Atheism must be about more than just not believing in god

Original post from The Conversation

‘…………By Patrick O’ConnorSenior Lecturer in Philosophy – English, Communications, Culture and Media at Nottingham Trent University

Not a helpful message. Andy Rain/EPA
Not a helpful message. Andy Rain/EPA

Atheism is so often considered in the negative: as a lack of faith, or a disbelief in god; as an essential deprivation. Atheism is seen as being destitute of meaning, value, purpose; unfertile ground for growing the feelings of belonging needed to overcome the alienation that dogs modern life. In more extreme critiques, atheism is considered to be another name for nihilism; a fundamental negation of existence, a noxious blight on creation itself.

Yet atheists – rather than flippantly dismissing the insights of theologians – should take them seriously indeed. Humans, by dint of being human, are confronted with baffling questions about meaning, belonging, direction, our connection to other humans and the fate of our species as a whole. The human impulse is to seek answers, and to date, atheism has been unsatisfactory in its response.

The shackles of humanism

Atheist values are typically defined as humanistic. If we look to the values of the British Humanist Association, we see that it promotes naturalism, rational debate, and the pre-eminence of evidence, cooperation, progress and individual dignity. These are noble aspirations, but they are ultimately brittle when tackling the visceral and existential problems confronting humanity in this period of history.

When one considers the destruction that advanced capitalism visits on communities – from environmental catastrophes to war and genocide – then the atheist is the last person one thinks of calling for solace, or for a meaningful ethical and political alternative.

In the brutal economic reality of a neo-liberal, market-oriented world, these concerns are rarely given due consideration when debating the questions surrounding the existence or non-existence of god. The persistent and unthinking atheist habit is to ground all that is important on individual freedom, individual assertions of non-belief and vacant appeals to scientific evidence. But these appeals remain weak when confronting financial crises, gender inequality, diminished public health and services, food banks, and economic deprivation.

Atheism, suffering and solidarity

The writings of atheist poster boys Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett do not offer solace to the existential and political realities of our world. In some cases, they can make them worse. Calls for reason and scientific inquiry do not offer any coherent sense of solidarity to those who suffer. The humanist might argue the world would be a far more progressive place if scientific values guided our governments. But the reality is that humanism, together with its ethical correlate of individual dignity, remains ineffectual when it comes to offering a galvanising purpose, or inspiring a meaningful sense of belonging.

Little comfort here.  Kai Foersterling/EPA
Little comfort here. Kai Foersterling/EPA

The most pressing concerns facing humans are philosophical, and sometimes even metaphysical. Humans have genuine fears that life is excessively cheap, a sense that the collective good is waning, that political action is equivalent to apathy and cynicism, and that any solution to any political problem is the ubiquitous idea of the entrepreneurial human.

This is why atheism, if it is to be relevant, must shed its humanism. The future vitality and relevance of atheism depends on its ability to broaden its focus away from the validity of god’s existence and narrow concerns over individual freedom. Instead, it must turn to address questions about economic causality, belonging and alienation, poverty, collective action, geo-politics, the social causes of environmental problems, class and gender inequality, and human suffering.

Obviously, the best person to consult on the rapidity of climate change is the scientist. But these kind of appeals to science as a way of understanding the world around us must be supplemented by the core philosophical considerations of humans existing in the world, who grapple daily with the enormity of undeniable problems. Atheism needs to renew itself if it is to be considered relevant for the new century.

Atheist alternatives

But this is not to say that atheism must embrace an insipid, watered-down spiritualism. Instead, we can look to a different breed of atheism, found in the work of continental, anti-humanist philosophers. For example, we can turn to Nietzsche to understand the resentments generated by human suffering. Meanwhile, the Marxist tradition offers us the means to understand the material conditions of unsustainable capitalism. Existentialists such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus allow us to comprehend our shared mortality, and the humour and tragedy of life in a godless universe.

There is a whole other philosophical vocabulary for atheism to explore. Both Nietzsche and Sartre observe a different atheism, one embedded in the context of genuine questions of cruelty, economic alienation, anxiety and mortality.

Atheism needs to be attentive to what it means to live with the consequences of violence, senselessness and suffering. The trouble with atheism in its more conventional guises is a nerdish fetishism for all things that work: what is accurate, the instrumental and the efficient. The trouble is, many aspects of our world are not working. Because of this, the atheist is in danger of being perceived as deluded and aloof from the violent mess of the real. Atheism, if it is to be vital, needs to reconnect itself with the more disturbing, darker aspects of the human condition.  ……..’

7 charts that reveal religion’s role around the world

Original post from The Independent

‘……………7 charts that reveal the most – and the least – religious people across the world… and how it is the young who are the biggest believers

More than 60 per cent of people around the world identify as ‘religious’, according to a new study.

Around Easter-time, leading pollster WIN/Gallup International spoke to more than 63,000 people from 65 countries about religion.

Map created by  Independent Online 1
Map created by Independent Online 1

In the country-by-country data visualised above there are two glaring omissions: Africa and The Middle East.

It’s safe to assume that, were they polled, the vast majority of those peoples would consider themselves religious — you’d expect something in excess of 90%.

From the available data, here are seven things we learned.


There are twice as many religious people as non-believers

It may sometimes seem as though secularism has trumped traditional religion, but that’s quite clearly not the case.

Based on Gallup’s findings, atheists and other non-religious folk together comprise 33 per cent of the world. That’s just over half of their religious equivalents.

And bearing in mind which parts of the world were omitted, this is a very conservative comparison.

chart (1)

China is by far the most atheist country

Since countries like Saudi Arabia (where there is a lack of religious freedom) were not quizzed by Gallup, the most religious country is Thailand, where 94 per cent belong to a faith and just 1 per cent are atheists.

East Asia is a country of extremes, it seems, with China the world’s least religious — twice as many atheists as believers. Japan is the second least religious, followed by a crop of European countries.

According to the survey, the UK is among the less religious countries, with 54 per cent calling themselves ‘not religious’ versus 30 per cent who are and 13 per cent who are convinced atheists.

chart (2)

Religion is dominant on every continent

Western Europe and Oceania are considerably less religious than the other continents, but what this part of the poll showed was just how everywhere religion is.

In Africa, the Americas, Asia, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East, religion is well more than double the size of any of the alternatives.

chart (3)

Older people are, surprisingly, less religious

In what is one of the more unexpected findings of the study, it turns out that older people are less religious than younger people.

People in the middle aged bracket (44-54) are the least likely to be religious, the most likely to be atheist.

On the other hand, people in their twenties are most likely to identify with a religion, and so are a high proportion of under 25s.

chart (4)

Housewives are the most often religious, the full-time employed the least

Housewives are most likely to be religious, followed by retirees and then students (66 per cent).

chart (5)

Wealthier people are less religious

One of the more influential factors, it seems, is income.

There is a marked drop-off in religiosity between middle income individuals and upper-middle individuals.

It’s especially pronounced in the number who identify as atheist, going from 8 per cent in middle income to 25 per cent in the ‘medium high’ range.

chart (6)

And so are people with more education

A similar trend, though less extreme, is the difference education makes.

Four out of five people without an education identify as religious, whereas that stat falls to 3 in five of those who attended university.

As with age and income, the last bracket (post graduates) is slightly more religious and less atheistic than the second-to-last.  …………..’