'Atheophobia' Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything


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Richard Dawkins, a prominent atheist.

In 1689, a Polish nobleman had his tongue ripped from his mouth and was beheaded, following which he was burned along with the paper for which he had been condemned to death. Almost 200 years later, a politician was refused a seat in Parliament and was later arrested, fined and temporarily imprisoned despite being voted in repeatedly. Another century on and an Internet group with 35,000 members was deleted by the website's owners after complaints from other users that the subject matter was 'offensive'.

The common thread in all these examples is 'atheophobia', a neologism (new word) meaning the fear and/or explicit dislike of atheism. While atheism can be freely promoted in the Western world and 220 million people worldwide identify themselves as atheists, atheophobia is still rife among many populations. This Entry looks at both historic and modern examples of discrimination against atheists and takes a look of some of the factors that may be responsible for modern atheophobia.

A Selected History

During the later years of the Roman Empire, Christians were tried for atheism, a crime punishable by death. This was due to the fact that the Romans, who believed in a henotheistic combination of Christianity and Roman polytheism, greatly disliked the exclusivity of the Christian religion, and thus punished the Christians for not believing in the Roman gods. It is very likely that any actual atheists would have been subject to the same response.

Apostasy, the abandonment of one's religion, was abhorred throughout the Middle Ages – a time when the punishment of heretics by torture and fiery death was quite popular. Being an atheist at this stage in history was generally a Very Bad Idea, regardless of whether the monarch was a Catholic or a Protestant. Open atheism was impossible up until the 18th Century, with 'atheist' being used as a generalised insult during the 16th and 17th Centuries in much the same way that 'gay' has been used by homophobes during the 20th and 21st Centuries. Like gays, it would seem that atheists have since tried to reclaim the word for themselves.

In 1689, the Polish noble Kazimierz Lyszczynski was condemned to death for atheism after he wrote the words 'ergo non est Deus' (therefore there is no God) in the margin of a book about divinity. The words had been discovered by a nuncio1 who owed Lyszczynski money and, in order to avoid paying his debt, took the book to a bishop. The nuncio also raided Lyszczynski's house in order to expose his work on a paper entitled 'De non existentia Dei' (the non-existence of God). As a result of his beliefs, Lyszczynski had his tongue forcibly removed, followed shortly by his head, and was then taken for cremation beyond the Warsaw city limits.

In 1697, Britain saw its last execution for blasphemy. At the time, Scotland's Blasphemy Acts stated that anyone who would 'rail upon or curse or deny God, and obstinately continue therein' was liable to imprisonment and sackcloth2, with the same plus a fine on the second offence, followed by execution on the third. However, at the age of twenty years and on his first offence, medical student Thomas Aikenhead was sentenced to death for reading atheistic literature while at Edinburgh University. Aikenhead had made the mistake of telling his 'friends' about the books and, following a drive by the local church to remove blasphemous books from local shops, at least one of them informed on him. The Church of Scotland's General Assembly urged his 'vigorous execution', pour encourager les autres. Though he was provided with counsel, no defence was recorded during Aikenhead's trial by the church. He was hanged on 8 January, 1697, having been imprisoned since the autumn before.

In 1880, the atheist politician Charles Bradlaugh refused to take the oath required for him to become the Member of Parliament for Northampton, instead asking that he be allowed to affirm3. Having been refused both this and a subsequent opportunity to take the oath 'as a matter of form', he was arrested and imprisoned in the clock tower of Big Ben for trying to take his seat. Despite this, Bradlaugh was re-elected four times by his constituency while the dispute rumbled on, and was even arrested and fined when he took his seat and voted in 1883. Having seen a bill that would allow him to affirm defeated, Bradlaugh was eventually allowed to become an MP by taking the oath in 1886. He eventually succeeded in passing a new Oaths acts in 1888, allowing all MPs to affirm.

Modern Discrimination

The following are just a few examples of discrimination against atheists from both in the UK and abroad.

  • Atheists are banned from holding positions of office in several US states, including South Carolina, Texas, Maryland and Arkansas.

  • In 2004, the UK charity Prospects refused to employ non-Christians and informed current non-Christian employees, some of whom had been transferred to the charity under TUPE regulations4, that they were no longer eligible for promotion. The explanation provided was that the charity, which offers help for those with learning difficulties, was designed to offer Christian support. An employment tribunal later found the charity's actions to be unacceptable.

  • In 2006, atheist teacher David McNab was explicitly refused promotion at a Catholic high school in Glasgow on the basis of his lack of religion.

  • In January 2008, the 35,000-strong Atheist & Agnostic group was banned by the owners of MySpace, the website on which it was hosted. MySpace defended the ban on the basis that the site had received numerous complaints that atheism was too offensive a subject. Although the group was reinstated a month later, several of its members remained banned.

  • In July 2008, Birmingham City Council was reported as having blocked access to atheist websites, despite allowing staff to view Christian, Islamic and Hindu content via their computers. It is now thought that the ban did not occur, and that the story was based on a document for discussion to which an atheophobe had quietly added 'atheism' as a topic to be banned.

  • Polls conducted in 2008 found that in the USA, 53% of the population would not vote for an otherwise well-qualified Presidential candidate if they were an atheist – this figure was greater than for gay, female and, of course, black presidential candidates. An equivalent poll for the UK found that one fifth of the population are biased against atheists.

  • In October 2008, in response to the Atheist Bus Campaign5, a Christian pressure group claimed that 'bendy-buses, like atheism, are a danger to the public at large' and added that they expected to see the adverts covered by graffiti. The same pressure group has since attempted to have the adverts banned.

Modern Attitudes

Modern atheophobia has a number of causes, ranging from false claims of immorality and nihilism through to the negative reputation created by the so-called 'new atheists'.

New Atheists

The term 'new atheists' refers to high profile antitheists – famous writers who actively oppose theism, working to promote the removal of religion from legislature and public institutions. New atheists such as Richard Dawkins6, Sam Harris7 and Christopher Hitchens8 regularly go on the offensive, ridiculing religious beliefs using a variety of logic-based arguments. There are thus two slants to atheism – negative atheism, which demands an end to a religion, and positive atheism, which seeks to prove that atheists can be moral creatures who can get on with those who are religious and embrace the one life they have. Despite the fact that many atheists tend towards the positive structure, the new atheists' perhaps-well-meant attempts to popularise atheism have given it a reputation for being negative, thus breeding atheophobia.

Nihilistic Views

It is a common misconception that atheists hold an utterly nihilistic viewpoint, are cynical about everything in life and believe that all actions are equally right and wrong. This idea makes atheism very unattractive, and would seem to have been perpetuated by atheophobes in order to devalue the atheistic way of life. It should be noted that a lack of belief in a god does not preclude a belief in aliens, soulmates, human kindness and so forth, nor does it stand in the way of moral values.

Lack of Moral Values

The claim that religion is a necessary pre-requisite for a moral society has long been used by atheophobes as a way of making others think that atheists are in some way lesser people. Some atheophobes simplify the matter by rudely comparing all atheists to Stalin or Hitler; however, the real matter centres on the comparison between absolute and relative moral systems:

  • Religions endorse moral absolutism, a system whereby humankind is provided with rules that must always be obeyed regardless of the situation. The rules are ranked according to importance so that a given situation will always have a right and wrong answer.

  • Atheists follow a system of moral relativism, whereby moral absolutes are absent. Instead, good and bad are relative terms that are defined by humans for themselves, with popular moral values slowly changing according to the current moral zeitgeist.

The main criticism of a relative moral system is that humans are incapable of defining right and wrong, and that absolutism is the one true source of human morality. The corollary of this is that atheists are less moral than religious individuals. This idea is widespread and is a source of much atheophobia in religious countries such as the USA9.

One argument against this idea is the fact that religious individuals are known to pick and choose which moral values they take from their texts, with Christians ignoring parts of the Old Testament that dictate what would today be seen as immoral practices. While it is encouraging that religions have gradually altered their moral practices in order to keep up with the moral zeitgeist, it is also an indication that religious texts are not the root of moral values, but have instead borrowed popular morals from the time at which they were written. Meanwhile, it should be noted that humanists (see below) maintain that they are capable of determining their own moral values without the help of a supernatural being.

Declining Religiousness

Church leaders often express concerns over waning religiousness of the UK population, complaining that there is a growing spiritual crisis, a lack of moral direction from the government and a general lack of national identity. Secular atheists are often blamed for the demise of the UK's churches, which may in actual fact be due to a decline in regular church attendance. A report by the Church of England in June 2008 called for a Minister for Religion and an increase in recognition of the church – this gives an indication that the drop in interest is a major issue for them.

Attempts to 'Ban Christmas'

When Birmingham City Council introduced 'Winterval' in 1998, there was an outcry from church leaders claiming that it was an attempt by atheists to 'ban Christmas'. The idea behind Winterval was to provide a season-long, multi-faith festival centred on Christmas; however, both the name and concept were ridiculed, and stories have appeared in the media every Christmas since claiming that atheists are trying to destroy Christmas, one step at a time.

These stories form part of a more general matter popularly referred to as 'political correctness gone mad', whereby terms that are in any way likely to offend are banned by nervous leaders and politicians. Examples include Christmas cards that avoid using the word 'Christmas', primary schools that have decided not to hold a nativity play, and councils that have continuously agonised over which religious festivals they should mention in their magazines, lest some part of their borough be offended.

Despite ten years of such wrangling, Christmas still continues to exist and is enjoyed by a large number of people each year. Many of those people are in fact atheists, with one Richard Dawkins being particularly notable for his love of Christmas carols. Meanwhile, a number of assaults on the modern Christmas come from Christians themselves, some of whom complain that the holiday has become too commercial and secularised. One particular issue is the attempt to ban so-called 'Santa stamps'. Although the Royal Mail made a point of alternating between religious and secular stamps each Christmas, religious officials complained about the lack of religious stamps in 2004 and 2006 and 'welcomed' the religious stamps in 2005 and 2007. In the end, the Royal Mail got fed up and produced two sets of stamps for 2008.

Legislature Against Atheophobia

In the UK, Acts of Parliament exists to protect both atheists and religious individuals from discrimination. The Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003 state that discrimination against workers on the basis of their religion or belief is unlawful. Meanwhile, the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 defines religious hatred as 'hatred against a group of persons defined by reference to religious belief or lack of religious belief', and has made stirring up religious hatred and possession of inflammatory material into legal offences.

Attempts to Counter Atheophobia

  • The Brights movement is an American website founded in 2003, using the term 'bright' to refer to the part of the population that hold a naturalistic world-view, as opposed to the 'supers' who believe in a supernatural being. The intention was to create an Internet 'constituency' with the ability to reduce atheophobia through positive campaigning. At the time of writing, the movement consists of more than 40,000 Brights – the capital 'B' indicates active involvement in the movement as opposed to the general definition implied by the lower case 'bright'. The term 'bright' has been criticised by some prominent atheists, who feel the term implies that atheists are more intelligent than religious individuals.

  • The Out Campaign was launched by Richard Dawkins in 2007 in an effort to get closet atheists to 'come out'. The campaign also encourages atheists to spread a positive image of atheism, to speak out against stereotypes and to raise the visibility of atheism by wearing a supposedly-subtle 'scarlet A'. While the campaign is slowly gaining ground in the USA, it has been pointed out that the 'scarlet letter' used by the campaign was originally used as a mark of adultery in the book of the same name.

  • Humanists view the world based on what is really there and hold a positive outlook on life in which humans can gain and share knowledge and moral values without the help of a supernatural being. The British Humanist Association provides non-religious ceremonies for all non-believers, and is the sort of organisation that helps promote positive atheism.

1A diplomatic representative of the Pope – in other words, a high rank in the Catholic church.2This punishment followed the practice of wearing a sackcloth and ashes during Lent.3To affirm means to make a pledge without taking a religious oath.4The TUPE, or Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment), Regulations protect an employee's terms and conditions of business when their post is transferred to another company as part of a deal.5A campaign to put the slogan 'There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.' on the sides of buses from the beginning of 2009.6Both a British evolutionary biologist and a prolific author.7American writer and author of 'Letter to a Christian Nation'.8A British journalist, critic and author with American citizenship.9A study in 2003 found that 40% of the US population deeply distrust atheists, making them the most distrusted minority in the USA.

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