Walking on eggshells
- How far should we go to avoid the risk of upsetting the sensitivities of religious people?
- How far should religious people go to avoid the risk of upsetting our sensitivities?
- Why is it assumed that we non-religious people have no sensitivities?
- Why are people afraid to laugh at religious ideas - even when they think those ideas are nonsense?
- Why do many well-meaning people feel uncomfortable when someone else laughs at religious ideas?
- Should we be expected to "respect" all "sincerely held" beliefs? (Fascism is a "sincerely held" belief.)
- We are deeply offended by many things done in the name of religion.
- Why should we tiptoe round the topic of religion?
Religions have a problem - religion IS the problem
So many gods, so many religions, so many sects, so many holy books, so many interpretations - no wonder religions have a problem with intra and inter-religious dispute and conflict.
Possibly the greatest problem facing us today is mass migration resulting from over-population, economic failure, lack of employment, failed states, corruption, religious conflicts and climate change.
In sub-Saharan Africa this problem is being exacerbated by the religious policies of countries such as Saudi Arabia which is investing heavily (using money we pay for "their" oil) in building new mosques and training new Imams to spread an extreme form of Wahhabism.
Jihad provides an easy answer to young people who see no future for themselves outside religious extremism.
There is a certain irony here.
- Religiously dominated Saudia Arabia is busy spreading Wahhabist extremism.
- Religiously dominated America is busy building bases in African countries (over 30 such bases at the last count) to use drones and troops to "take out" religious extremists. There is an astonishing arrogance in "Christian" America's assumption that it can go anywhere and do anything it likes - but at least it keeps money flowing into American arms manufacturers.
- America and Saudi Arabia are "allies".
Saudi Arabia is the world's largest purchaser of weapons - mainly from the USA and the UK. However, when the evangelical Wahhabi Islamic theocratic kleptocracy of Saudi Arabia feels threatended by its neighbouring Shi'i Islamic theocratic enemy, Iran, it is unwilling to risk Saudi lives in the fight but instead turns to Christian America for yet more weapons and ground troops. Christian America ends up fighting battles on behalf of sectarian Islam - perhaps American Christian lives are cheaper than Saudi Muslim ones?
- This is madness.
The image below shows the American drone base at Chabelley Airport in Djibouti.
In many countries people are denied basic human rights because of pressure from religious groups.
For example, Ireland, previously dominated by Christian Catholicism, voted overwhemingly to give women the right to choose about abortion. Christian Protestant dominated Northern Ireland refused to give women that right because our Prime Minister at the time (Theresa May), herself the church-going daughter of a Christian CofE vicar, was afraid to take on the Christian DUP which kept her in power. She was equally afraid of the right wing religious element of her own party led by the anti-abortion Catholic Jacob Rees-Mogg.
Principles, and the lives of thousands of women, continue to be sacrificed in the name of political amd religious expediency. In many countries (Eastern Europe, Central and South American) Christian Catholicism determines government policy.
WHO figures indicate that each year almost 50,000 women die and over 2 million are seriously injured in back street abortions primarily in countries where Christianity (rules made by celibate men) has dictated that abortion shall be illegal.
Studies have shown that making abortion illegal does not stop women seeking abortion - it just kills more of them.
Think about it and weep. 50,000 women dead every year - 50,000!
How do religious people sleep at night?
It might be slightly more acceptable if religious differences affected only the religious - but they end up affecting those of us who want nothing to do with religion. Their problems overspill to become our problems. Our lives, our rights, our freedoms are affected by their beliefs and their actions.
Our answer to the problems of religion is simple, but unacceptable to religious people: drop the god stuff and put your fellow human beings first.
Do we engage informally with religious people? Of course we do, on a personal level, after all, we know, and are friends with, people from lots of different backgrounds, religious and non-religious.
Some of us engage with the products of religion: art, architecture and particularly music. There is nothing better than a good hymn, a Christmas carol, some plainchant or a good requiem - Faure's preferably!
Do we engage on a more formal level with religious people? Yes, but it's a very qualified "yes".
Experience over many years has shown how frustrating it can be - for a number of reasons.
- "Inter-faith dialogue" excludes us (probably unintentionally - no one thought atheists would have anything to contribute when the term was coined) - because we don't need a faith. Much of the "dialogue" revolves around polite chats over the tea and biscuits where nothing of substance, nothing controversial, no points of difference are ever discussed. The controversial is definitely discussed when we step in!
- Religious people use a closed language with a vocabulary which is meaningless to us - like the word "god" which many of them find difficult to define. They talk about the "spiritual" as if we non-believers are lacking something.
We are lacking a need for the supernatural, the vague "something out there". Unlike many religious people we are not "searching" (we found ourselves a long time ago, we are secure in ourselves), we are not wandering around Tibet looking for "spiritual enlightenment". We are enlightened, we are the product of the Enlightenment - we need no more.
- Religious people use a closed frame of reference - as if quoting from their holy books would have any meaning to us. The moment someone quotes from their holy book, we leave the room.
- Without a common language and a common frame of reference there can be no meaningful dialogue. We put people first in the here and now - and we use our own words to argue from our personal view of the world - not from a belief in a supernatural entity and words in holy books.
- What is "engagement" supposed to achieve anyway? The usual answer is "understanding and tolerance."
We have no problem understanding religions (it's not hard!) and we fully understand why some people need god and religion while others (like us) don't.
We understand why people become religious: exposure to a single world view, accepting the first thing that comes along, parents, family, community, religious schools, lack of knowledge of the alternatives. (How many "faith" schools ever invite us to speak to their students?)
We understand what people get out of religions: a feeling of belonging, community, social support, hope, security, easy answers to the big questions of life: "god did it", "it's god's way","ours not to question the will of god" etc.
We are not so happy with the word "tolerance" for two reasons:
- It implies "put up with" rather than "accept as equal".
- There are lots of things done in the name of religion that we don't think anyone should tolerate.
So, yes, we do engage with religious people; we do sit on discussion panels with rabbis, imams, priests and vicars; we do attend "multi-faith" days in our local prison; we do take up invitations from university and other religious groups to speak to them.
However, we are not sure how much good this does since most adults have closed minds, they have too much invested, emotionally and intellectually, in their beliefs to engage in open-minded dialogue - though many of them (usually CofE, even Archbishops!) are happy to admit to having "doubts".
Our time is better spent speaking to young people whose minds may not be so closed - we give them an opportunity to examine and question our world view so they can make a free and informed choice about what to believe.
That's probably why we are rarely invited to speak in religious schools - with a few notable and brave exceptions. The last thing they want is for their students to be exposed to alternative views - though most of them are happy to bring in token speakers from other religions (a Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh etc.), after all, they are also "religious" (and obviously "wrong"), but, god forbid, their students should ever have an opportunity to find out about an alternative world view that is free of god and religion. One wonders what they are afraid of. Is their faith so weak?
Advice to parents with a child in a religious school (CofE, Catholic, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, whatever): ask the head why we are not invited to speak to students. Let us know the response you get.
"But we aren't like that!"
"We don't recognise ourselves in your descriptions above."
"I do believe in something out there but I don't describe myself as religious - I'm not a fan of organised religion."
We hear this all the time from religious people and from believers who are embarrassed to describe themselves as "religious" - so here are a few key points:
- Many (most?) religious people are good, or try to be good.
We have doubts when looking at America where many (most?) politicians are ardent, Old Testament, bible-thumping, evangelical churchgoers. Lots of "eye for an eye" and very little "sermon on the mount". Not much empathy in American Christian fundamentalism as anyone who has visited the southern states will know - it's an Old-Testament-god-infested country.
- Perhaps people are "good" simply because they are good people - whether they are religious or not.
Most good religious people we know don't think in depth about their religion - in fact many of them are fairly ignorant about it - in most cases we know far more than they do! They "do" the rituals of religion, because that's what they have done since infant school, but they don't give it a lot of in-depth thought.
- Would "good" religious people become bad if they lost their religion?
Our experience of the many religious people who have joined us as atheists is that they remain the same sort of people - they simply drop the god bit and become a little more open minded. They think more, they discuss more, they read more and they come to understand the world more - all of which are good things in our book!
Some of them become evangelical atheists (nothing worse than a convert!) - because they kick themselves for having swallowed the god bit in the first place - but they usually grow out of it and calm down.
- "Good" religious people share the same god and the same holy books as those who do bad things in the name of religion.
Their "good" interpretation of their holy books is highly selective and ignores the bad parts: "those things were relevant 1,400/2,000 years ago but they are not relevant now".
Which things are relevant? Which things are no longer relevant? What are the criteria by which you judge the relevance of words in holy books? Who sets the criteria? Why is god so vague, can't she write clearly?
Are religious people beginning to think for themselves, making their own judgements rather than swallowing the interpretations of others? If so, this can only be a good thing and who knows where it will lead?
In the 19th century, state-acceptable Christianity (the CofE - "rich man in his castle, poor man at his gate, god made they high and lowly, each to his estate.") morphed into non-conformity which morphed into unitarianism, which morphed into all sorts of things until eventually becoming The Union of Ethical Societies in 1896 and the British Humanist Association in 1967. There is hope yet!
However, there are always excuses, excuses, excuses - which, to be honest, we are tired of hearing.
- Just for balance: there are many atheists who are far from paragons of virtue! However, our experience indicates that Humanists are a good bunch, we don't know any "bad" Humanists.
Does anyone have the right not to be offended?
No. This is made clear in section 29J of the Racial and Religious Hatred Act, 2006.
Section 29J: Protection of freedom of expression
"Nothing in this Part shall be read or given effect in a way which prohibits or restricts discussion, criticism or expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule, insult or abuse of particular religions or the beliefs or practices of their adherents, or of any other belief system or the beliefs or practices of its adherents, or proselytising or urging adherents of a different religion or belief system to cease practising their religion or belief system."
Should we respect "sincerely held beliefs?"
No idea deserves respect as an idea - even if it is a sincerely held belief. Should we respect sincerely held fascist or white supremacist beliefs? Who would decide which ideas should be respected? What criteria would be used?
People have to earn respect by what they do, not by what they say or claim to believe. We judge by deeds, not words.
We are not talking about the verbal abuse of a living person - we are talking about the right to criticise, laugh at, satirise and generally make fun of, ideas which we find funny, silly or dangerous nonsense.
Some people are incapable of placing an idea on the table and discussing it - they take everything said as a personal insult, they are offended on behalf of an idea or on behalf of someone long dead.
We are offended by people who:
- put their god above their fellow human beings.
- commit violence, or call for violence, in the name of their god, prophet or religion.
- know almost nothing about their own religion: "it must be true because it is in our holy book". "It must be true because my priest/imam/holy man told me."
- have grabbed the first religion that comes along without looking at alternatives.
- deny children the right to make a free and informed choice about belief by exposing them to single, narrow religious world view - at home, in the community and in religiously segregated schools.
- discriminate on the grounds of gender and sexuality because of what it says in their holy books.
- try to force their religious values and laws onto the rest of us.
- deny others the right to change their beliefs.
- are incapable of developing a personal moral code and instead have to rely on rules set down in holy books.
- claim that we cannot be moral, good and responsible people because we don't believe in their god or religion.
- demand respect without being willing to earn it.
- claim that their interpretation of their holy book is correct and all other interpretations are wrong.
- separate themselves off from the rest of society (self-segregation) along religious and ethnic lines.
- claim that "cultural traditions" are more important than human rights. For example: genital mutilation and forced marriages.
- claim the world is a few thousand years old and that "evolution is just a theory." They need to take a walk below the cliffs at Lyme Regis!
Too many religious people take their religion too seriously
They need to get a life, relax, laugh a bit, recognise that love is more fun than hate, enjoy the world and the people around them, form loving personal and sexual relationships - and do some good as they pass through the one life we share together.
We are equally offended by:
- Religions which try to control the sexual lives of their followers.
- Intra-religious violence and sectarian squabbling.
- Inter-religious violence.
- Hypocritical religious leaders who preach one things and do another. Evangelical Christian preachers who visit prostitutes and take drugs. Members of the Saudi royal family who visit London to drink, use prostitutes and gamble. The Christian church which tries to cover up the abuse of children by its priests.
- Arrogant and ignorant young people, just out of school or college, who claim to have discovered the "right" way for the world to be run according to their religious beliefs - even though they have been exposed to a single narrow view and have failed to examine the alternatives.
- Countries which do secret deals to enable religions to control many aspects of society (Vatican Concordats for example.)
- Countries which have followed religious edicts and failed to make a significant contribution to the world's scientific knowledge for the last 400 years. How many religious Nobel prize winners for science have there been?
- Politicians who fail to make their religious bias clear when passing laws for the rest of us.
- Politicians who would not recognise a principle if it stood up and punched them in the face.
- A political and legal system which uses religion as a form of social control while favouring landowners and the rich over the rest of us.
It is time religious people remembered the words of John Ball: "When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?"
"The Great Rebellion" of 1381, during which John Ball gave his speech, has been insultingly labelled "The Peasants' Revolt" when the vast majority of those who rebelled were far from peasants.
This is an excellent example of the rewriting of history by those who came out on the winning side when the rebellion was crushed by descendants of those who stole Britain in "The Great Theft" of 1066. The priest, John Ball, was hanged at St Albans - so much for liberation theology.