I’m an atheist.
And yes, you’ve already began to feel a sense of unease. Your judgement is suddenly clouded by an air of suspicion. I can tell because it happens with nearly everybody. The second you mention the A-word to someone, they instantly change their opinion of you, as though you’ve just revealed that you’re carrying a gun. Sure, they won’t say anything, but you’re met with a mitigated but unmistakable look of disdain and distrust. It begs the question why, in a gradually more tolerant society, has the lack of belief in god been stigmatised as being shameful?
“We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.” – Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion)
Well, on the most basic of levels, it just makes people think you’re a miserable bastard. Whilst being a perfectly valid system of beliefs (or lack thereof), Atheism has somehow been subconsciously linked with cynicism. To ‘disbelieve’ is to be cynical, and cynicism itself is linked with a desire to be contrary, or to appear smarter than everybody else. Atheists are certainly a minority, and considering how integral organised religion has been to forming civilisation as we know it, it is indeed brazen to shun not only one but a multitude of ideologies. Therefore, it is easy for people to dismiss Atheists as mere contrarians, refusing to conform.
(Atheism equals saying you don’t like The Beatles – Discuss)
This, of course, is bollocks. And it’s all really down to semantics. In a similar way to how the word ‘feminism’ is bizarrely misconstrued by some people to suggest a desire for a new matriarchal society – when in reality it simply calls for equal rights -, ‘Atheism’ conjures up images of stoic, stone faced, bedsit-philosophers seeking only to spoil everyone else’s fun. To many, the idea of religious faith brings to mind ideas of love, forgiveness and kindness, and so with Atheism effectively being the opposite to religion, we naturally and unconsciously attach the opposite connotations to it. And whilst religion – with respect – deals with the fantastical and the optimistic, Atheism is built on logic and science, which can easily be seen as defeatist and ultimately more bleak by comparison.
This is perhaps the crux of the issue – that Religion offers hope, whereas Atheism offers reality – and for many, it’s a harsh one. And yet again, simply by contrast, your subconscious tells you that Atheists are nothing but a bunch of spoil-sports, laughing as we smugly deconstruct your beliefs. But we aren’t!
Well, not all of us…
Ok, I admit it. Atheism has, in most cases, been badly represented by popular figures. One the one hand, we have the likes of Christopher Hitchens who, righteous as he may be, typifies the cold, cynical stereotype that people have come to naturally associate with Atheism. And on the other end of the spectrum, we have Ricky Gervais, who persistently uses his status as a platform to criticise religion and antagonise those who subscribe to it. It began with an admittedly very funny segment from his 2003 show, Animals, in which he de-constructs and pokes fun at the book of Genesis from the Bible – watch it here. Naturally, it ruffled a few feathers, leading Gervais (always one for a spot of controversy) to constantly ridicule religion on social media without any provocation, other than the sole purpose of annoying people. All of this simply gives Atheism a bad name. He is one of the few outspoken Atheists in the public eye (or the entertainment industry, at least), so he is many people’s reference point for what an Atheist stands for and endeavours to do, which is simple misrepresentation.
“I talk to God but the sky is empty” – Sylvia Plath
An Atheist is not someone who constantly seeks to conceitedly debunk organised religion with a smirk, nor is it someone who is just too weighed down by pessimism and cynicism to look to the sky for answers. In fact, it is never considered that someone who is an Atheist might wish that they were anything but. In many ways, having a devout faith in a religion can be a good thing; it can give people a positive outlook on life and – more crucially – death. This secure sense of optimism is certainly desirable, which proves in itself that Atheism is not merely opposition for it’s own sake, and instead demonstrates a simple, honest inability to believe in a god – almost a lack of choice.
In short, Atheism’s raison d’etre is not to provoke a dispute and most Atheists, while they may be critical of religion, are not motivated by vitriol and the need to antagonise. And yet, it is still disparaged as something of a cult; something one should be reluctant or embarrassed to admit to, lest one is are met with a raised eyebrow and a covertly displeased “…oh”. Of course, it might seem like a fuss over nothing. Atheists are certainly not repressed, in the way that, for example, people of colour or homosexuals are, but it is still frankly inappropriate for it to be approached with such disdain, especially in such a furtive way.
Now, this isn’t meant to be some heroic call to arms for the liberation of Atheists, but in 2015, it’s surely time for us to break away from the shackles of stereotypes and accept Atheism as a valid belief, not some kind of dastardly plot to quash the sanguine visions of organised religion.
Words by Matthew Smith