13 August 2011
I represented Atheist Alliance International at the launch of the International Association of Freethought (IAFT) in Oslo on 10 August. It was a good opportunity to meet others who are active in the international atheist and freethought community and hear about their campaigns and issues. The IAFT has identified separation of church and state, the use of public money to fund religion and exposure and denunciation of the crimes committed by religions against humans as their areas of focus, and Atheist Alliance International looks forward to working with the IAFT on campaigns of common interest.
My speech from the launch is below.
Atheism in the 21st Century
To sum up atheism in the 21st century in one word – atheism is “active”. We are active because we need to be. We are active because the modern world has given us the tools we need.
The simple idea of atheists being active is sometimes questioned. People compare atheists to those who don’t collect stamps and say “well, non-stamp collectors don’t need groups or conventions”. Michael Nugent of Atheist Ireland gave a fantastic response to this point at the Dublin Convention this year. If you haven’t seen it – you can look it up on YouTube.
To paraphrase Michael.....if we lived in a world where most people collected stamps, where people thought that the post office created the universe, where people consulted their stamp collections before creating laws – then there would be groups of non-stamp collectors (the aphilatelists) and there would be conventions about not collecting stamps.
But unfortunately, religions do not mind their own business like stamp collectors – and by the way, I’m sorry to any stamp collectors who feel they are getting a bad name out this comparison.
Religions are effective and wealthy lobby groups. They influence laws that affect us all. They claim some kind of moral superiority, all based on beliefs that are not backed up by credible evidence. It’s absurd. But more importantly, it’s dangerous. When our governments allow religion to influence public policy they are subtly (or sometimes not so subtly) giving certain aspects of religion the force of the law. Whatever particular version of religion they happen to like. That particular religion is being imposed on those of other faiths and those of no faith.
Now, people can – and do – believe all sorts of weird stuff, religious and otherwise. That’s part of a free society. If people want to believe in fluffy pink elephants that’s up to them. But there is a critical distinction between respecting the right of someone to believe in anything they like and respecting the belief itself. So when someone claims that their fluffy pink elephant deserves my tax dollars or has some kind of right to tell me how to live my life, I say no.
Many of us say no. But it’s not enough to say no alone. Very few people can combat effective and wealthy lobby groups on their own.
That’s why atheists need to be active.
Historically - as well as many other factors - religions had a massive logistical advantage over the non-religious. They had people turning up regularly to hear their message, to be asked to contact politicians or write letters to the editor, to lobby on a particular issue. Atheists didn’t have any means of rallying large numbers of people quickly and easily. Then the internet arrived. Email, websites, Facebook, Twitter – these are the tools that provide the power to fight back.
And it’s working.
It’s working on specific issues – “mark no religion” campaigns for censuses around the world, Protest the Pope rallies in the UK, fights to remove religious instruction from government schools – these are just a few of the many situations where atheists and like-minded people are getting together, getting organised and being active.
As well as specific issues it’s working more generally too. One of religion’s big advantages is its status in people’s minds. It’s like the fairytale of the Emperor’s New Clothes – for a long time people seemed scared to point out the obvious in public – these stories don’t make sense, I don’t need a book to tell me to be a good person. Thankfully that is changing. The internet and social media have given us the means to state these positions and to find others who think the same. There is power and comfort in numbers.
Some religious groups do not like it when atheists get active. That’s the “squeal test”. When religion “squeals” about atheism it means we’re having an impact.
To use an Australian example – last year there was a Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne, about a month before Easter. It got a lot of media coverage. Funnily enough, quite a few of the Easter messages from senior religious figures warned of the dangers and loneliness of a godless life. Is anyone here feeling lonely?
Another “squeal” is to accuse atheism of becoming another religion. As I’m sure you would agree, philosophically that’s nonsense. But there is one - and only one - way I want atheism to be like religion – “effective”.
If we do it right, “being effective” is the outcome of “being active”. Ultimately, the goal is to be so effective that there is no real need for atheists to be organised anymore. Then we really would be the non-stamp collectors. That doesn’t necessarily mean there would be no religion, it means that religion would be a private matter, no financial support from the state and no influence on public policy. Ultimately, that is the goal of atheism in the 21st century.
Now, we’re at the launch of the International Association of Freethought, in conjunction with a humanist congress, so I want to briefly address those labels “atheism”, “freethought” and “humanism”.
Some of you - who would agree with atheists on most issues – prefer to be called freethinkers, humanists or rationalists or some other word that is not “atheist”. That’s up to you. I look forward to the day when it’s worth either of our time to argue about these titles. Atheist Alliance International wants to work constructively with groups like the International Association of Freethought.
But there is a need for a global specifically atheist group and that’s what we are.
There is a need because of the privilege that religion has in our societies. This privilege makes views that are contrary to reason and evidence, views that are based on old books, somehow respected and influential in our lives.
Atheism is the identity that most explicitly rejects this privilege. One that stands up and says “There’s no god and that’s fine. I can think for myself”. Atheism directly challenges people to think about religion, instead of just believe.
So what is Atheist Alliance International? We’re run by a Board comprising 13 people from eight countries across five continents. We have 27 Affiliate and Associate Members as well as Individual Members around the world.
We educate members and the public about atheism, secularism and related issues – through our Secular World magazine and through atheist conventions. We are an umbrella group that facilitates cooperation between atheist groups around the world. We also support new atheist and freethought groups to be become established, particularly in developing countries. In the last year we’ve supported conferences in Gambia and Kenya and the Kasese Humanist Primary School in Uganda.
These activities are important. They make a difference. It’s a long road but by working together and being active, we’ll be effective, and we’ll make the 21st century a better place for all of us.