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The new non-believing

Written by: on March 10, 2009

“One man’s theology is another man’s belly laugh”, shouts the Robert A. Heinlein quote from the top of the Warwick Atheist’s website. The group, which has a total of 143 members on its Facebook group, makes up just a tiny percentage of a young atheist movement that has arguably been growing across Britain. As Guardian columnist Sue Blackmore commented, ‘the days of laissez-faire atheism are over, and young, thoughtful student atheists are in a tricky position. They are forced to stand up for their beliefs.’

Looking at the figures, according to the British Humanist Association between 30 to 40 percent of the British population have non-religious beliefs, with the figures for young people standing higher at between 60 to 65 percent. In addition, Britain was ranked in fifteenth place in a 2005 survey by sociologist Phil Zuckerman that surveyed 50 countries with the highest proportion of atheists or agnostics, behind countries such as Sweden and Japan.

{{ quote According to the British Humanist Association between 30 to 40 percent of the British population have non-religious beliefs }}

Moreover, it’s not just the numbers that have been growing. To echo Blackmore’s use of the term of ‘laissez-faire atheism’ – which she defines as students who just don’t believe in God, who think that people who do are daft and are happy to leave them to it – young atheist movements these days in contrast are increasingly articulate and organized. For instance, the ongoing Atheist Bus campaign in London found its roots in 28-year-old comedy writer and journalist Ariane Sherine who, with the provocative success of the campaign, may have just become the poster girl of the young atheist movement.

Also, in February this year, eight atheist, humanist and secular societies from universities all over Britain banded together to launch The National Federation of Atheist Humanist and Secular Student societies. The AHS boasts of an executive and board of trustees and appoints officers to carry out specific tasks and intends to host an annual national conference, of which the first was hosted by the Edinburgh University Humanist Society in June 2008.

As the federation press release states, the AHS hopes to give such a groups ‘a national voice’ and its launch ‘marks the new mobilisation of the UK’s non-religious student majority and is the start of several nationwide events and campaigns.’ Other future plans that the AHS is considering include an on-campus events week to promote rational debate, humanist and secular ideas, and to act as a coordinator for national campaigns. “There is a growing wave of British atheism sweeping the country and we need to ride that wave,” declared Norman Ralph, president of the AHS.

And it’s not just atheism. As the federation’s name also suggests, there has been an inclination for students to describe themselves in the Enlightenment terms of ‘humanist’ and ‘secularist,’ in which the former is a philosophy that believes in the dignity and worth of all people with the latter being the assertion that governmental practices or institutions should exist separately from religion.

These beliefs in humanism and secularism often come along with being atheist, said Warwick Atheists president Stuart Pilbow. Commenting on the rise of atheism these days, ‘ Pilbow said: “Simply not believing in a god just isn’t enough any more, freedom of speech is coming under threat and we can’t just sit around and let this happen. An active atheist seems a little pointless but unfortunately it is becoming necessary.”

This growing enthusiasm for the rejection of religion appears to go hand-in-hand with the emergence of what columnist Andrew Brown has christened ‘New Atheism’. This new movement he says, is a largely political and social one rather than intellectual, and tends to preach ‘urgent apocalyptic message about the dangers of faith’. Prominent British new atheists include Christopher Hitchens, who authored the 2007 book God is Not Great, and writer Richard Dawkins who has vocalized his support for both the bus campaign and the launch of the AHS. They are increasingly less satisfied with atheism being a simple statement of belief or opinion, but are keen to spread their message and mission, and in the case of the authors above, are prepared to make controversial claims about religion.

Perhaps another reason for this trend may be a reflex countering of the rise of religion as more, in particular members of the younger generation, have felt the need to explore and settle on a spiritual belief, or non-belief, in face of developments in the twenty-first century. Britain, though officially a Christian nation, has preached tolerance of different faiths and is currently debating whether subjects such as creationism or homosexuality should be taught in schools. This emphasis on being accommodating, one might say, may therefore have been crucial to the growth of the atheist movement.

The British atheist movement, with the recent injection of support from young atheists, looks to be heading in a tongue-in-cheek direction but at the same time seeks to be taken seriously. While atheism used to be seen as the category for those who just ‘did not believe in God’ or were non-religious, in Britain it is now demanding its own identity and may want more in time to come. We’ll see.

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