Pity the poor atheists

Abstract: Everyone seems to hate atheists. But why?…

God knows I’m an atheist! There you go, I’ve said. I’ve ‘come out’, as it were and acknowledged the fact that I don’t believe in God or any other superpowerful supernatural being that supposedly made us and the universe, and who spreads their word via one or many prophets, angels, saints or persons in some manner or form.

Writing that very sentence is either very brave of me or just very stupid because for some or other reason most people really don’t like atheists. The chances are pretty good that when you read that sentence you felt some form of emotional reaction, anything from gentle surprise at the boldness of the statement to complete horror, and you now consider me akin to a trafficker of small children.

Am I perhaps being a little overdramatic? It seems not. One of the world’s most respected evolutionary biologists and popular science writers Richard Dawkins claims in his book The God Delusion that the status of atheists in America today is on a par to that of homosexuals fifty years ago when they were the victims of aggressive social alienation. Successful lobbying by gay rights groups has successfully shifted opinions in America so that in a recent Gallup poll, 79 percent of respondents said that they would still elect someone to office if they knew they were gay. And if they were an atheist? Only 49%! It is an accepted fact that if you stand for public office in the US and you openly admit to being an atheist, you’re committing political suicide!

Here in South Africa, atheists get the short stick in our oversensitivity towards religious rights. Religious groups can be quick to claim discrimination and wield it to demand some measure of compensation if they feel affronted in any way. Atheists don’t have such a weapon in their arsenal, and if they have the temerity to point out the inconsistencies in the claims of any religion….well, heaven help them!

What wrong have atheists done to deserve such ridicule and suspicion? If we’re guilty of anything it’s nothing more than demanding the incontrovertible truth about the natural world around us. No guesses or broad interpretations of the modern world drawn from some ancient text. We insist on real, current facts from qualified people who have meticulously examined, researched and documented their observations then rigorously tested them, and then presented them to the learned world for critical analysis. That’s right – scientists; because whilst different religions have spent the last millennia bickering over whose religion is right, pausing only to massacre each other, scientists have been quietly investigating and mapping the intricacies of our inner and outer universes. Some of the world’s greatest scientists have only claimed to belong to one or other religion to avoid persecution so they may do their work.

Scientists also don’t fight with other scientists. They may disagree over minutiae within their respective areas of expertise and, in the process, spur each other on to investigate further to prove their points; but they’re hardly likely to whip out an axe and smash each other’s brains in! If there’s a dispute, they’ll turn to data, present it to the scientific community for assessment and heed the opinions of a learned critical analysis.

And herein lies one of the more frustrating things for atheists: whereas hundreds of years of conscientious detailed scientific analysis has managed to unveil the true magnificence of the natural world around us, whether it be out there in the vastness of the cosmos, or tightly packed within the structure of a unicellular organism, religious people are quick to round it up simply as, say, God’s work, thereby stealing the focus away from the true beauty of something natural and instead crediting the whim of something supernatural.

The problem with atheists is that they’re unlikely to complain. This means they are unable to lobby against any religious objections to their facts for fear of unleashing howls of discrimination and a litany of lawsuits. They’re also invariably independent thinkers and therefore avoid being clustered into a group. This means they generally don’t have the critical mass necessary to make a stand against any discrimination towards them.

Atheists discriminated against? Of course they are. When filling in application forms I am often asked what is my religion. The expectation is that I must belong to some or other religion. If not, what’s wrong with me? But what if I don’t ‘belong’ to any religion and refuse to be the prisoner of any rigid dogma, preferring instead to consistently question that around me? I am well aware that if, in an interview, I am asked what religion I am and I say that I am an atheist I will be viewed with the same open-mind as if I had said that I had just got out of prison. The word ‘atheist’ has been deliberately blackened by most religions as a negative label that is crudely stapled to the chest of anyone who says they don’t ‘believe’. Believe in what or whom? God, Yahweh, Jesus, Mohammed, the Virgin Mary, Jehovah, the Holy Trinity, Lord Brahma, Buddha? Which is the true religion? Is it monotheistic or polytheistic? If it’s monotheistic is it Islam, Judaism or Christianity? If it’s Christianity is it Catholic or non-Catholic? If it’s non-Catholic is it, say, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Protestant, Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist, Christadelphian, Congregationalist or Seventh Day Adventist? If it’s Catholic, which of the 5 120 saints the Catholic Church recognises is the right one for me?

There are far, far too many religions for me to take a stab at one of them and be able to rightly claim that all the others are wrong. No religion can morally claim theirs is the one true religion. Neither do they have any legal claim; they have no proof. So in the absence of such proof, I’m not going to take sides and instead thrown in my lot with those who don’t make such claims – my fellow atheists.

Originally published in the Sunday Times, 1 April 2007