Monday, 15 March 2010

Suspension of Non-belief

In a few days time (or a few days ago depending on when you’re reading this, or even months ago!), atheists from around the world will gather in Melbourne for The Global Atheist Convention. Given that I don’t believe in God you would assume that I would be in support of a meeting of atheists from around the globe to send a signal out to religious people that atheism is a strong and growing movement. You would be wrong. The Global Atheist Convention may well do more harm than good to atheism as a concept because it will lead to a misunderstanding of what atheism is, probably because the people attending the Convention have the same misunderstanding.

Atheism is a meaningless word. It describes a non-belief; an absence of dogma and faith. An ‘atheist’ is simply someone who does not believe in God, just as someone who doesn’t believe in astrology is an ‘a-astrologist’, or someone who doesn’t believe in alchemy is an ‘a-alchemist’. We do not have words for people who reject most spiritual non-scientific practices or beliefs, why do we have one for religion? For both astrology and alchemy we have more scientific, rational approaches to the same issues; astronomy and chemistry respectively. These are positive, rational, scientific positions which have long since shown both astrology and alchemy to be absurd (although astrology does still have a worrying amount of popular appeal). Perhaps a better way of showing religion to be absurd (and much of it is) is to focus on the alternative, rationalist approach, or approaches should I say.

The problem here is that, aside from the very theoretical and minority debate about God’s place in science as the creator and sustainers of the universe (a possibility which I am open to, but don’t understand enough about to make a worthwhile judgment), religion focuses on morality. Morality is a slippery issue with so many competing ideas, most, if not all, of which are fundamentally flawed, that it is difficult to present a credible alternative to religion’s very strong and usually pretty sensible rule. There is also so much debate within religion about morality and so many of our assumptions and values come from religion, that it can be difficult for a secular point of view to penetrate and make much of an impact on moral discussion.

Nevertheless it seems that the incredible intelligence and articulation of people like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens would be put to better use in support of a secular philosophical system which tries to play the same role as religion, rather than simply trying to destroy the credibility of the claims of religion without suggesting an alternative. Religion is more than just a pseudo-science which claims to provide answers to scientific questions using God to fill the vast gaps in our scientific knowledge. ‘Atheists’ have spend far too much time to date trying to discredit religion on this point, unsurprising given than people like Richard Dawkins are mostly scientists and so that is what they are interested and knowledgeable about. The fact is that most religious people don’t really care about the scientific claims of their faith and that is certainly not why they hold that faith. Faith is something which goes far beyond scientific claims; religion is a way of life. Religion makes claims about morality, it gives purpose and meaning to people’s lives, it makes moral statements and gives people a clear way in which to live their lives. This is not going to be destroyed simply by showing people that their belief is a nonsense; it cannot be destroyed per se, only replaced by something based more on reason and science.

This is where I believe that movements like Humanism and Utilitarianism are far more valuable than Atheism. They do not exist for the simple purpose of discrediting religion, but for the purpose of offering a secular alternative to the claims that religion has on people’s lives. They don’t even do this directly, but simply by existing they offer an alternative in the same way that chemistry offers an alternative to alchemy. Atheism does not offer an alternative, it is a non-movement of a non-believe which is deeply damaging because is portrays atheism as an equal and opposite faith statement to religion. It is not. Atheism is a meaningless word which needs to be dropped. Events like the Global Atheist Convention present to the world a false impression of what it actually is to not believe in God.

I personally do not subscribe to any particular believe system, like Humanism or Utilitarianism, the best way to describe my belief system would be ‘me-ism’. Obviously I think it would be ideal if everyone subscribed to their own personal ‘me-ism’, but I don’t think that is ever going to happen; the popularity of mass movements such as religion proves that. Atheism is not a believe system that anyone can subscribe to because it does not put forward any belief, so what is there to have an international convention about? Richard Dawkins is vice president of the British Humanist Association and I’m sure most of the people both attending and speaking in Melbourne belong to the same or similar organisation. At the very least they have constructed their own believe system based on their lack of belief in God. It would serve the cause of replacing religion with a secular viewpoint (or several secular viewpoints) much better if these intelligent, influential and committed people spend their time and energy trying to put forward those viewpoints, rather than continually putting down religion, usually on the grounds of science.

The Global Atheist Convention, and the work of people like Dawkins and Hitchens has done much to put Atheism on the map. While I am glad that this has happened, I can’t help but feel that self-professed Atheists are missing the point somewhat. They should stop gathering to slam down religion again and again, but instead start putting forward alternative, secular ways of life which replace, rather than destroy religion.

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