Talk given to the Atheist Society, Melbourne, on 8 October 2013.
Thank you for coming to hear me this evening.
In recent years we have heard or read complaints in the media about Christianophobia and Islamophobia, so I think it is time to give some consideration to atheism and atheophobia.
Last month I had the pleasure of listening to Dr John Perkins’s talk on “Secularism and the Scourge of Relativism”. I enjoyed hearing him scourging academic post-modernist verbiage, to which he clearly has a deep antipathy, and so do I! I have resisted the temptation to copy his title and change mine to “Atheism and the Scourge of Atheophobia”, if only for pedantic reasons. The word scourge often has connotations of punishment, and I think atheophobia is more of a nuisance or a plague.
Those of you who have heard me speak on the subject previously will know that I mean by atheism disbelief in deities in general, and in particular lack of belief in the deity of the Abrahamic religions, God with a capital G, also known as Jehovah, Yahweh and Allah. In the simplest terms, an atheist is someone who, when asked “Do you believe in God?” says no.
By atheophobia I mean fear or dislike of atheism or atheists. One obvious source of atheophobia is theistic religions such as Christianity and Islam. Atheism rejects the basic supernatural tenets of these faiths and, by implication, threatens the credibility and therefore the social and political power and privileges of their leaders and institutions. Authoritarian ideologies do not like opinions such as atheism because they see atheism as a threat to the acceptance of obedience and groveldom. Do I need to remind you that the word Islam means “submission”?
Christian writers and preachers in the nineteenth century occasionally claimed that atheism led to immorality or suicide. In the twentieth century the British campaigner against the permissive society and smut on television, Mary Whitehouse, bracketed together “the propaganda of disbelief, doubt and dirt . . . promiscuity, infidelity and drinking”. With time and practice she developed almost supernatural powers for spotting indelicacy, indecency and double entendres where mere mortals failed abysmally to do so. She is indelibly linked in my memory with a seemingly harmless pop song, “My Ding-a-Ling”!
Atheophobia may occasionally come from non-believers who, for a variety of reasons, are embarrassed by or ashamed of their non-belief and do not wish to be associated with people who are frank or outspoken about it. They are similar in some ways to people who are ashamed of strands of their ancestry or of some feature over which they have no control, like hair colour or the accent of their speech. And I am probably telling you the obvious in emphasising that shame of this nature can become a destructive form of self-loathing.
Another source of atheophobia comes from people who might be described, and sometimes describe themselves, as “cultural Christians”. Their beliefs in the basic tenets of Christianity are usually tenuous, but they are social conservatives and feel that mainstream Christianity helps to safeguard and preserve the status quo, including keeping women, children, blue-collar workers and the unemployed in their place. They therefore support institutional Christianity and its privileges, and tend to regard atheists as vulgar stirrers, conceited intellectuals, naïve do-gooders or threats to old traditions, hallowed élitism and sacred abuses. There is often, but not always, an anti-intellectual streak in atheophobia.
Atheophobia has never, I think, been as venomous or harmfully vicious as anti-Semitism. Atheists have not been subjected to lying rumours of the sort that Jews kidnapped and killed Christian children to put their blood into matzos, but this does not mean that atheophobia should be ignored.
There are no overt atheists in Iran, for example: those who have not fled the country have been rounded up and put to death. And being a known atheist would be distinctly unhealthy for a citizen of the Maldives, Pakistan, or Saudi Arabia, and a bit risky in Indonesia and Malaysia.
Those of you who come to these meetings regularly may remember that in August 2012 my old friend Rosslyn Ives gave a talk here on “Is Atheism Culturally Weak?”. You did not need the intellect of Einstein to predict that Rosslyn would answer yes to this question, and would go on to contrast the alleged weakness of atheism with the superiority of humanism, as she is a very hard working and active member of the Humanist Society of Victoria and the Council of Australian Humanist Societies.
Indeed, for several decades — in fact almost half a century — I have heard occasional humanist writers and orators claiming that modern humanism is, for one reason or another, superior to “arid” rationalism, “old-fashioned” secularism, and “negative” atheism.
The trouble with this sort of puffing and comparison is that someone else can just as easily find faults with humanism and say, for example, that it is too human-centred and ignores other areas of life we should be seriously concerned about. Back in the 1980s, if I remember correctly, a leading Victorian humanist told me that, in his opinion, animal rights and welfare had little or nothing to do with humanism. I do not think any humanist would be so rash as to say that today, particularly if Professor Peter Singer were in earshot! Humanists would probably not be pleased by a talk with a title like “Can a Humanist Be a Botanist or Veterinary Surgeon?” And, yes, the question is based on blatantly false assumptions.
During her talk Rosslyn remarked: “We live among millions of people who call themselves Christians and who act to reinforce cultural expressions. And even though adherence has weakened, particularly compared to the pre-1960s, Christianity is still strongly present in today’s Australian society.” I do not think anyone would disagree vehemently with that.
Then Rosslyn said: “By contrast, where are the cultural expressions or representations of atheism, outside of people calling themselves atheists? There are a few bits here and there such as characters in fiction: novels, films and plays. But there are no atheist holidays, no identifiable atheist buildings, schools, not a lot of specifically atheist music or art, nor are there atheist ceremonies and rituals. Atheism seems to me to consist primarily of attacking belief in god and religion.”
Rosslyn Ives is entitled to this impression, but I do not share it. For the cultural expressions of atheism I can think of the voluminous writings of the Scottish philosopher David Hume and the English philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell. In France there was the Encyclopaedia (Encyclopédie), published between 1751 and 1772, and edited by the atheist Denis Diderot. It recorded the views of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, and many of its contributors were atheists or deists.
Some of the nineteenth-century atheists claimed that their activities had brought about the decline in popularity of the Christian doctrine of Hell. I think there were also other reasons, but the old atheists may well have had a point. Joseph Symes made such a claim in verse, in “Hell Past and Present”.1 It is rather long, so I will give you just a sample of it:
The very priests and parsons
Are now ashamed to tell
Their ancient fibs and stories
Of their goings on in Hell!
Ah! yes, the fires are out, Boys!
No spark of them remains;
Gone are the iron roasters,
The adamantine chains;
The forks and horrid ladles,
The gridirons hot and dire,
The brimstone and the blazes,
The bastes of liquid fire!
And let me add, in closing
This just and joyous boast,
That we who rid the nations
Of bugbears, gods and ghosts —
However much our gospel
May give the godly pain —
No honest man can tell us
That we have lived in vain!
As for atheism consisting “primarily of attacking belief in god and religion”, well, in the real world atheists do not have to concentrate on attacking belief in god, though they are entitled to do so if they wish. As for attacking religion, are we talking about private or public religious beliefs, about religion in general, or particular religions, such as Christianity and Islam? It was understandable for Shelley to write “Earth groans beneath religion’s iron age” (Queen Mab, vii: 44) using religion as a near-synonym of the various brands of Christianity and possibly Islam. But today, with rapid, world-wide communications and multicultural societies, we should remember that there are many religions, and not just Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Also, not all religions are primarily about belief in a god or deities: Buddhism is more about principles and practice.
People are entitled to private religious beliefs and other opinions, however strange, and criticising such people without provocation can amount to bad manners, intolerance or even intimidation and bullying. But there is a case at times for attacking the institutions and evangelists of mainstream Christianity and Islam, as the Bible and Koran often regard atheism and atheists with clear contempt, and some Christians and Muslims also indulge in, or attempt to indulge in, triumphalism, such as demanding public money for their sectarian schools, their own religious courts, or imposing prayers on essentially secular functions such as meetings of parliaments or local councils.
From the Koran we have warnings such as: “For the unbelievers We have prepared fetters and chains, and a blazing fire”.2 “Prophet, make war on the unbelievers and the hypocrites and deal sternly with them. Hell shall be their home, evil their fate”.3 “Thus, if he is favoured, his lot will be repose and plenty and a garden of delights. If he is one of those on the right hand he will be greeted with ‘Peace be to you!’ by those on the right hand. But if he is an erring disbeliever his welcome will be scalding water and he will burn in Hell”.4 The message seems to be: believe or else!
From the Old Testament we have the almost quoted-to-death “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God” (Psalm 14: 1; Psalm 53:1). And one of my favourite gems from the so-called New Testament is the following: “For I say unto you, That unto every one which hath shall be given; and from him that hath not, even that he hath shall be taken away from him. But those mine enemies, which would not that I should reign over them, bring hither, and slay them before me” (Luke 19: 26 & 27). So much for the Prince of Peace!
On the other hand, I have yet to hear atheists inveighing against animists, Quakers, Jains or Unitarians, as these religions do not normally threaten other people. By the same token, it would surely be remiss, to put it mildly, of atheists not to condemn belief in witchcraft and black magic, when in Africa and Papua New Guinea people, often women and children, are being tortured and killed because they are thought to be witches or possessed by witchcraft. And other people, like albinos, are murdered in Africa because their body parts are thought to have magical properties.
In Uganda today fundamentalist Christian missionaries from North America are preaching hatred of homosexuals and are inciting their followers to demand the death penalty for homosexual behaviour.
You will also be familiar with reports that the Catholic Church has opposed the use of condoms both for contraceptive purposes and for reducing the spread of the H.I.V. virus, even in Africa, where AIDS is still a very serious problem.
At the same time, aggressive religions such as right-wing Christianity and Islam encourage the notion of “Go forth and multiply” at a time when human over-population is a serious but little regarded problem. Continual population growth with or without economic growth is a long-term recipe for suffering and disaster.
In developed counties the birth rate has declined as women are educated, reasonably secure and expect good standards of maternal and child health care. In poor areas things are very different. It is patronising and insulting to tell desperately poor couples to have fewer children when they expect most of the children they produce to die in infancy. Lowering the birth rate needs to go hand in hand with promoting better living conditions.
The population of Africa is at present about 1,033 million; but according to a recent press report by Mike Pflanz5, at the present rate of increase, by 2050 Africa will have 2,400 million people. I suspect that, before this level is reached, Africa will have lost its elephants, rhinos, gorillas, bonobos, chimpanzees and almost all of its rainforests, leaving a trail of failed states and desperate, hungry people fighting over dwindling resources.
We cannot go on for ever concreting over this planet and replacing forests with monocultures and grazing for cattle. But in the United States, ultra-conservative Christians regard any concern for the environment with contempt: as pagan nature worship. They think that God will always provide — at least for the Elect.
And the Elect, of course, usually patriarchal men, have no qualms about producing large families as a way of promoting their status and egos. Many of them believe in the “prosperity gospel”, that wealth is a sign of divine approval for what they believe and do.
Rosslyn referred to “no identifiable atheist buildings” or schools, well, do we really want atheist hospitals or universities, staffed by atheists only for atheists? The last thing most thoughtful atheists want is a confessional state or society, with public and other services divided and duplicated on sectarian and ideological lines. I spent ten frustrating and miserable years in Christian schools; I can assure you I do not want a bad parody of these, a school indoctrinating children in atheism and treating as pariahs any who do not accept it.
The trouble with Rosslyn’s talk about atheism and cultural strength lay, in my opinion, in its basic assumption. For example, I very much doubt that you would take me seriously if I gave a talk on “Is Not Collecting Stamps a Satisfying Hobby?”. Not collecting stamps is indeed a most unsatisfying hobby, but only because not collecting stamps is not a hobby at all. The question is based on a false assumption: a category mistake.
Rosslyn Ives also said, apparently in all seriousness, “For atheism to develop into a worldview, atheists need to articulate a range of attitudes for living and put in place some cultural practices, maybe even a few rituals and ceremonies that would give atheism more cultural depth.”
Now I am the last to deny that many people like ancient cultural practices, and feel a sense of connectedness through them, even if some of the practices to me seem barbarous, such as animal sacrifices, circumcision, female genital mutilation and symbolic cannibalism. But there are also people who do not care for ceremonies and rituals, including religious people. Think of the Quakers, who like simplicity and dislike ceremonial, extravagance and pomp. Yes, the Quakers are culturally a minute minority, but they have played a valuable part in history, particularly in the struggle against slavery. Millions of people are impressed by Catholic baroque churches; I find them extravagant and gaudy, just as I am turned off by the repetitive, smiling triumphalism of communist “social realist” art and the rigid athleticism, menacing militarism or happy kitsch of Nazi art.
Atheism is an opinion about an existential matter: the negative answer to whether or not we think a god, goddess or gods exist. It is not — I repeat: it is not — an ideology, like anarchism, aristocracy, Christianity, communism, Confucianism, democracy, fascism, imperialism, nationalism or socialism. An ideology is usually a cluster of attitudes, opinions and beliefs which, taken together, form the basis of a psychological, economic or political theory or offer a style or framework for living, either individually or socially. Ideologies can be culturally strong or weak, but believing just in a deity of your own, with unknown properties, in other words unadorned deism or naked theism, is remotely unlikely to make for cultural strength. Most religions involve much more than mere belief in a supernatural process, like reincarnation, or in entities like angels, gods and demons: the theistic ones have detailed ideas about what the deity has done and still does, and what the deity thinks about human conduct; and they usually have conditions about what you must assent to or do to join, how you should behave towards other members of the faith, especially its leaders, and sometimes how you should treat outsiders and non-members.
There has been an attempt of sorts to turn atheism into an ideology, and it should serve as an awful warning about how not to go about things.
I refer to the late Madalyn Murray O’Hair, founder of American Atheists Incorporated. (Some of you are displaying its web address on your windcheaters.) Born in 1919, she was a strident, combative and, to many of her followers, charismatic woman, qualities that might have stood her in good stead, but I suspect she was also a disturbed egomaniac. Under her control American Atheists became a gruesome parody or analogue of a fundamentalist sect, with uncritical obedience of The Leader and even occasional purges. Reading her magazine used to make me cringe. You will not be surprised to know that she had a dim view of agnostics and humanists. When she visited Melbourne in January 1982 I was invited to meet her, and I had the sense to refuse. Atheists who criticised her, like the American rationalist Dr. Gordon Stein and the anarchist freethinker Fred Woodworth, were denounced by the “true believers”. I remember a well-known British freethinker, who should have known much, much better, telling me “Oh, people are against her only because she’s a woman!” This was utter nonsense.
Those of us who were here in May 2013 will remember Roger Boyce’s most illuminating talk on Christian Science and that religion’s dictatorial founder, Mary Baker Eddy. Some, but not all, of Mrs Eddy’s character flaws immediately brought someone else to my mind: Doctor — as she liked to be called — O’Hair!
And in case any of you are wondering, she was awarded her doctorate by a diploma mill, the Minnesota Institute of Philosophy, run by her friend Garry De Young (1923 – 2002), who called on me once, at my office in London in 1972, when I was editing The Freethinker.
Madalyn Murray O’Hair’s career ended in tragedy in 1995 when she, her younger son Garth Murray and a young granddaughter, Robin Murray O’Hair, were murdered by a seedy employee of hers, David Roland Waters, who already had convictions for violence, with the help of two accomplices, one of whom was later murdered as well. None of the O’Hairs deserved to die in this way, least of all Robin, who was only 30.6
O’Hair is survived by her elder son, William J. Murray III, aged 66 — almost 67. He is a writer, conservative lobbyist and Baptist minister.
In any case, in the real world there must be very few atheists who decide not to have an opinion, preference, belief or view about any other matter. The vast majority of atheists are, I suggest, adherents to the notion of democracy, at the local, national or international level or levels; and they often advocate the concept of secularism, the separation of government and civil administration from institutional or organised religious beliefs, doctrines and opinions, on the grounds that a secular state tries or should try to treat its citizens without favour or penalty regarding their views about religious matters. And I suspect that a large majority of the sort of atheists who support democracy and secularism would also call themselves secular humanists.
There are also people who are essentially non-joiners. They usually have a wide, strong and satisfying network of family ties, and for them family, friends, neighbours and sometimes work or gardening are enough. Many people, though I am not one of them, find that sport satisfies many of their social and emotional needs, particularly the need for a semi-tribal loyalty. Indeed, sport in some countries has been described as a quasi-religion. It has even been combined with a religion in the nineteenth-century middle-class ideology of “muscular Christianity”, which lasted well into my lifetime and reminded me of fascism.
One of the things that worried me about Rosslyn Ives’s talk was the following: “To examine religion as a cultural pattern we need to put aside whether it is true and treat it like art and music. Just like we don’t usually ask of these are they true but rather do they move you?”
Quite apart from the fact that there are many religions, not just one religion with a few minor, unimportant variations, would you take this statement seriously if it were applied to other “world views”? Nazism and communism come to mind. They appealed to and moved millions, but should we seriously ignore Nazism’s notions of a master race and untermenschen; or communism’s advocacy of the dictatorship of the proletariat, when “proletariat” really meant a clique of ruthless party faithful? I sincerely hope not.
And while we are on the subject, where did Nazism get its hatred of the Jews from? Nazism did not invent this: it was able to tap into centuries of toxic Christian anti-Semitism.
Hinduism has hundreds of millions of followers, often desperately poor people who gain comfort from it. Its devotees have included the charismatic and courageous Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, who was also influenced by the Jain concept of ahmisa, “harmlessness”, in formulating his programme of non-violence, only to be assassinated in 1948 by a Hindu neo-fascist. But part of the historical legacy of Hinduism is the caste system which, over the centuries, has limited and blighted the lives of hundreds of millions of people who were classed as untouchables, or Dalits, as they are called today. Despite laws against caste distinction, today in rural India people are still being beaten up, raped or murdered for transgressing caste boundaries.
Patriarchal, authoritarian religions are often a useful means of keeping women under the subjection of their fathers or husbands. And “the will of God” is often a useful domestic tool in the hands of domineering parents or a political bludgeon for theocratic bullies and control freaks.
As far as I am concerned, the thing that matters most about atheism is its truth or falsity. If it is false, it should be discarded. I have never been happy with the sort of ethically dubious pragmatism that accepts “useful” lies.
I would like to put it to you this evening that atheism matters because it is true: is a reasonably accurate comprehension of the world and universe in which we live. And if it is true and accurate, then various things may follow.
The most important thing about atheism, for me, is that, if the gods and goddesses do not exist, then it is also highly likely that the supernatural in general and magic and miracles in particular do not exist or happen. If magic exists, then anything, however absurd or illogical, can happen at any time, and we live in a cognitively chaotic environment in which, unless we can in some way harness or appease the magic, or we are on good terms with someone else who can, we are helpless. But if magic is absent, then we have a feasible and reasonable chance of getting to know what is going on around us and how things behave. We will not be able to know everything, as the human mind has its limits, but we may be able to gain cumulatively better understanding and therefore improved control of our lives. And what I am alluding to lies at the heart or basis of the scientific method: using a combination of observations and measurements, combined with logic, reason and imagination, to understand more about the processes going on around us and within us.
What struck me as especially strange, or perhaps significant, was the timing of Rosslyn’s talk, coming as it did after a period of unprecedented growth of the Atheist Foundation of Australia and two hugely successful International Atheist Conventions in Melbourne, the largest freethought gatherings in Australian history. The first one attracted about two thousand people, and the second one roughly four thousand. If this is cultural weakness, a lot of us, I think, would like more of it! The talk was also given only about a year after the Humanist Society of South Australia had been wound up because of a lack of people to serve on its committee. I was dismayed by this news, as Adelaide had lost a platform and social network for local freethinkers; so was the Atheist Foundation of Australia, which had its base in South Australia at that time, and gave the demise of the state’s Humanist Society a sympathetic report in its magazine, the Australian Atheist. Fortunately the Humanist Society of South Australia was revived in early 2013, and I hope it will thrive.
I have mentioned the Global Atheist Conventions. I attended the first one; and David Nicholls and Lee Holmes of the Atheist Foundation kindly gave me a D.V.D. of the second convention. I have been listening to and watching it from time to time, and I was struck by a remark made by one of the opening speakers, Leslie Cannold: “We live in a soft theocracy!” I sympathise with her feelings. Although Australia’s constitution prohibits the establishment of a particular religion, and bans religious tests for a holder of any public office, Australia does not have separation of state and religions. During the past 35 years government after government has given more and more funding and subsidies to private schools, some of them very wealthy indeed, and nearly all of which imbue education with sectarian indoctrination. Serious atheists need to bear this in mind and, where necessary, should forge alliances with religious people who want a secular state on the grounds that it provides the best protection for people of any religion and none.
This brings me to another reason for my subject. The September-October 2012 issue (number 35) of the Australian Atheist carried an article on “Beyond Atheism?” by Cliff Willard. And in this he wrote: “I’m all in favour of ‘strong’ atheism as opposed to ‘weak’ atheism, which appears to me to be little different from being a non-believer. Fine, it’s great to be a non-believer, but this is not a philosophy as such and does not require to be backed by rational argument the way atheism does.”
As you might expect by now, I regarded this as nonsense twice over, or bunkum with bells on. In a reply to the Australian Atheist I said:
If by non-believer Cliff [Willard] means a non-believer in deities, then the statement is just a category mistake. A non-believer in gods and goddesses is an atheist, and tags like “weak” or “strong” are irrelevant.
. . .
Being a “non-believer” or an atheist may not be “a philosophy as such”, but it is still a philosophical (or existential) opinion or position. By “a philosophy as such” I suspect that Cliff means an ideology or world-view, in other words a group or parcel of philosophical opinions or beliefs which together give guidelines for living and ethical decision making. Atheism can be part of such a group.
Neither atheism nor non-belief “require” to be backed up by rational argument — nor does theism or belief in flying saucers — but it is prudent for people who champion atheism (as true) and the rights of atheists to offer reasons why atheism makes more sense than supernaturalism or magic.
And I went on to write:
If atheism matters, it is because it is a more accurate reflection of reality than theism and magic; and categorising atheism as “strong” or “weak” is a bit like saying someone is “a little bit pregnant”.
What matters is that atheists are honest about their atheism, and rid themselves of — and stand up against — cultural atheophobia, such as the bleat that atheism is “negative”. (So is not having dementia.) Being an atheist is no more shameful than having freckles, red hair, dark skin or Ruritanian ancestry.
However, there is, as you all realise, a difference between being an atheist or a theist on the one hand, and, on the other, having freckles or red hair. We cannot help being born with a particular hair, eye or skin colour, but we can choose whether to be a theist or atheist. I am neither ashamed nor excessively proud of having blue eyes, but I suggest that it would be ethically reprehensible of me if I looked down upon other people just because they had brown eyes.
Now I realise that we are all, to varying degrees, affected or conditioned by the culture into which we are born. Some people are by temperament conformists, and accept all or nearly all of the values and precepts of their parents and grandparents. Others, for a variety of reasons, are nonconformists, and reject some or almost all of what was presented to them as children. I am a case in point, yet I retain a middle-class English accent and, like my Anglican, Tory paternal grandmother, have a strong sense of duty and public service — which is why I am standing here, holding forth and making you yawn today!
Why does atheophobia matter? Essentially because it makes or tries to make the presentation and acceptance of atheism harder. It also serves efforts to marginalise atheists and relegate them to the position of second-class citizens: people whose uncouth opinions should be neither seen in print nor heard elsewhere! This is why I feel that atheism should have a voice or, better, voices, and that atheists must no longer be second-class citizens.
When non-Christians such as secular humanists make disparaging comments about atheism, they are unlikely to impress people like me, who advocate atheism on grounds of truth. Yes, the odd nervous Nelly may join a humanist society in the hope that it will steer clear of the embarrassing, negative, ugly and vulgar A-word. But nervous Nellies are not the people who give freethought organisations stability or loyalty. Criticising atheism may give slight comfort to some theist propagandists who can trot out remarks like: Look, even humanists do not think atheism is satisfying or useful. Well, atheism is not so culturally weak that this will cause it to collapse in a horrible heap!
The long-term result of trying to compare atheism unfavourably with humanism is that it may make humanists look smug and pretentious, “culturally stronger than thou” — rather like English middle-class Anglicans in the Christian spectrum. Serious atheists will become wary of organised humanism, and secular humanist groups will be the poorer for this. I have been actively involved, on and off, in humanist groups for almost fifty years, and I would not like to see humanist societies become just a refuge for dwindling numbers of middle-aged to elderly, well-educated, articulate, self-satisfied middle-class ladies and gentlemen.
Some of you may remember that, in a talk on “What Atheism Means to Me and What It Does Not Mean”, given here in July 2012, I said I suspected that, “although Christian triumphalism may not have made cowards of us all, it made many people timid and wary of admitting that they did not share the beliefs of the majority, particularly if they were also the beliefs of the ruling and employing classes.” And I added: “One of the tasks of atheist, freethought, humanist, rationalist and secularist organisations is, I submit, to help people overcome the remains of this cultural and philosophical cringe that still makes some people embarrassed about declaring that they are not believers.” These words bear repeating this evening.
The freethought movement has a number of important jobs to do. These include: giving a public voice or voices to the non-religious and safeguarding their civil liberties; putting isolated freethinkers in touch with people of a like mind; resisting demands by religious lobbies for public money for sectarian schools and religious indoctrination classes; and resisting calls for religious beliefs and dogmas to be legally protected from criticism. I am sure there are others. This work can best be done by careful, thoughtful cooperation, and not wasting time on internal ideological point scoring. Sectarianism should be left where it belongs: to religious sects.
Atheists do not have to accept, and even less spread, caricature definitions and depictions of atheism made up mainly by the enemies of atheism and opponents of atheists. Atheists should not be conceited, élitist or overbearing about their atheism, but they should be honest about it and they have a duty to defend and explain atheism if they have the opportunity, the time and the talents to do so.
1 The Liberator, Melbourne, 3 February 1894: 6554 – 6555.
2 The Koran; translated by N. J. Dawood (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, revised edn., 1961 imp.), “Man” (ch. 76): 18.
3 “Prohibition” (ch. 66): .
4 “That Which Is Coming” (ch. 56): 109 – 110.
5 The Age, Melbourne, 16 Sept. 2013: 15 (reprinted from the Telegraph, London)
6 See Anne Rowe Seaman, 2005; America’s Most Hated Woman: The life and gruesome death of Madalyn Murray O’Hair (New York: Continuum); and Barbara Smoker, 2007; “Madalyn: ‘The Most Hated Woman in America’”; Ethical Record (London), March: 2 – 6; April: 8 – 12. (The second part contains a good account of the murders.)
I am once again grateful to Dr Sabine Apel and Halina Strnad for looking over the earlier drafts of this talk.
Sunshine West, Vic., Australia.