of the worlds population were atheists and religion were not afforded its sacred untouchability, then I think Neil’s metaphor would stand and I would agree with him and see no reason to declare my atheism as it would be the default point of view. We could then leave the onus on the deluded to come out of the closet instead.So why do I think it’s important to stand up and be counted as an Atheist? I suspect that, in Britain at least, despite opinion polls, I am not actually in the minority. I suspect that non believers frequently allow themselves to be counted among the faithful due to reasons of religious disinterest and maintenance of their culture heritage. For example, if religion pays no part in your daily life and the triage nurse asked you for your religion on the admission form, how many non believers just say “Christian”, as the quick and easy answer. They were christened as a Christian and they live in a “Christian Country” they may not be practising, but they enjoy the Christmas holidays and certainly don’t want to be identified as a Muslim or a Jew, ergo Christian is the simple harmless answer. Perhaps similar views are received in response to opinion polls as the percentage of Christian’s in this country does not equate with Church attendance statistics.But why use the word “Atheist” when it has such negative connotations, in fact some might even mistakenly associate the word with amorality or less pleasant human characteristics. I suspect this might be the primary incentive for Dan Dennnet to champion the term “Brights”. I quite like the term “Bright” but it does sound a little condescending, perhaps I secretly like that, it almost says “Science too difficult? Never mind, try religion”. So how about “Secularist”, “Humanist” or even “Agnostic”? I don’t object to any of those terms (although I find Agnostic a little too non comitial). However, I think words can be perceived differently over a period of time (Not only does the word “Gay” have a primarily different meaning these days, its starting to loose any stigma associated with it). Might it not also be a good idea to clean up the word “Atheist” by more popular usage of the word, by not being afraid of the term and by allowing it to be associated with genuine, caring and morale people like us.So assuming atheists are more numerous than polls suggest and we can rightly feel proud of such a label, what’s the value in promoting it? One (of many possible) answers could be that it seems as though religious pressure groups are trying (and achieving) to change our secular government (For example the spread of faith schools with the ability to teach their preferred creation myths as science and other such lobbying that prevents the spread of science and progress that leads to a better quality of life for us all). Perhaps by making it clearer that the majority of the population are intelligent caring and rational human beings that have no truck with an outdated dogmatic view of the world, then religious lobbying may be less successful.In short, support the out campaign, wear you atheists T Shirts with pride and raise the profile.
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