March 23, 2012 9:10 pm

Deliver us from militant atheists

Atheism is a non-belief. Extremism in the name of something that doesn’t exist feels a bit silly

The militant atheists are massing, apparently. I’m not sure where they are massing exactly but presumably it is somewhere comfortable with good lattes. Maybe a Pret A Manger outside Waterstones or the coffee shop at Heal’s.

In these secret meetings the militant atheists plan their next jihad: religious symbols at work; a new legal challenge to prayers before council meetings; a campaign to design a new hot cross bun for unbelievers – maybe a hot cross ying and yang. They are becoming ever more daring. No doubt Special Branch will soon have a unit devoted to infiltrating them with some hunky copper busily bedding unbelievers (this seeming to be the preferred method of infiltration these days).

This militancy, I can tell you, is somewhat disconcerting for us moderate atheists. One of the more attractive features of atheism has been, well, its lack of belief. The best thing about being an atheist is all the things you don’t have to get worked up about. You are allowed a bit of smug condescension towards the faithful but, by and large, it’s a pretty chilled existence. Atheism is not a belief. It is a non-belief. There is no call to arms; nothing that needs to be done. Atheism is a lie-in on a Sunday morning.

Religious militancy – extremism in the name of the Lord – well, you can see the argument for that; but extremism in the name of something that doesn’t exist feels a bit silly when you think about it. Yes, I suppose it is all a bit irritating that we still have clerics as legislators and an established church, but you know it isn’t exactly Tehran. And yes, I could live without the Bishop of Bath and Wells on the Today programme but frankly, it’s no more irritating than Gardeners’ Question Time and a fair bit shorter.

There have been militant secularists in history. The Soviet Union had the Society of the Godless – which you would imagine must have thrown great parties – but ruthless suppression of religious belief simply entrenched it in people’s hearts; it is one reason why faith is still so strong in former communist countries. That’s been the great beauty of indolent atheism; it’s been quietly gaining ground for decades. But these extremists such as Richard Dawkins and the National Secular Society, picking fights everywhere, are winding up even the mildly believing. They are far too vocal, far too angry. Start trying to ban things and all of sudden people get mobilised.

Recently, the cook Delia Smith denounced those she sees as “militant neo-atheists”. This is bad news. That Dawkins fellow is a clever chap but Delia is a national institution. I’m not sure about her religious views but she sure knows how to boil an egg. Whenever Dawkins speaks, you feel this urge to shout: “Shut up, you fool, don’t you realise you’re winning?” Of course it varies by country; the fight is harder in the US but even there, confrontation seems a flawed strategy.

Then we have Alain de Botton, who apparently wants active atheism with temples where non-believers can go to pay homage to nothing in particular (these presumably would be rather like Apple stores but with somewhere to sit). There we would celebrate humanity and touch-screen interfaces; have poetry readings and listen to famous atheist stories such as “Moses and the No Commandments” or the “Miracle of the Ocado Man”. “And, yeah, though he paid for only one Müller Lite, he received another free.”

This jolly bosh will appeal to atheists who miss the social glue and pause for reflection that religion offers. It will resonate with all these types without faith who insist on calling themselves “spiritual”. I’m not sure what that means but it seems to have something to do with crystals.

It is true that religion is deeply ingrained in public life, but across the western world its grip is loosening, not tightening. So perhaps it is time for a new branch of militant atheism. Our group will be virulently inactive, extremely non-confrontational; staunchly passive and fanatically shoulder-shrugging. So sign up if you are interested. We’ll be holding our first meeting next week – or, then again, maybe we won’t.

robert.shrimsley@ft.com

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