The secretary of the AHS, Mike Paynter, has just been interviewed about ‘running a national student organisation’ which in his words ‘represents what young atheists, humanists and secularists stand for’.
What do they do?
‘We stand up for secularism by campaigning against religious privilege, and as humanists we encourage people to examine moral issues from a rational, naturalist perspective.’
And what do they do as atheists?
‘Atheists do nothing!’
‘All an atheist does is not believe that God exists. But then you have humanists, and secularists – and these are words that have more meaning’.
I’m a young atheist. That’s the banner I march under, first and foremost. And while I don’t presume to speak for any others, doing nothing is not the way to represent my interests.
‘Atheists do nothing’? Here, in no particular order, are not-insignificant things atheists have done who march under that banner; not as secularists, not as humanists, but as people who reject religious claims and act on that rejection:
- The God Delusion, a 464 page critique of belief in God, is published in 2005. It goes on to sell millions upon millions of copies, be reprinted in dozens of languages and ignite a global atheist movement.
- Atheist internet pages, blogs, podcasts, shops and other areas which dedicate themselves principally or solely to assertion of non-belief are extremely popular, sometimes gaining tens of thousands of likes/subscriptions/viewers.
- The Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain, an atheist organisation – not a secularist or humanist one – provides non-believers who have left Islam with a home, helps individuals recover from religion-based trauma and defends blasphemers facing death around the world.
- Hemant Mehta, author of The Friendly Atheist, blogs in support of Damon Fowler when his parents disown him. Overnight, the scholarship fund he sets up receives £5,500 in donations; it goes on to receive over $30,000.
- Recovering from Religion, an atheist organisation, provides meetings and forums to help non-believers leave religion-based trauma behind.
- The Clergy Project provides a safe space for atheists in the clergy to come out to one another and discuss their experiences.
- Last autumn, r/atheism users raise over $150,000 for Doctors Without Borders.
- Musician and comedian Tim Minchin prolifically writes songs which criticise and satirise religious belief – not which call for a secular state, or suggest non-believers live good secular lives. His concerts regularly sell out.
- Monty Python’s Life of Brian, a film made by atheists satirising Christianity, draws widespread criticism and condemnation in 1979. It goes on to be regarded as a comic classic and contributes to changing social attitudes toward religion.
- Atheist Hayley Stevens refers advertisements for faith healing to the ASA, on the grounds their (religious) claims are unevidenced. This ultimately results in disclaimers being added to the relevant literature.
- Jen McCreight challenges an Islamic prayer leader’s claims about immodest women by organising Boobquake. This receives worldwide media attention and popular support.
- I, Maryam Namazie, Anne-Marie Waters, Jen Hardy, Rhys Morgan, PZ Myers, Richard Dawkins and many, many others receive threats of murder specifically for criticising and contradicting religious beliefs. We continue to do so.
- People in history and today, around the world, are slandered, attacked, prosecuted and sentenced to death for declaring themselves atheists. Even when faced with this, they refuse to retract it.
This list is fairly brief. I wrote it off the top of my head. If I wanted, I could keep adding bullet points all night. In fact, I’d encourage commenters to do that.
Yes, atheism is a negative identity. It’s like being apolitical, anarchistic or asexual. But this does not make it something inconsequential. As anyone from a particularly religious upbringing will tell you, or as people from most of history would have, or as people from most of the current world would, being an atheist has consequences. And it specifically has consequences – directly – in the actions and activism of the people above, and the communities to which they belong.
These examples aren’t of secularist or humanist activism. That doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with secularist activism, and it doesn’t necessarily mean there’s anything wrong with humanism. But it does mean atheism has been the explicit basis for a great many very real bits of activism, upon some of which secularism and humanism depend. (Do secularist movements develop in countries where no one openly contradicts religion?)
The statement ‘atheists do nothing’ is dismissive – enormously, borderline-offensively so. It’s enormously dismissive of all these people, and of all other people motivated by doubt to change the world. If you think ‘atheist’ is a term without meaning, talk to them.
It worries me when someone in a national atheist organisation doesn’t get this.