Atheism: what’s the point?

Battle of Ideas festival 2012, Sunday 21 October, Barbican, London


From the controversy over teaching ‘intelligent design’ in schools, to arguments over prayers at council meetings or religiously based opposition to euthanasia, abortion or gay marriage, atheists have crossed swords with religious believers over a number of issues in recent years. And the critique is not limited to mainstream religion: champions of science, reason and evidence have also sought to expose the pretences of clairvoyants and alternative-health charlatans. There is a consensus among many educated people that religious values distort rather than contribute to private morality and public debate, and that evidence should always trump faith. But can anything amounting to a value system in itself be built just on atheism, or is atheism no more than a lack of belief in gods?

Just because some atheists have a commitment to reason, does that mean that atheists are overall more likely to be rational than other people? Are atheists really any more likely to be rational in general than those who do believe in a god? Aren’t there just as many atheists who believe in life after death, homeopathy, healing crystals, horoscopes, and a whole raft of superstitions?

Many prominent atheists would no doubt say that they are atheists because of their prior commitment to reason. But it can seem to many observers that it is the atheism that often comes first, rising out of a rejection of religious belief. For some, ‘atheist fundamentalism’ is an unattractive mirror image of the religiosity it opposes, and informed by contempt for the supposedly ignorant and scientifically illiterate population, or ‘nobbers’, as one celebrity scientist calls them. Is this because ‘atheism’ per se really is no more than the negative rejection of a belief in gods? If it is, how relevant is it in a society where fewer and fewer people are being raised with a belief in gods which they can reject? Is it precisely the lack of an experience of this personal emancipation, or journey towards humanism and reason, that leads atheists instead to direct their hostility at religious believers and institutions? How compelling is a negative belief?

Nonetheless, whether it’s the worship of Stephen Fry as the cleverest human on the planet or hostility to the influence of organised religion in politics, there is a growing identification with a non-religious, atheist, and humanist approach as a cultural movement, especially among bright young people. For many, atheism implies support for such progressive causes as the ‘right to die’ and LGBT equality, human rights and liberal education. But is atheism always the same as ‘humanism’? Is it really the idea of ‘atheism’ doing the work in these causes? Are there really such things as atheist values? Aren’t there as many religious people who also have liberal, progressive and humane ideas – especially in societies like Europe where religions have responded to humanism by emulating it in many ways? And aren’t there many religious people – perhaps a majority – who are just as committed as atheists are, maybe even more so, to the idea of a secular state? If so, what is the point of atheism?

Andrew Copson

chief executive, British Humanist Association

Dr Michael Fitzpatrick
writer on medicine and politics; author, The Tyranny of Health

Alom Shaha
writer and science teacher; author The Young Atheist’s Handbook

Mark Vernon
journalist; author, God: all that matters and The Big Questions: God

Dolan Cummings

associate fellow, Academy of Ideas; author, That Existential Leap: a crime story (forthcoming from Zero Books)