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I have run into a lot of atheists online who annoy the buggery out of me. Not all, of course, and I would never dream of assuming that a noisy minority should be taken as representative of an entire group. But enough to be worth posting about.

These particular atheists sometimes seem to me as if they are treating atheism as another religion, and a fundamentalist one at that. They're evangelical, uncompromising, feel free to treat anyone who disagrees them with enormous disrespect, and they have simply replaced God as an object of worship with Richard Dawkins. They talk of all "theists" as if they are idiots, sometimes as idiots who have not yet seen the light, and see no problem in being outrageously rude about the lot of them. It's the rudeness that gets me, as I happen to believe in treating other human beings with respect as a general principle. I think the thing which makes them closest to religious fundamentalists, however, is a tendency to massively oversimplify very complicated ideas.

In particular, they reduce the enormously complex social structure that is a religion to a single thing, belief in a deity. This is absolutely daft. Religions have a number of functions, including providing a community, a sense of identity, a way of forming social bonds such as marriage, a musical or literary culture, a legal system, a moral code, a way of finding personal peace or meditation, a way of dispensing social justice or charity, and last but not least, a culinary tradition (you can tell I was brought up in Judaism). Depending on the religion and the individual, faith may be a very big part of the religion, it may be small, or it may even be entirely absent. When I left my local Jewish community, everyone asked me why. I replied that I had realised that I am an atheist. Almost universally, this was met with bewilderment: why should it matter? Surely Judaism is primarily about community? And I really appreciated the community, that was the main thing which had kept me there when doubts were beginning to form, but for me, the belief-in-a-deity part of a religion was a key aspect, and it felt hypocritical to ignore that. Meanwhile, my best friend is a gay atheist Orthodox Jew, who goes to synagogue reasonably often and would never dream of missing a Jewish festival. I couldn't do it, but it works for him, and clearly the things which keep him in Judaism have nothing whatsoever to do with belief in a deity.

These fundamentalist atheists then object that it's not just about belief in a "sky fairy", but in a whole system of crazy beliefs tied to that. Again, this varies hugely. In some faiths, yes, it will be the main thing. In others, it may be almost entirely absent - Quakers seem to be a good example of this - or so old that it is more about ritual than reality, and rituals have a multitude of purposes for humans. I have never known anyone who lights the Chanukah candles because they are thinking about a real miracle where a day's worth of oil lasted for eight days. They are doing it because it's tradition, because it makes them feel joined to their community, because it's a fun holiday to celebrate with children, with games and presents and potato latkes, and because candles are pretty.

Most religions have been around for a long time, long enough for the context in which their holy books were written to be completely different to their life today, and the various religions have tackled this in different ways. Some things are left out - I don't think any modern faiths condone slavery, for instance - some are kept, and some are adapted in some way. There may be people who say that they interpret the Bible literally, but no one ever does. Language, especially translated language, is inherently, infinitely ambiguous; the Bible is an anthology which is often highly self-contradictory, for instance when the same events are recounted in three entirely different ways; and the literalists always decide that symbolism is more fun after all when they get to the Song of Songs, because otherwise it would just be a collection of some rather nice erotic poetry. I remember attending an erev Shabbat service where the rabbi gave us a scholarly, yet approachable sermon on the two different versions of the Flood in Genesis. He was very much treating the text as a literary one, but still as a source of religious inspiration, talking about what we could learn from it.

Now, I am not for a moment suggesting that all religions are nice and fluffy. While it is difficult to reduce any religion to a simple "good" or "bad", many of them do an awful lot of things which I don't like in the slightest. Even Liberal Judaism, which is generally pretty lovely, supports the practice of male genital mutilation (circumcision), which I regard as completely unethical. I have no hesitation in denouncing the sexism and homophobia common to many, if not most, religions. But I still see them within their social context, and do not assume that someone who happens to belong to a certain faith also happens to share every single statement which the leaders of that faith put out. Again, it's complicated. It's like living in a country. I was brought up in the UK, and in general I like it enough to stay put, and think that on balance, it does fairly well, and certainly better than a lot of the alternatives. But that doesn't mean that I agree with the appalling way asylum seekers and welfare benefits claimants are treated, nor that I am personally responsible for those problems. People who claim that someone should reject their entire religious cultural heritage because of one thing they don't like remind me of all the Americans who threatened to move to Canada if Bush got into power again, and who stayed put last I checked.

I've encountered plenty of idiots and downright bad people in my life. Some were attached to a religion, some weren't. The same is true of the many people I've encountered who are highly intelligent, thoughtful, compassionate. Don't make assumptions about entire groups of people based on one tiny thing which you think you know about them.


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January 2014

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