‘The most boring and unproductive question one can ask of any religion is whether or not it is true.’ – Alain de Botton (2012: 11).
I’ve spent much of my life observing both religious people and non-believers. My life has been very much shaped by religion but I never felt I drew much from being lectured by believers or atheists. I heard a lot about atheists from the more conservative voices in our community. The worst thing a person could possibly be was an atheist, seen as arrogant and ignorant for thinking they knew better than God and wanting to control the world.
I went to school in Belfast, where religion is woven into the fabric of life, in a few different ways. Northern Ireland is less secular than the rest of the UK, more socially conservative and far less diverse but I must say that my experience of growing up there as part of an unusual religious community gave me a lasting impression of tolerance and open-mindedness. I didn’t really encounter opinionated atheism until I went to university and I remain puzzled by it. This was in part because my peers at university had grown up in detached houses in rural parts of Home Counties with parents who both had professional careers, some even owning second homes. They went to schools that had Balinese gamelan orchestras or took them on rugby tours of South Africa. By contrast, some of my peers at school had never been to Dublin and viewed my trips there as bordering on exotic. I was aware that my English peers had grown up in a far more diverse society with a multicultural religious education syllabus, rather than the almost entirely Christian-centric one I had experienced in my almost entirely white school.
I remember thinking there was something terribly wrong if these people seemed less equipped to cope with religion and difference than the girls I went to school with, given how small and lacking in diversity Belfast was. In retrospect, I think I was naïve in selling Northern Ireland short. We were at a grammar school and the Good Friday Agreement had been signed in 1999; tolerance and peaceful co-existence meant progress and it was understood that religion was something not to express too many opinions about, in a society that had been scarred by sectarianism and violence. Religion was there as part of the fabric of our school life, but wasn’t that big of a deal or something people especially objected to (other than the gross sexist things Mrs Smith said about sex, that one time in RS).
At university in England I couldn’t help but wonder how on earth people had gotten through eighteen years of life yet seemed to have failed to grasp that some people were religious. Surely they should be used to it by now and the novelty should have worn off. I still think this at times and I see immaturity in men who I deem old enough to know better. Why do educated middle-class men at dinner parties whose lives have barely been impacted by religion at all, save for a bit of hymn singing and RE at school feel the need to harp on about how stupid religion is? They tend not to be people who were abused by nuns or kicked out by their families for being gay and rarely do I hear them advocate for people whose lives have been scarred by religion. I tend to view noisy atheism as an expression of immaturity, a very narrow view and a desire to tell other people they are stupid. Alain de Botton suggests that some critics of religion take much pleasure in ‘show(ing) up their enemies as simpletons’ (2012: 11). That in itself interests me as I view intellectual superiority as a lonely place, having spent years at school being clever and feeling lonely.
The loud atheist opinion seems to come from a place of believing it is helping people and/or saving the world. As is the case when people want to rail against something, it gets erroneously tangled up with the situation in and messages from America. I’ve heard people say that someone must be voice of reason against the irrationality of religion, which is somehow imagined to be on the brink of taking over. Do they imagine that if they don’t tell people they’ve just met at parties how wrong they are, that our society will suddenly turn into America? We do not have the same religious right wing in the UK. The teaching of sex education and evolution are not divisive issues in the same way. Although the Queen is, in name, the head of the Church of England, we live in a relatively secular and a multicultural society where people enjoy religious freedom. As far as I am aware, the Church of England does not seek to influence policy in the same way as the Christian right wing in America. Britain would have to undergo serious, significant changes to start to look anything like its far more socially conservative neighbour, Northern Ireland, let alone the US.
The views I have encountered rarely allow for religion being a source for good in someone’s life. Why would you want to take something away from someone that offers them hope, solace and comfort? Why would you ask them to reject the coping mechanisms and strength they can call on in hard times? Why would you belittle a set of beliefs that revolve around being kind to others? Should they be grateful to you for enlightening them and creating conflict with their family? I do genuinely think that society would be a better place if we followed Jesus’s teachings. It is however beyond me how supposed adherance to Jesus’ teachings gave rise to American society. All religions encourage ‘developing courage, character and tenacity to cope with the ups and downs of life’ (Narayan, 2020) along with charity, compassion and kindness but sadly all too often religion is used to justify behaviours that contravenene their own teachings. Religion is often used as a tool to seek power, oppress people (usually women and minorities) and to justify homophobia, misogyny and deny human rights or civil liberties, and can be weirdly obsessed with sex (especially that other people are having) and power. These are of course ugly aspects of human nature, which one hopes religion would eradicate, and they expres themselves in religious and secular settings. Child abuse is perpetrated by priests as well as sports coaches and organisations, both religious and secular close ranks, protect perpetrators and avoid accountability.
If you are going to rail against religion, there are a great many things to get very angry about. I’m curious about the issues that people to choose to rail against. The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster was invented by a 25 year old man in 2005, who objected to intelligent design being taught in schools alongside evolution in Kansas schools, which is in fact unconstitutional. However, as a human with a uterus, I feel far more troubled by the impact of Republican politics, which are often supported by Christians, on women’s lives in the US. The pro-life agenda sits bizarrely alongside the lack of universal healthcare, welfare and childcare. America is one of three countries in the world without any minimum maternity leave and a number of states still permis child marriage. Were I asked to support a cause, I don’t think it would be the Pastafarians.
I’m intrigued by the popularity of Pastafarianism on both sides of the pond; it is said to have tens of thousands of followers in the US, Western Europe, Australia and New Zealand. While I appreciate that it is a satirical movement, it suggests a lack of understanding of the history of the world, Abrahamic religions and their cultural impact and legacy. It perhaps serves more of a purpose in the US but I’m puzzled by it’s popularity in Europe. People in Holland and Austria have fought for their right to wear a colander on their head in passport photographs, claiming they object to special privileges being given to people because of their religion. (It reminds me of the Naked Rambler. Why on earth would you get SO stuck on your right to do something and expend so much time and energy on it? More on expending energy on bonkers causes later.)
The philosopher AC Grayling has been known to rail against special treatment or privileges for religion. He makes a point about religions wanting to be above criticism. The point usually raised in this context is the right to publish cartoons of the Prophet. Is Western Europe being forced to dance around the demands of religion? Or is the situation indicative of a society where young men with few prospects who come from backgrounds of socioeconomic disadvantage turn to terrorism and extremism. ( I want to steer clear of making clumsy equivalencies but by contrast in the US, disenfranchised young men pull assault rifles on crowds of people, for reasons that have nothing to do with religion.)
Grayling asserts the right to ‘non-interference’ from religion, to be free from proselytization and the imposition of morality and practice. He wrote an article for the Guardian in 2006, the year Dawkins’ The God Delusion was published and I’m struggling to find more recent, quality sources. I wonder what exactly Grayling is referring to. The Hare Krishnas on Oxford Street? (Ahem.) The man on Oxford Circus with the sign saying, ‘Are you a sinner or a winner?’? I smile and think of the man in the centre of Belfast with an unkempt beard and sandals who used to roar about everyone being doomed to hell as he waved his tattered cardboard sign with handwritten messages in marker pen. I’m not bothered by the Jehovah’s Witnesses who stand by my local train station. They have largely given up door knocking but last time they tried to visit us, I wanted to invite them in for some rice and subji, having empathy as I do for door knockers trying to distribute religious literature.
With regards to the imposition of morality and practices, Ireland in the latter half of the twentieth century is an excellent example of the horrible things that happen when religion is imposed on people en masse, but I don’t think there is much of a risk of that happening here. I don’t believe religion should be used to justify homophobic attitudes and I’m also aware that schools are a thorny issue as they are one of the few places where religion is in any way imposed on people. People object to the teaching of religion in schools, of preferential admission criteria on the basis of religion and the existence of religious schools at all.
I’m not sure I object to the teaching of religion in school. I believe that understanding religion is key to understanding society, being a major force that has shaped history and the world. Learning about it can teach us tolerance and broad-mindedness with regards to other people and their views. I don’t really object to anything I learnt about in five years of Christianity-centric Religious Studies and it didn’t turn me into a Christian or an atheist. Schools need to cater to everyone and if they aren’t catered specifically enough to you, are you not talking to your children about what they are learning and what you feel is right? Furthermore, it’s unrealistic to want to get rid of religious schools. Religion is not going to go away and people do not change if we tell them they are wrong and demand that they change. I feel it’s a far better idea to have religious schools which are subject to the same standards as other schools. It is far better to include everyone in society, rather than perpetuating problems or deepening divides that push people out of mainstream society. (I’ve written before about religion and schools.)
Grayling also suggests that people who wear visible religious symbols are demanding respect for their religion. Are they? I would sincerely hope that I would I treat people with the same respect, regardless of what they are wearing on their head. This is an interesting point in reverse. I have encountered people who will instantly reign in what they are saying, if the target of their speech is pointed out to be linked to religion. I think it’s sad to have to play the religion card to get people to be polite in the face of difference.
More often than not, people who are religious chose not to do things, for example not drinking alcohol or having sex outside marriage. Choosing not to do something is not the same as being given special treatment. The Pastafarian colander protest makes me uncomfortable as a white person; people who cover their heads are largely people of colour and minority groups – Muslim women, Sikh men and Orthodox Jewish men and women. Sadly it is these visible symbols of religion that often result in abuse and attacks and we live in a society where anti-semitism, Islamophobia and racism are serious problems. Furthermore, they are not problems that will go away if people of colour and minority groups remove visible symbols of religion: we have a long way to go as a society and I feel it is us, not them who needs to change.
I fear I would be viewed as an idiot and a bigot, were I to make a big song and dance about my postman wearing his turban or my optician wearing her hijab, claiming they were being afforded special treatment. I suspect people might say, ‘Go back where you came from if you’re so bothered.’. I fear I would be viewed as an idiot, an ignorant one to boot, were I to start wearing a colander on my head. I suspect all the male members of my postman’s family have worn turbans for generations. It hasn’t simply been pulled from the air and it would be ridiculous to suggest that my right to wear a colander is somehow equivalent.
I’m bothered by the uncomfortable overlap between loud atheism and racism, the lack of awareness of intersectionality and I’d also like to see more of a focus on tackling troubling issues. Alain de Botton asks what people should do with their atheism and objections to religion? Why not get involved in the murky territories where practices that violate human rights fail to be tackled or slip by under ideas or culture and/or religion. Why not offer your support to an organisation which tackles forced marriage, honour killings or FGM? Why not offer to host someone at Christmas who has been kicked out by their family for coming out? Why not support a charity for people abused at the hands of the church, whether in schools or homes for single mothers? Or support Eve Sacks, daughter of the former chief rabbi, in her work to tackle extremism from within the Jewish community?
While it is easy to point out the many evils of religion, we can’t forget that the freedom to practice religion is a fundamental human right and a pillar of a tolerant society. Tolerant societies are generally secular but a secular society is not necessarily a tolerant one, China and Russia, for example. The 2004 legislation in France which banned the public wearing of religious symbols has not resulted in a seamlessly integrated society and demanding that people stop being different is rarely productive.
I think about this as someone who wore a single strand of wooden Tulasi beads to school. Teachers would periodically ask me to take it off and my mother marched into the headteacher’s office in her Orissan print cotton sari, Birkenstocks and enormous brown corduroy duffle coat where she was assured that I could continue to wear my neck-beads. I felt this was an important gesture. I’m not a person of colour but I did belong to a group that sought to remove themselves from mainstream society, where sending children to school rather than home-schooling them was seen a bit of a last resort. The hand we extend to people who are ‘other’ is very important and I think this is where integration happens, the willingness to accept difference. I’d listened to some of the adults talk about people outside our community. I went to school and compared the actions of those around me to what I’d heard. Sure, we disagreed on lots of things but it was those tolerant gestures that made me think that these people were ok.
How we do we create a more tolerant society? By writing tracts about how immature and narrow-minded atheists can be? Probably not. In truth, I don’t know. Education? Exposing people to other views? Making tolerance, empathy and emotional intelligence curriculum subjects? (Perhaps you remember Citizenship, the subject which died thanks to cuts to the education budget.) I was very interested to read about Megan Phelps-Roper, a former member of the extremist US Westboro Baptist Church. She grew up waving homophobic placards at the funerals of gay soldiers. She now campaigns against extremism (not against religion or for atheism) and Wikipedia describes her as a protestor. She talks about how nuanced dialogue, debating inconsistencies and the use of empathy lead to her changing her views.
I really don’t want to co-opt Megan Phelps-Roper’s story as a way of trying to talk people in or out of things, but it’s the point about relating to each other with empathy and manners I’m keen on. I’d like a tolerant society, not one where we harp on about imaginary bogeymen or demonise an alien other, with whom we have precious little contact. We should be able to co-exist with difference and not demand that people who are different to us must be made to somehow disappear or change. I do think we can all operate with empathy and manners in our dealings with each other. I think the world would be vastly improved by it and suspect it’s a suggestion that Jesus would support too.
de Botton, A. (2012) Religion for Atheists London: Penguin
Grayling, A.C. (2006) Religions don’t deserve special treatment | Religion | The Guardian
Narayan, S. (2020) Food and Faith: : A Pilgrim’s Journey Through India. Noida: Harper Collins Publishers.