Zoe Williams says that if you place religious belief on the human rights agenda then you have to allow atheism equal weight (Comment, 15 January). It would be better to simply place “religious belief or non-belief” on the agenda. This is because the term “atheist” is freighted with much excess baggage as in the Northern Irish joke: “But are you a Catholic atheist or a Protestant atheist?” What if the asylum seeker in question had pleaded his agnosticism or secularism or humanism? I gave up my belief in pixies and Father Christmas some time ago but that does not make me a positive non-believer in them, possibly with an axe to grind. They are simply not part of my worldview and nor is belief in a deity. The US is by far the most religious western country and yet it maintains a strict separation of church and state where public education is concerned. I wish we did the same.
Some stridently pro-atheism books have appeared in recent years but this can lead to polarisation. The best book I have come across is The Book of Atheist Spirituality by the French philosopher André Comte-Sponville. It is a gentle, good-humoured book which points out that a number of eastern religions have spiritual beliefs without requiring the existence of deity or deities.
Zoe Williams laments that atheists do not organise, but nor do Santa deniers. I belonged to a humanitarian group set up by religious people because what the group did was needed and had nothing directly to do with religion. We can work together for the common good while maintaining diametrically opposed views, we don’t need to set up atheist alternatives to everything. This does not stop us from fighting for a totally secular education system (and for the abolition of private education) with whatever appropriate pressure groups.
• Perhaps in order to get more attention from “people of faith”, we atheists need a version of atheism that is clearly a rational development and improvement over traditional faiths. The traditional God needs to be cut in half. On the one hand, there is the God of cosmic power, Einstein’s God, the underlying unity in the physical universe that determines all that goes on, omnipotent, eternal, omnipresent, but an It, so such that we can forgive it all the terrible things It does. On the other hand, there is the God of cosmic value, all that is of value associated with our human world and the world of sentient life more generally. Having cut the traditional God in two in this way, the problem then is to see how the two halves can be put together again. That is our fundamental problem, of thought and life: How can all that is of value associated with our human world exist and best flourish embedded as it is in the physical universe?
Emeritus reader, department of science and technology studies, University College London
• It narks me too that the voice of active unbelievers is treated as irrelevant. Recently, apropos of what I don’t remember, a woman I know looked me in the eye and said: “We are all God’s children.” I was dying to say, “I wouldn’t presume to tell you you’re a grown-up and you should take responsibility for yourself”, for fear I might seem rude. Therein lies the rub. Atheists don’t want that weird certainty over the big questions and answers. I really don’t give a toss what happened before the big bang. My own preoccupation is how on earth we are going to take care of our planet because, sure as anything, God is not a bit bothered about our potential destruction of it. Being an atheist is about taking responsibility for our own actions, putting our raison d’être inside not outside. We have every right to have the same courtesy extended to us as I extend to people of faith.
• Zoe Williams’ quote from Richard Dawkins, “there is no such thing as a Muslim baby”, is reminiscent of the words of Lalon Shah (1774-1890), a Bengali mystic, philosopher and songwriter who rejected all distinctions of caste and creed and wrote in a song well-known to many Bengali people: “Do you bear the sign of caste or creed when you come into this world or when you leave it?”
Origional Post here: http://www.theguardian.com/theguardian/2014/jan/17/what-purpose-organised-atheism