There are two things mum always told me not to mention at polite family gatherings – politics and religion. It’s about time that changed.
I’ll begin this with a disclaimer. Despite my love of biblical stories as a five year old, I have been agnostic-leaning-towards-athiest pretty much since I learnt what the terms meant. Noah’s Ark, the feeding of the 5,000, the Immaculate Conception – all wonderful stories, but real? I don’t think so. Even when understanding these tales as moral lessons, as opposed to literal events, I still don’t think I will ever need to believe in the presence of a higher power. Humanity’s limited perception and knowledge of the universe will likely never be able to disprove a God, personal or otherwise, but personally I feel the chances of there being such a Being are pretty small.
Religion, however, is nonetheless a fundamental aspect of humanity and I fully respect that. It has divided countries throughout history and started wars, educated generations through literacy and learning, and remains one of the most powerful and evocative social forces in the world.
That being said, religion is facing considerable difficulty finding a niche in the globalised and increasingly secular world of today. While the news reports on fundamentalists might suggest otherwise, there’s strong evidence to suggest such extreme movements only began in response to a decline in faith that began in earnest in the 20th century. Now, especially in the UK, Christianity is facing a major crisis. The Church of Scotland predicts it will not survive two more generations and the number of people declaring themselves ‘non-religious’ has risen to an all time high – approximately a quarter of the population. Such statistics have seeped into all aspects of British society; only last year the line ‘to love my God’ was removed from the Girlguiding promise and replaced with ‘to be true to myself and develop my beliefs’, and it was met with minimal contention.
non-believers tend on the most part to be overlooked
While we’ve accepted that the world is increasingly becoming multi-faith, however, being an overt ‘atheist’ remains a different issue entirely. In discussions about institutionalised discrimination or oppression, non-believers tend on the most part to be overlooked. Those discriminated for their sexuality, gender or religious beliefs dominate our headlines; there are constant calls for their equality and acceptance, but atheists aren’t often mentioned.
It might be in part due to the reputation atheism has garnered for itself. Richard Dawkins is perhaps the most famous name in the non-belief movement in Western society, but his aggressive and brusque approach has not endeared himself to the wider population. Like the term ‘feminism’, until recently ‘athiesm’ was associated with the extremists, with those who hate all religions and everything they stand for. As a result it’s not a term people tend to associate themselves with. ‘Agnostic’ or ‘humanist’ are far less controversial and far more preferable, in the same sense that some still argue ‘equalist’ is better than declaring oneself a ‘feminist.’
The social faux pas of identifying as a non-believer needs to change. Just as feminism remains a hard-fought battle in many places, atheists are being oppressed too. Being an overt atheist is currently punishable by death in 13 countries. Over the summer, the atheist Saudi blogger, Rafi Badawi, made headlines for being sentenced to 1,000 lashes for voicing his irreligious views. Back in February, Avijit Roy, moderator of the blog Free Thinking was hacked to death with machetes in Bangladesh for defending secular and humanist ideas. It’s an important distinction to make – they were not attacked for being Christian or anti-Muslim, they were attacked for being ‘non-believers’.
But it’s not just in the Middle East that atheists face discrimination. It’s a big hurdle politically in the western world as well to ‘come out’ as an atheist, especially in the United States. While the most extreme oppression takes place in fundamentalist religious nations, political discrimination against atheists remains a major issue.
political discrimination against atheists remains a major issue
In 2012, a Gallup survey in the US found that 54% would vote a “well-qualified” atheist for president, the highest proportion since the question was first asked in 1958, when only 18% said they would vote for an atheist. While this shows acceptance of non-belief is on the rise, amazingly the survey showed that atheists still came behind every other ‘controversial group’ polled for, including homosexuals (68%) and Muslims (58%). Despite the rise in non-believers across the country, there isn’t a single public atheist in US Congress in 2015, and in seven separate states there still exist enforceable laws that prohibit atheists from holding office.
Regardless of what faith is being considered, following millenia of state-endorsed religion, increasing secularisation was inevitably going to cause controversy. But it’s important that the systematic oppression and discrimination against non-believers is recognised as just as serious issue as religious discrimination.