Brendan O’Neill describes himself like this:
Brendan O'Neill is the editor of spiked, an independent online phenomenon dedicated to raising the horizons of humanity by waging a culture war of words against misanthropy, priggishness, prejudice, luddism, illiberalism and irrationalism in all their ancient and modern forms.
Oh dear. Are you sure you mean ‘phenomenon’, Brendan? Are you sure you don’t simply mean ‘website’? I’m not at all sure I want my horizons raised, as it goes: I’m fairly fond of sky and I’m not convinced less is more. That woeful pretence aside, let’s see what the chap has to say. The bee in his bonnet is about the British Humanism Association’s campaign to convince people who don’t believe in gods to tell the truth on the UK census by saying they don’t believe in gods. I’m not sure why so many people have negative opinions about this campaign. It’s saying if you’re not religious, consider not saying that you are. The aim is to count the people who are actually religious, regardless of whether they identify culturally with a religious tradition. It’s important information. Religion has an enormously privileged position in our society and nobody really knows why. Painting an accurate picture of how many atheists are marauding about the place surely can’t hurt in fighting injustice, can it? Lots of people who write newspaper columns disagree, or say they do. O’Neill is one of them.
It’s Census Day on Sunday, and campaigning atheists are teeth-gnashingly worried that insufficient numbers of people will tick the “No Religion” box. The British Humanist Association is on a mission to encourage as many non-believers as possible to declare their non-belief.
Are we gnashing our teeth or are we politely suggesting that people tell the truth on the census? We’re not insisting or demanding. We’re not cajoling or manipulating. We’re pointing out that if – as a matter of fact – you happen to be irreligious, then it would actually be helpful to say so. That way, we can count how many people are actually religious and how many aren’t. If you don’t want to tick the no religion box then by all means don’t fucking tick it. We just want you to think for a minute before you pick a box. I can’t imagine anything less tooth-grinding than a polite request to tell the truth.
It argues that only by getting a realistic snapshot of how many atheists and agnostics there are in modern-day Britain (more than we think, apparently) can we challenge such allegedly problematic institutions as faith schools and the privileging of religious spokespeople in various political institutions.
No, it argues that this is a useful bit of data, not that it’s the only tool we have. We’re two paragraphs in and O’Neill’s hyperbole is already making my eyes bleed.
But if lots of non-believers choose not to tick “No Religion”, I won’t be surprised. Why? Because people generally don’t like to define themselves negatively, by what they aren’t rather than by what they are. “No Religion” – it’s sounds so passive, almost identity-effacing, like “No Comment” or “No Opinion”. The majority of non-believers, of which I am one, see our non-belief in God not as the be-all and end-all of who we are, not as the thing that defines us, but simply as a choice we have made. Our atheism is in many ways the least interesting thing about us. It merely indicates what we don’t believe in, rather than saying anything about what we do believe in (in my case, radical humanism).
O’Neill is terribly confused. Denying gods is not a negative, passive, identity-effacing thing. It’s quite the reverse, it’s a rejection of nonsense and wishful thinking. It’s a destination we’ve all reached by different routes and those routes – and the reason we chose those ones rather than others – have more to do with what our atheism is about than does the dictionary definition. The reason we’re atheists and the reason atheism is important to us is that we’re committed to rationality, or we hate the unfair privileges religion pointlessly gets, or we despise misogyny, ignorance, hatefulness, homophobia and stupidity. Or whatever the fuck it is, doesn’t matter. I’m proud of my atheism because it indicates a commitment to a rational perspective. Others might be proud of their own atheism for other reasons. O’Neill has apparently never really thought about why he’s an atheist, but lots of other people have and to us, rejecting gods and other idiocy is not a ‘negative’ thing (whatever that means), it’s an affirmation of principles that are important to us.
That’s the trouble with the new atheism of the Dawkinite, occasionally ranting, intolerant variety – it is seeking to create a movement based on a non-belief, based on the absence of something (belief in God) rather than on the presence of something (belief in something else).
Ranting? Intolerant? I can only speak for myself. I’m intolerant of wishful and superstitious thinking because it is harmful. It’s responsible for many ills. I can and will not tolerate that. Is that supposed to be a bad thing? O’Neill seems to think so. By telling people I’m not prepared to tolerate harmful behaviour, I’m ranting? Let’s remember something about context, Brendan. We’re advocating that people tell the truth on the census form. I’m not convinced this is ranting.
I wonder why O’Neill is so adamant that there’s something wrong with basing a movement on the absence of something. Who made that rule, exactly? Why is it less valid to rally around the idea that there’s no god than to rally around the idea that there is one? Because O’Neill says so, apparently.
It has to be the least inspiring movement of recent years. It only tells people what they should not believe, and hectors them for being dumb and gullible if they do believe it.
The out campaign tells people that they don’t have to believe in religion. In a world where belief is highly valued for its own sake and people are persecuted in lots of ways for simply not believing stupid stuff, the campaign’s message is indeed inspiring. It reminds us that we can think for ourselves. That we don’t have to be repressed by religion. That we don’t have to be subservient to a set of dreadful, arbitrary rules. I’m not sure I can think of a more inspiring message.