Is there a new face of atheism?
The winds of change are blowing through the world of atheism, as it seeks a softening of its ‘Dawkinsian’ attitude to religion and a more inclusive approach
ATHEISTS ARE on the march. Census results published last week showed there was a four-fold increase in the number of people who said they had no religion, or were either atheist or agnostic, between 1991 and 2011, with 277,237 people falling into this category last year. The figures, however, only tell part of the story.
Ireland is seeing the emergence of a newer kind of atheist, who is anxious to dispel the myth that they are all one-dimensional, rabidly anti-religious Dawkinsians.
The winds of change could be seen at last weekend’s AGM of Atheist Ireland, where delegates agreed a new focus on promoting “an ethical society”, engaging in charity work and social justice campaigns, and even collaborating with religious groups on issues of common concern.
Leonie Hilliard, a Dublin-based science graduate who joined the group a year ago, admits, “Some of my friends are quite surprised by the charity aspect.” Atheist Ireland has already raised some money for microfinance projects in Africa under its “Good Without Gods” initiative.
Plans are afoot for a registered charity (one delegate joked that it should be called “a non-prophet organisation”) while members are also being encouraged to take on informal outreach work, such as visiting people in institutions “without preaching”.
Atheism might not have a clearly defined “ethical backbone”, says Hilliard, noting, “atheism is a belief system in the same way that not playing football is a sport.” However, she stresses, it does lend itself to a number of strong moral positions, including a “worldview of not judging people”. She adds: “Most people involved in the atheist movement are compassionate and want to do something good for the community and challenge the idea that it’s all about secularising Ireland.”
Astrid Malachewitz, who is originally from Germany but now lives in Arklow, Co Wicklow, is similarly irked by some Irish misperceptions about atheism. “I don’t think atheism is a negative movement to start with. Belief in God is replaced with belief in science, justice and equality, and that’s a positive thing.”
She admits some Irish atheists are extremely hostile towards the Catholic Church but such bitterness is not universal.
“I am not one of those people who say if you are a religious person you must automatically be evil,” she says. Nor must every interaction with a person of faith be an opportunity for point-scoring. If attending a mass, for example, a funeral, “I don’t kneel, but I went to my nephew’s communion and it was a wonderful day, and it was very important for me to be there.”
While she has never been asked to be a godparent, “as a cultural thing I’d have no problem with it”, and she finds it amusing rather than annoying that Irish people often finish conversations with “God bless”. She puts it down to cultural Catholicism, something she can fully understand: “I feel culturally Lutheran.”