Leading them astray

Do Bible-bashers have some special radar that tells them when someone is feeling a bit down? I wondered about that when this weekend, after I gave up smoking and was inside the ‘difficult second 48 hours’ I got two separate visits from people wanting to discuss a potential role in my life for Our Lord Jesus Christ.

There was a time when I happily invited Jovos and others inside for a cup of tea and a pointless one hour discussion about the existence or otherwise of deity but, these days, like most people, I try to get rid off the buggers asap and am prepared to be fairly blunt in order to achieve that goal. This time though I felt a little guilty about packing off the Nigerian lad so rudely – after all he had chosen to spend his Saturday morning going house to house to try and spread his beliefs and that merits at least some sort of response doesn’t it?

In my youth I used to do the left-wing secular version of the Jovo calling – attending demonstrations, standing on stalls and hawking petitions – and in retrospect I rather wish that instead of ignoring me and the other comrades more people had been bothered to tell me what rubbish I was talking.

There was also a time when I would have simply enjoyed the argument and so, perhaps, would the doorstepping Christian. These days though we are being constantly urged to avoid offending the religious and to respect faith and so the idea of sitting down with a Christian and challenging his or her beliefs seems rather insensitive as well as being a waste of time. A pity, because we really should have more good arguments.

But is this not one of the main problems facing humanists or atheists? While the religious seek special privileges for their ideologies (including the right to indoctrinate children and be legally protected against strident criticism), those of us who are without faith do little or nothing to spread our viewpoint. We don’t act as a ‘community’ and we don’t proselytise. In fact, just think for a minute of what it might be like if we did. Can you imagine the reaction if atheists held loud and proud street demonstrations against religion or if we turned up outside places of worship with leaflets urging believers to turn their backs on their illusions? The main religions in western societies have basically given up on trying to win converts from each other’s ranks, a sort of unofficial agreement exists not to poach from each others flock, so it is not hard to guess what sort of response their would be if unbelievers started trying to win converts.

But if humanists or atheists believe, as we do, that the world would be a better place without organised religion why are we so shy about saying so? Since the death of communism and the decline of socialism, religion is being allowed to have control of the entire market for idealism and utopia – why can’t we just have a little bit of space to compete with them?

For example, in the whole sorry debate over Muslim integration, the social pressure to avoid offending the religious, to avoid proselytising or trying to bring about change in people’s lives, means that we censor ourselves in the discussion. How? Well, for example, I think it is generally positive that fewer people take orders from the Church of England and likewise I think it would be good if thousands of British Muslims a year turned their back on their faith and converted from Islam to atheism. There, said it.

The truth is that I do find it encouraging and pleasing to see men of Pakistani origin in Lancashire enjoying a pint in the pub. I am glad that they are breaking the ban on alcohol imposed by religion – the more of them do so, the better it would be for community relations. Likewise it is great to see girls from Muslim backgrounds not wearing religious clothing and proudly displaying their beauty for themselves and for those of us not obliged to ‘lower the gaze’ and of course, I’d like to see more British Asian women (and more Jewish men and Christian homosexuals for that matter) marrying out of their faith and community.

Yet such comments seem awfully out of place in a debate which is over-dominated by notions such as ‘respect’ and ‘tolerance’. All the main religions, which are supposed to compete with each other for our souls and our minds, are delighted that such terms which encourage self-censorship are dominating the discourse. One of the main purposes of ‘multi-faith’ initiatives is to ensure that a positive environment for religion is maintained for the benefit of all the varieties of believers.

But perhaps this clinging together of the religious has not been as successful as the believers hoped for and the terrain for the arguments against religion are not as hostile as we might think. The vast majority of us aren’t members of religious groups (there are an estimated 17 million people in the UK with humanist views) and it is only our passivity that allows the religious to maintain excessive influence and enjoy unreasonable protection.

I recently experienced an example of how the non-religious can get a positive response when I attended the funeral of an atheist in Lancashire. The ceremony was entirely God Free, conducted by an officiant from the British Humanist Association. Afterwards, talking amonst those in attendance, there was a strong consensus that it had been a very moving, dignified and appropriate event with atheists and agnostics agreeing that it was positive to have had God removed from the occasion and even some of the religious in attendance noting that such a ceremony worked well.

Encouraging more people to have humanist weddings and funerals and in particular to reject the obscenity of ‘Christenings’ would be a good and practical start in the road to carving out a stronger public space and voice for non-believers. The religions are greatly strengthened by the weak-willed simply going along with their control of ceremonies relating to births, marriages in deaths. In the British Humanist Association and the National Secular Society there are two bodies that could provide a much bigger service for us and voice for us. Secularists and Humanists should make more use of them.

(Further reading: Evangelistic Atheism: Leading Believers Astray By Dan Barker, a former fundamentalist Christian minister)