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Can atheism be called a dangerous idea?

April 8, 2012

In 2009 I had the privilege of seeing Christopher Hitchens speak at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas in Sydney. Sadly, I won't be able to repeat the experience at the 2012 Global Atheist Convention. A question I have, though, is whether atheism can really be called a dangerous idea these days.

We are lucky in Australia that we can even talk about this. The people who drafted our Constitution were smart enough to ensure that we would not have an official religion, and this allows us to choose (within some limits) what we believe, how we go about believing it and who we can associate with to support our beliefs. It also gives us the right to have no religious beliefs at all and still be a fully paid-up citizen of the country.

It could even be the case that religious belief is gradually disappearing. In the 2006 census the religious group that grew the most in the previous five years was Hindu, but it was still a small number. The second largest growth was in people who specifically stated that they had no religion, and in total numbers this group was third after Catholics and Anglicans (and only a handful less than the Anglicans). If you assume that half the people who didn't answer the Religion question were also non-believers then Australia is looking like a very atheist country indeed.

There are two sorts of atheists and no, I am not making a distinction between agnostics and atheists. These days "agnostic" has lost its original meaning of skepticism or "don't know" and seems to have become some sort of wishy-washy "I'll wait and see". The two sorts of atheists are those who just get on with their lives without any need for a god and those who actively campaign against the idea of any god at all.

I'm actually an apatheist, as I don't know and I don't care whether there is a god or not. If there is a god out there somewhere he is undetectable, so I have no more need to believe in him, her or it than I have to believe in the famous Invisible Pink Unicorn or Bertrand Russell's celestial teapot. I don't need a god to explain the state of the universe, because science can do that. I don't need the threat of eternal damnation to make me behave myself, because common sense and decency do that.

This last idea, that religion is necessary to create and enforce a moral code, has always fascinated me. Do religious people really want to claim that the only thing stopping them from murder, rape, incest and theft is some vague promise of eternal pleasure if they don't do these things and eternal agony if they do? These believers must be very nasty people if it takes a threat like this to keep them under control.

If you want start commenting about how Hitler and Stalin were atheists and this is why they were evil (and I expect that people will make these claims) then I will simply offer a Torquemada or Osama bin Laden in return to show that atheism has no monopoly on evil. Oh, and Hitler wasn't an atheist, but that has never stopped believers using him as an example of how bad things can get if you don't slavishly follow a religion.

The recent phenomenal publishing success by openly atheist authors writing on the topic of the end of religion is quite encouraging. Authors such as Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Alain de Botton and Victor Stenger have at least got people thinking that there might be a rational alternative to the superstitious belief that there is some being out there somewhere controlling everything that happens. As I said at the start, perhaps the fact that publishers are prepared to distribute these books and the public is buying them by the truckload might suggest that atheism is not so dangerous an idea after all.

There are very many gods believed in by people across the world. Some people believe that there is only one god. I am unashamedly an atheist and the only way this makes me different from most believers is that I believe in one fewer god than they do.

[A version of this article was published on the Yahoo! 7 News Blog on September 29, 2009]

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