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Count me out of atheism’s creed

The desire to belong has made atheism into its own religion. But non-belief is no basis for a group identity.

Dolan Cummings

Topics Politics

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This article was first published on the Times Online Battle of Ideas blogs.

Richard Dawkins’s campaign urging atheists to ‘come out’ and be counted, is oddly reminiscent of an evangelical rally where born-again Christians are implored to rush down to the stage.

Closet atheists in the pious USA and worldwide are to be welcomed with open arms into the sceptical fold. And if sales of Dawkins’s The God Delusion and other recent books like it are anything to go by, there is no shortage of people ready to join up. While some critics have labelled Dawkins and co ‘atheist fundamentalists’, the real similarity between atheism and religion today is less fanaticism than a palpable yearning to belong. There is nothing wrong with this very human impulse, but non-belief is an odd basis for belonging.

Of course, the resurgence of interest in atheism is a reaction to the perceived rise of religion, whether in the form of Islamic fundamentalism or US-style Christian conservatism. But in taking their cue from resurgent religions, atheists also adopt something of their inward-looking focus. From attempts to popularise the term ‘bright’ as a positive identity to calls for atheists to be included on the roster of BBC Radio 4’s ‘Thought for the Day’, it seems that some want to establish atheism as an alternative, non-religious camp for people to belong to. But atheism itself ought to be the least interesting thing about atheists, who surely have various and often conflicting beliefs and passions of their own.

The most promising term used by some atheists to describe a more positive outlook is humanism, evoking a rich tradition going back to the Renaissance. But this won’t serve as a label for the non-religious for the simple reason that humanism does not preclude religious faith. Indeed, those of us with a positive belief in the human potential do not especially need to distinguish ourselves from others who share that belief while also identifying with a religious tradition. Certainly we will object to religious bigotry, but then so do most avowedly religious people. And equally, we will share opposition to antihuman ideas propagated by some atheists, such as biological determinism: the idea that humans are little more than fleshy machines.

The desire to establish atheism as an alternative identity is ultimately conservative. Rather than joining together with others who share a positive vision of the future, self-styled atheists define themselves against an external threat. Worse, it is no longer the conservatism of religion that worries non-believers, but its radicalism, its seemingly irrational passion. Where once religion was disdained as ‘the opium of the people’, today it is seen as more akin to the alcopop of the people: a dangerous and toxic influence that makes people behave in irrational ways.

If coming out as an atheist means subscribing to an ersatz religion with the fire taken out, atheists can expect to remain in the cold.

Dolan Cummings is a co-founder of the radical humanist campaign group the Manifesto Club and editorial director at the Institute of Ideas. He is chairing the session The resurrection of religion at the Battle of Ideas festival in London on 27-28 October.

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Topics Politics

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