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.”

In tone at least, Malachewitz and Hilliard seem to represent a departure from the New Atheists, the sharp-tongued, all-male troupe of writer-activists led by Richard Dawkins. What might be called the newer atheists are not only more diverse but perhaps slower to judge and quicker to turn the spotlight inwards.

Such introspection has triggered no small amount of debate in the atheist movement internationally, a lot of it focused on the issue of gender. Last August, a new online forum, Atheism Plus, or A+, was launched by Jen McCreight, a Seattle-based blogger and secularist. Backed by a number of prominent women atheists, it seeks “a new wave of atheism” aimed at “promoting social justice” and “working against bigotry, hatred and discrimination”.

Her biggest concern is what she sees as deep-rooted misogyny in the atheist community. Whenever she speaks in a light-hearted way about sexual issues, she says she receives obscene propositions, while posts about feminism are usually met with abuse.

Likening atheism to a “boys’ club”, she wrote to fellow secularists: “I don’t feel safe as a woman in this community – and I feel less safe than I do as a woman in science, or a woman in gaming, or hell, as a woman walking down the f***ing sidewalk.”

McCreight was not the first woman to make this complaint. In a notorious incident, dubbed “Elevatorgate”, blogger Rebecca Watson alleged she received an inappropriate late-night proposition in a lift during the World Atheist Convention in Dublin last year. She wrote about the episode online, drawing a critical response from none other than Dawkins, who sarcastically contrasted her situation with the plight of women in Islam.

McCreight spoke on the issue on a visit to Dublin last June, describing Dawkins’s response as “totally inappropriate”. Because atheists “are so hyperrational and hypersceptical”, if a woman among them says she felt harassed, “if you don’t have photographic evidence that it happened, it never happened,” she told an event hosted by Atheist Ireland.

Malachewitz agrees “there is a misogynistic streak” in the broader movement, but stresses, “on the whole I do feel welcome as a woman”. She adds that organisations such as Atheist Ireland have done a lot to combat prejudice, adopting a new policy on diversity and inclusion last year, and speaking out strongly on the issue. Its chairman Michael Nugent says he believes the misogyny identified “is not a specific atheist thing. It’s a societal issue and it’s an online issue. People are willing to say things about each other online that they would not say face-to-face.”

He is also keen to defend Dawkins, saying, “Richard is the opposite of the uncaring dogmatist his critics unfairly caricature him as.” He is, rather, “a sensitive, caring man.”

But what of the new emphasis being placed on ethics as an atheist concern? “I would not see it as a departure,” says Nugent. While there is a “mini-dogma” that says “atheism only means non-belief in gods, in practice we have already moved beyond that.”

Nugent has published a manifesto on “ethical atheism” (it “predates Atheism Plus”, he notes) which “tries to combine the best of our existing ideas into a set of principles”. The manifesto seeks to promote not only “reason, critical thinking and science”, but also “natural compassion and ethics . . . inclusive, caring atheist groups” and “fair and just societies”.

Practising what it preaches, Atheist Ireland has built alliances with human rights, LGBT and women’s groups to campaign on issues such as constitutional reform. It is now hoping to work in partnership with religious campaigners on shared concerns such as blasphemy laws.

“Ideally I would like to see ourselves and various religious groups taking a common stance on people being jailed or persecuted on the basis of belief. Our problems with the blasphemy law in Ireland pale into insignificance compared to problems faced by religious people in Islamic countries.”

In time, such initiatives may help to change the public perception of what it means to be an atheist.

“People feel the word atheist has a stronger assertion that it actually has,” says Nugent. “I think people believe, firstly, atheism means you are claiming with certainty that there are no gods and, secondly, that you are implying your position is unbreakable, whereas every atheist I know will say this is a position based on currently available evidence and we may be mistaken.”

Does this represent a softening of the New Atheist stance? Or are Irish atheists simply becoming better understood? One thing’s for sure, they are no longer the novelty they once were. Malachewitz moved here 12 years ago from a country “where atheism was never a big deal”.

“I realised Ireland had changed when my mother-in-law started quoting Christopher Hitchens.”

ATHEISTS IN IRELAND by the numbers

320– number of atheists in 1991 census

277,237– number of people categorised as non-religious in 2011 census (3,905 atheists, 3,521 agnostic and the remainder no religion)

10.5%– percentage of non-religious people in Galway

2.4%– percentage of non-religious people in Monaghan

14:10– proportion of men to women in non-religious population

56%– proportion of non-religious people with a third-level qualification (compared to national average for such a qualification of 36 per cent)

14,769– number of non-religious primary-school children

47%– proportion of Irish people who consider themselves religious, as surveyed last year by pollsters affiliated to Win-Gallup International (a drop from 69 per cent in 2005).

Source: Census 2011.

Note: “non-religious” category covers respondents who declared themselves as either atheist or agnostic, or having no religion

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