Archives for posts with tag: atheism

Over the last few weeks, I have been listening to Neil MacGregor’s terrific “Living with the Gods” BBC podcast. It has helped me to reconsider some of my views on religion and belief.

The podcast is wonderful, in that it brings you on an audio journey to places and peoples across the world. You name it, it’s there – from the dank caves of southern Germany, to the sacrificial pyramids of Aztec Mexico, to the great Kumbh Mela festival in India. Newgrange is mentioned, as is the Angelus that booms out on Irish radio each day. It considers the symbolism in religion, the common rituals, the public displays and private moments, and the relationship of religion to the exercise of power. It takes all these disparate elements and synthesizes them into a concrete, powerful narrative.

What I hear from all this is that religion is core to who we are. In all religions, our own nature is echoed back. It is a mirror, reflecting our greatest fears, our greatest needs and our hopes for the future. If you bypass the specific details of any one religion, you find the same needs there. These great longings are familiar to so many of us.

Religion doesn’t even need gods or supernatural agencies. We’ve seen in the last century the damaging power of secular belief systems gone awry. It seems that people will reach out for anything that gives them a sense of security, purpose and answers. God is just one alternative among many.

Such a pity it is that the details become so important. People will kill and die over the minutiae of their own faiths. Wars have started over trivial differences, people executed and tortured for not adhering to the orthodoxy of the day. Even today, so many people take delight in disparaging other people’s religions (and I’ve been one of them) to the point that demagogues can exact discriminatory laws and great injustices can take place with nary a whisper. Behind the details, we forget that at the core of much belief is something entirely understandable: something quintessentially human.

Such a pity that more people don’t reach out to understand religious practices elsewhere around the world, because the impression to be formed is that no matter where we are or who we are, there is a commonality that runs through us all. Having no religion or being inquisitive within one’s own religion, may be advantageous in this regard.

Thought is given in the podcast to life without religion. This is possibly the least satisfying part of the series, as it suggests that it’s unsustainable in the long run. At the end of the series, MacGregor makes the bold statement that we run the risk of society breaking up completely – this is something I would have wanted to understand more. Personally, I see many people making a good fist of living without gods or the traditional rituals of yesteryear. I don’t see how humanistic societies can’t operate for the success and happiness of their peoples: the record of countries like Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands is a case in point. Even Ireland is a happier place now that we have allowed God to fade into the background. Perhaps such states of affairs are unsustainable and perhaps communities are in peril, but at least a counter argument can be made in a world where we don’t now have to rely on revelation and traditional authority alone for matters of truth and belief.

Please give the podcast a go and let me know what you think.

Another day, another speech by a cleric, frustrated that all their historic entitlements are fading away.

“The alternative is a vacuum that can express itself in nihilism and the growing phenomenon in our schools of self harm,” he said.

Fuck nihilism. It’s a trope used against atheists for so long, you would think it should be given an honorary peerage at this stage.

As an atheist for over 25 years, I feel about as un-nihilistic as it’s possible to be. I find meaning in so much: my friends, my children, my thoughts and my many different enthusiasms. The idea that this life is meaningless to me is laughable.

The truth is that meaning is not exclusive to the pious. There is so much wonder and fascination in this world that it would be impossible to get through it all in a lifetime, nay, twenty lifetimes. Finding meaning in things is what we all do, whether that be helping kids, building Lego towers, watching football or blogging random thoughts. 

The non-religious life can be as rich in thoughts, emotion and meaningful achievement as anyone wearing the sunglasses of a faith. It just comforts some people to think otherwise.

The diminishment of religion in our schools will not herald in a life without meaning. The doors to a life of curiosity, fascination, purpose and love have always been open to us. You don’t have to believe in a deity to appreciate this fully.

A few days ago, I asked this question on Twitter: when you take humanism from Christian teachings, is there anything left worth conveying to kids in school? This was in response to Joe Humphreys’ article in the Irish Times this week, where he wrote that elements of Christian teaching had a value in addressing the religious schooling problem in Ireland.

Joe has written some interesting thoughts on the issue over the past few months. This article wasn’t one of them, unfortunately. His was a ‘baby with the bathwater’ argument that did not address the problem of privilege within the Catholic Church. It sought to bolster the Church’s special place in education without giving solid arguments about why this should be. Appealing to tradition and creating straw men doesn’t cut it.

Many people in Ireland have a love-hate relationship with the Catholic Church. It has been an opponent of almost every progressive reform in the last half century, not to mention having presided over the greatest cover-up (and worst abuses) we have seen in our lifetimes. Many would argue, with ample justification, that the Church’s primary concern is its own survival. Still, we all know nice church people. We know clerics who have said the right things at the death bed of a loved one and taken principled stances on difficult issues when nobody else was addressing it. Even the Pope has his moments. 

Excellent though this is, the Church has no monopoly on such good works. Much of the same can be found within Protestant, Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu and non religious communities, or in any situation where people are compelled to help others. When Christians behave admirably, they are acting from a strong sense of human compassion. Religious principles may inform good actions, but it is not something only seen among Christians. Every day in China, India, Nigeria, Iran and all around the world; you will find good, kind, thoughtful, principled people doing good, kind, thoughtful, principled things, mainly because that’s the kind of people they are.

There is great humanism in Christianity. But back to my question: if you take this basic humanism from Christianity, what’s left?

Honestly – and quite possibly I’m missing some things- but it doesn’t seem terribly impressive to me. There is a strong appeal to prayer, which quite overlooks the fact that praying has a particularly poor record in solving most of the basic problems of the world. There is the belief in a deity who consistently eludes detection in any reasonable sense. There are all the rituals that seek to make this deity happy or at least smooth the way to an afterlife, the outcome of which this deity already knows. Is this even remotely on the same level as maths, history and geography?

It’s the area of sexual morality where the differences with humanism are greatest. Instead of looking at the complexity and variety of sexual practices and sexual preferences, Christian thinking often seems to reduce it down to disgust, shame and a desire to control other people’s basic freedoms. Sex is rarely seen as healthy, positive or worthy of proper discussion. Some Christian views, such as the stance on contraception and homosexuality are positively anti-human in their effects. A side effect of their absolutist views on abortion are to silence the voices of millions of women and to reduce them to a second class within society. It’s difficult to see how such simplistic thinking is at all helpful for children who will soon experience the massive complexities of adulthood for themselves.

I don’t have a problem with dedicated, devoted Christians being part of a new educational dispensation, but I do not think that this should be some sort of compromise between equals. It’s not. Humanism has developed from Christian thinking, but it’s also been able to benefit from the views of many other great thinkers, using science to validate these views. If people insist on educating their kids within their faith, then that is still their right, but I doubt if such an education will be greatly superior. It may even be detrimental if there is a strong emphasis on the non-humanistic parts of the curriculum.

Dear God,

You truly are the Worst Idea Ever.


Because of You, millions have gone to war.

Millions have died. because of You.

People torture In Your Name.

They inflict cruelty and suffering In Your Name.

And You know the worst thing?

These killers, these torturers, they sleep peacefully at night

Because of You.


You give us False Hope.

When it works out, you steal the success for Yourself.

When it doesn’t, we shoulder all the blame.

Instead of responding to Injustice,

You say, “It’ll be better in the next life”.

Or even worse, You say we will Burn Forever.

That’s a nice touch, God.


Because of You, whole groups of people

Come in second place,

Or third place, or forever last.

You don’t much like difference, do you God?

But money, power and privilege? Ah. That’s different.

Now I know your holy people say otherwise

But we all know how it works out.


So do us all a favour.

We can get by just fine without You.

We can sort out our own problems.

We can talk. We can compromise.

We can understand.

We can dream.

By listening to ourselves, and less to You,

We’ve made things better.

We’ve brought light to dark places.

And comfort for crying eyes.


You know what?

We can take it From Here.


So do us all a favour, God.

And begone.

You were never a Great Idea in the first place.

Years ago, when I was religious, I found it difficult to imagine how I could cope with adversity if I didn’t have a strong belief in God. I felt that my religious faith was the key ingredient that helped me through in times of trouble. A quick prayer and the feeling that I was being looked over by a loving deity gave me great comfort.

I’m sure many religious people believe that it’s all very well for atheists to hold their views in good times, but just wait until bad times hit. There are no atheists in foxholes, as they say. The reality, however, is that most of us can get through quite terrible setbacks without relapsing into religious belief.

I’ve had a few big setbacks since I lost my religion all those years ago. Some of them have been pretty tough. I had plenty of dark times as I negotiated my way through them. But not once did I have recourse to prayer. No matter how bad things got, I never felt like trying to rekindle my religious beliefs. Honestly, I would have immediately thought it pointless and silly. It simply wasn’t an option.

But nevertheless, I got through these times and lived to fight another day. So how did I manage? Looking back, here are a few pointers.

I tried to be kind to myself. Bad things usually happen, not because you’re a bad person or that you need to be punished, but because such is life. People get old, or find themselves in the wrong places, or make mistakes they couldn’t possibly have foreseen at the time. Realising this made me feel less angry with myself. Guilt was one burden I didn’t have to bear.

I gave myself time. I tried not to expect that all the bad thoughts would go away permanently just by thinking a certain way, or doing something transient. The feelings come back no matter what you do. Realising this helped to reduce the urgency of needing to have solutions for everything. Some things in life don’t have easy answers. As they say, if you can’t overcome it, you can often outlive it.

I tried to live in the present. Realising that bad feelings pass, given enough time, allowed me to better allow the worst issues to roll over me. You roll with the waves.

I tried to acknowledge the pain and feelings I was experiencing. They were real to me, why fight hard against them? If I felt like crying, I would cry. If I didn’t feel like doing something, I left it go until I felt a bit better about it. You have good days and bad days. It’s not about surrendering, as much it is about giving yourself some time.

I tried to get on with life, getting back to the things I liked doing and to the work routine I was used to. It was difficult at times, but it allowed my mind to think about other things. I feel that brooding about the past too much is the mental equivalent of scratching a scab. It can prolong the pain and I’m not sure if that’s particularly healthy.

I sought out and appreciated the company of friends and family members. Just talking about things and the kindness they showed helped me so much. I appreciate that this is not something everyone can do, but it helped me. Even pets can be such great companions. They don’t think much about the future and they get on just fine. Maybe, during these times, neither should we.

I sought out professional help. A chat with a doctor or a counsellor helped me through the more difficult periods. Assistance like this has a big place in overcoming the most painful feelings.

Would my experience have been shorter or less painful had I kept my religious faith? It’s difficult to know, but I suspect there is little difference. There was no sense of help from a loving god as I went through it, but neither were there any feelings of despair or guilt that the same god wasn’t bothering to help.

Religious believers often thank their god for getting them through the dark times. But I think they are missing something. The truth might be that their success is only theirs to celebrate.

Up to the time I was 21, I was very religious. I never missed Sunday Mass, contemplated the priesthood once or twice, and I tried to live my life according to the words of Jesus. I believed, fervently, in the power of prayer. Then, in what seemed like an instant, it all came apart. Suddenly, it didn’t seem so rational that our souls went somewhere else when we died. The idea of a God of the Universe caring much about the goings on of some obscure species on an obscure planet now seemed rather bizarre. And then there was the problem of suffering and why a loving, all powerful god would permit evil to happen in the first place. My worldview changed overnight, but I have never looked back.

I had an agnostic phase, then an atheist phase, but nowadays, I think of myself as humanist. I am still an atheist, but this word is an inadequate description of who I am. My atheism informs how I look at religion, but that’s about it. I self-describe as a skeptic, but this also is only part of who I am. It has made me appreciate the value of science and evidence and I see it as a useful tool, helping to evaluate the claims people make. I am a secularist in that I believe a secular state, that is indifferent to religion, is better for everyone, religious and non-religious alike. I am agnostic in that there is much I don’t know, yet I am not willing to accept that just because I’d like something to be true, it therefore must be so.

Humanism is something more. It informs how I feel about things. It brings in important values such as compassion, integrity, honesty and friendship. It says something very profound to me. That I am here for a short time, and while I cannot personally change many things, there are people around me who affect me and whom I affect in turn. That there is a world here that should be respected, as it is our only home in this Universe. That our enthusiasms and loves and hobbies and friendships are something to be cherished. That others may not be so lucky and that we should strive to make life better for everyone, not just a fortunate few. That education and healthcare and control over our bodies and freedom from oppression should be our birthrights.

These are universal aspirations that are shared by many, non-religious and religious people alike. Some people base this common understanding on their theology. I arrive at it because I realise that life is short, and the people around me are important and deserving of respect and compassion.

I often think I have not changed much from the time I was religious, but humanism has opened my eyes to others and their differences. When I was growing up, “Protestant” meant “them”, “Catholic” meant “us”. Being “Irish” was different to being “English”, as was “American” or “Nigerian”. “White” and “black” and “asian” all carried different meanings – not always benign. Sexuality was spoken about in hushed tones. Similar distinctions could be made regarding disability and mental illness. Humanism has helped to blur these distinctions. It’s more important that we relate to people, not because they are Christians or Irish or Americans, but because they are humans like ourselves. Likewise it’s important to acknowledge differences, but to realise that siblings from the same family are often more different than two people from different backgrounds and different continents who happen to meet, have a laugh, and fall in love with each other.

As a humanist, the greatest distinction I make is between people who want these things, and those who want the old orders to prevail. I am not sympathetic to those who advocate for theocracy, the exclusion of women or the suppression of sexuality along narrow lines. I oppose those who believe the world is to be exploited with little thought for long term consequences. I am appalled by traditions of mutilation and ostracisation that still prevail, despite the misery they wreak. People who put their ideologies ahead of universal education are a danger to us all, no matter how well meaning those ideologies are. Our shared humanity should always trump the thoughts that are in peoples’ heads. It’s people that are important – not their beliefs.

On World Humanist Day, I’m celebrating my humanism and the amazing fact that I can share a tiny sliver of time on this planet existing with other wonderful and fascinating creatures, some of whom also happen to be humans. I long for a day when this sense of belonging, humility and cooperation is shared by all the governments of this world. Unfortunately we have a long way to go.

I see Atheist Ireland have “publicly dissociated” themselves from PZ Myers, the firebrand blogger from Minnesota. It was a long time coming. The spat between Michael Nugent and Myers has been a long running one. It was too much to expect that it would resolve itself amicably.

I used to read Pharyngula quite a bit a few years back but I eventually tired of it. Not because of Myers’ laudable espousal of feminist and minority causes, but simply because he seemed hellbent on finding targets within the atheist movement and pulling the trigger. Sure, there are some real assholes within atheism, but it’s simplistic to divide the world into such extremes of good and evil. Too many people were frozen out who had valid – if sometimes unpopular – contributions to make. Since 2011, the conversation has died away, and for good reason.

Atheist blogging is too much like a civil war these past few years. The useful, engaging, challenging and interesting stuff has been drowned out by emotional rhetoric turned to maximum volume. There is way too much self-righteousness and in-fighting getting in the way of good commentary. The principal take-away is “you should hate this person because of x,y and z”. I can understand why people who espouse humanism over atheism have given up on it entirely. Over time, we have tuned out in droves, finding other places more deserving of our attention.

My feeling is that far too much time has been spent on PZ Myers. He’s not going to apologise in a million years and he’s not going to change. Defamatory and obnoxious he might be, but I’m pretty sure he’s not going to wash off his spots any time soon – whether or not he’s called out on it. He’s taken worse, doled out worse and I’m not sure he cares either way. Ultimately he’s a just a blogger and as such, he’s one voice among many. He’s not the only influence on what is a very large and diverse community of non-religious people in this country. I doubt I’m alone in wishing that we can close the book on this and move on.

I will let you into a little secret of mine. Every night, when I lie in bed, tucked under the duvet, I imagine myself flying a spacecraft to the stars. The craft is accelerating at relativistic speeds, often surpassing the speed of light as it heads out into the wider universe. It’s automatic, it’s comforting and it helps me fall asleep.

I’m sure many of us have similar mental rituals. Indeed, when I think about it, life is dominated by rituals that give us pleasure. What is our devotion to football, music and any of a million other pastimes and activities, but a kind of strange ritual? There is nothing life changing or cataclysmic about any of them – indeed from the outside they might seem a bit pointless and crazy – but without them life would be colourless. We need these regular indulgences.

Our brains seem to relish the familiar. Neural pathways, once laid down, are nourished by repeated use. Psychologists talk about “confirmation bias” – our tendency to absorb only that which appeals to us. But it’s much more than that. This comfort with the safe, the known and the well understood: it’s an essential part of our being.

Prayer is no different. For many, there is a comfort to be found in repeated recitations of the Our Father and the Rosary, or for others, the Islamic, Buddhist and Hindu chants. But there is something else about prayers that make them so compelling.

“To thee do we send forth our sighs,

Mourning and weeping in this valley of tears”.

The Salve Regina (aka “Hail Holy Queen”) is a thousand year old Catholic prayer. It speaks of a time when hardship was everywhere. Disease, brutality, avarice and accident could take everything away in seconds. If reality was so miserable, then why not accept a glorious fantasy? With a readymade industry of clerics and theologians willing to hone and interpret the myth (and punish non-belief), compliance would have been irresistible.

Reality is not so terrifying for many people nowadays. Medicine, law, technology and political reforms have made life vastly more tolerable. Religion has become optional, if not thoroughly second-rate. It’s not the only source of comfort anymore – instead we can indulge our passions, listen to music, play video games or surf the Internet. We are less dependent on heavenly promises to help us get through life.

I’m an atheist. For me, these old stories are no more realistic than Harry Potter. But nevertheless, I wonder how my worldview would have been shaped had I been born to a life of oppression and drudgery, where the pleasures I take for granted were not easily available?

There are plenty of people living lives devoid of freedom, security or hope. All they have are their prayers. We atheists need to understand this. It’s not enough to tell such people they are living a delusion if we cannot demonstrate alternative – and realistic – routes to fulfilment and mental health. Indeed, if prayer is the only comfort they have, who are we to deprive them even of this? We need to address the underlying causes.

Until then? Religion is here to stay.

Every so often I am obliged to go to a Catholic Mass ceremony. This is something I try strenuously to avoid, but sometimes I have little choice. Such are the complex demands of middle parenthood.

Little has changed in the ceremony in the quarter century since I forsook the weekly ritual. What has changed are the congregations. On this occasion, the pews were full, but populated in the main by parents like me – uncertain about what they should be doing and registering a timid protest by not attending communion with their children. If it were not for the nature of the ceremony, the attendance would have been a great deal smaller and greyer.

The priest, a young curate from a part of the country where “th’s” are banned, didn’t bother to alter his style in the midst of this gathering of heathens. Instead, his sermon was all about the nihilism of secularism and a call for us to return to the religion of our youth lest we fall prey to decadence. He blamed atheism for hardship, a diagnosis equivalent to not flossing or washing between one’s toes – satisfactory to some, but ultimately irrelevant.

As I said, not much has changed. If anything, some priests are getting more hardline as the collection plates dry up. Despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, they still believe they hold the monopoly on ethical behaviour and are fearful of the loss of pomp and privilege. There is still an unwillingness to engage into a dialogue with the real world. It’s all a bit sad, and while I believe that ethics is as important now as it ever was, it seems the Catholic Church is getting less qualified each year to inform us on ethical behaviour.

In the meantime, here is a delightful video from Stephen Fry on humanism and happiness. Judge for yourself what is a better role to live by.

Here’s a heartwarming story from celebrity psychic Joe Power:

An atheist was seated next to a little girl on an airplane and he turned
to her and said, “Do you want to talk? Flights go quicker if you strike
up a conversation with your fellow passenger.”

The little girl, who had just started to read her book, replied to the total
stranger, “What would you want to talk about?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” said the atheist. “How about why there is no God,
or no Heaven or Hell, or no life after death?” as he smiled smugly.

“Okay,” she said. “Those could be interesting topics but let me ask
you a question first. A horse, a cow, and a deer all eat the same
stuff – grass. Yet a deer excretes little pellets, while a cow turns
out a flat patty, but a horse produces clumps. Why do you suppose that is?”

The atheist, visibly surprised by the little girl’s intelligence,
thinks about it and says, “Hmmm, I have no idea.” To which
the little girl replies, “Do you really feel qualified to discuss
God, Heaven and Hell, or life after death, when you don’t know shit?”

And then she went back to reading her book.

Heartwarming, wonderful, except it’s complete bollocks, and falls into the trap of what some people would like to believe atheists think, as opposed to what is actually the case. At the time of writing, it has 357,000 likes and 239,000 shares on Facebook.

So, leaving out the smarminess of the putative girl in the story, the creepiness of any adult stranger trying to chat up a girl on a flight, and the fact that this conversation never took place and is a metaphor for the Atheism / Theism debate, this story still bugs me.

Atheists *don’t* claim to have special knowledge about God’s non-existence.

The implication in this piece is that most atheists somehow assume to know for certain that he doesn’t exist, enabling critics to accuse us of smugness, arrogance and a gross error of logic, in that we are trying to prove a negative. The child can then disabuse us of this arrogance by asking a simple question. Atheists can’t know for certain whether God exists, but if he does exist, we can legitimately ask what he actually does. Does he control the planets, the moon and the weather? Our current knowledge of astronomy implies something completely different, and altogether more compelling. Did he create the Universe? Then why did he make it so awesomely big, if our species has some role in his plan? Does he heal the sick? Then what about all the people he doesn’t heal, despite all their earnest pleas? Does he bring peace to the world? 2,000 years of brutal post-Jesus violence and genocide would suggest not. Does he comfort people in their suffering? Then why are Hindus comforted by their gods in the same way Christians find comfort in God? So what does God do, if he is said by so many people to exist? That’s really all atheists are asking. If he doesn’t do all that much (and there are often better explanations) then why invest so much effort and self-sacrifice in believing in him?

The girl’s question is a non-sequitor.

The response the girl gives is completely immaterial to the subject under discussion, and could be used for any situation, and even the other way around. Her intent is to imply that since you don’t know some things, then you can’t presume to know other things. Had the atheist decided to talk about paint, she could have used the same approach. Had her fellow passenger been a Christian, she could have asked the same question with precisely the same response. And, since atheists don’t presume to know in the first place, it’s a completely bogus argument.

Who is more likely to strike up a conversation about God with a total stranger?

Somehow, I don’t think many atheists are really that into foisting their views on others. The obligation to proselytise is more a Christian thing. We atheists don’t really care what you believe, so long as your intent is not to foist your views on others, or to re-organise society based solely on a presumed set of diktats from your god.

So who is the arrogant one?

By setting up this straw man argument, Power is implying that the God question should be out of bounds. To me, this is extraordinarily arrogant. How dare we ask questions. It appears that some things, no matter how illogical, unrealistic or wrong-headed, are supposedly immune from honest inquiry.

One thing I agree: atheists don’t know shit. In this respect we’re pretty much like everyone else, Christians included. We know some things well and other things not well at all. The difference seems to be, however, that we desire to know things, even if that means upsetting a few sacred cows on the way. How good it would be if this thirst for knowledge was appreciated by the very many people who liked Joe Power’s snide and dismissive Facebook post.


%d bloggers like this: