Jack Barton: Do I dare be an Atheist, out loud?

FAR away from quiet Aberystwyth in my even quieter hometown, I have a close circle of friends who are exclusively atheist. This must be borne purely of coincidence because I certainly never made a conscious decision to seek out friends who had religious sensibilities aligned with my own, and I still do not; there are corners of the world where particular religious moorings or lack thereof do determine communities and social circles, and I’m happy not to live in any of those corners.

However, upon arriving at University I quickly realised that religious friends were to become a fact of life. In my previous experience, church-going had been the domain of a dwindling crop of elderly folk, the only demographic to be roused on a Sunday morning, attending the church under the suspicion that they really just wanted to get out of the house.

But suddenly I could no longer make the assumption that people my age, friends, would be unaffected by the kind of casual atheistic sentiment that certain nonbelievers like myself are prone to voice.  More than that, I could deeply offend someone in the vicinity with an observation that would not raise eyebrows between us heretics.

The risk of causing offence has often triggered torturously cautious conversations that start with me saying something like “Ah, but what I mean by that is…”    I shudder to think of the pretences I’ve entered into in order to skirt around insensitive remarks I’ve made, but I shudder all the more when I hear that most puerile and paltry stance of theists and atheists alike: that we should “respect people’s beliefs”.

I fall at this hurdle. It’s not that I aim to annoy worshippers, or that I value my religious friends any less; Richard Dawkins (whom I deeply admire) has not inspired me to protest prayer meetings and I don’t assume any moral or intellectual superiority over believers. (Incidentally, if it seems like I’m focusing on Christians it’s because that group forms the vast majority of my religious interactions, although my feelings on the subject extend to any religious, mystical or superstitious beliefs.)

My problem with the ‘respect’ theory is that the respect I do or do not feel for something is beyond my control; I don’t choose to respect Richard Dawkins any more than I choose not to respect Simon Cowell, but it happens that while Dawkins fulfils my criteria by being an insightful and passionate scientist, Cowell misses the mark by being a exploitative and shameless prat.

Obviously religious beliefs do not meet my criteria either; if I thought they were really credible I would join a church, but I don’t and so, I’m an atheist.

I feel it’s time for a disambiguation, before anyone accuses me of contradicting myself with regards to the value I place on religious friends; people deserve our respect, so long as they have earnt it by being decent people. Likewise, their right to have religious beliefs deserves our respect because we live in an age when personal freedoms are highly valued. None of us want to be told what to think.

So there is the distinction. If you are religious I’ll respect you, provided you’re a good person and not a murderer or anything similarly sinister. If you’re religious I will respect your right to belief because I won’t be told what’s what either. But if you’re religious I won’t respect your beliefs. I can’t. They seem absurd to me and I won’t do either of us the disservice of pretending otherwise; why should my relationship with god-fearing friends labour under the illusion that we all basically agree?