Frank Furedi posted another screed against atheism, well “so-called New [Atheism]” earlier this month. It’s not hard to demolish, so I’m not going to deconstruct it line by line, but seriously Mr Furedi, next time try actually providing some examples of what you are talking about instead of emotional arguments. It’s not like he’s your every-day pundit either, he’s a former Professor of Sociology at the University of Kent in Caterbury, so he should at the very least be able to quantify his arguments.
I was on the edge of a conversation the other day in which one person asked why atheists target Christianity specifically (there was more to the conversation, but this is the bit I want to focus on). The answer is quite simple, well the answers, because there are several simple points, which I can easily address.
Yes, this post will focus on Australia, because that’s where I live and I can draw a bow to other English speaking, Western nations (such as the UK, Ireland, Canada, and the USA, because there are some ways in which we’re all similar).
The majority of Australians are Christian
Sadly, 64% of Australians identify at Christian (2006 census), and around 20% identifying with no religion. So with that in mind, many people who are leaving a faith are more likely to be leaving Christianity than other religions – that’s just maths. This also translates across to other English speaking, Western nations, where Christianity is the religion of the majority.
Christianity has it’s major religious feast days recognised as public holidays, having government funding delivered to private schools – mostly Christian, and the default assumption is that you are Christian (particularly if you are also white). There are no social penalties for being Christian and in fact many people assume that everyone else knows about Christianity – which takes my to my next point.
Christianity is an accessible religion in Australia
If the majority of Australians are Christian, and the Special Religious Instruction/Education in schools is Christian, and the default assumption is that everyone is Christian, then Christianity is the easiest religion to critique – because it is all over the place, loudly claiming to be persecuted because some of the privilege formally given to Christianity is slowly being chipped away (fault free divorces, abortion rights for women, the demand that public education be religion free, etc), and because there are less Christian people about the place. Also if many new non-believers are formally Christians, then it’s easiest to critique what you know.
Christianity is overwhelmingly white
Christianity is the default religion of the white-Anglo Australian. If your circle of friends and acquaintances, and the blogs you read reflect the dominant voice, then your exposure to non-white atheism, and non-Christian focused atheism is going to be lessened. That said, even non-white, non-formally-Christian atheists in Australia may write on Christianity because it is the majority religion in Australia and is easier to critique given its privilege and number of arsehats involved (who do stupid things in public).
So, it’s not that atheists particularly hate Christianity (except where Christianity attempts to enforce its religious strictures on our lives), but rather it’s the biggest target. And not all atheists are former Christians, but many white atheists are. If your circle of friends is limited, perhaps consider reading outside your sphere to find different stories and different points of view.
When I read or hear something, particularly someone’s opinions about a subject, I try and apply it to my own experience and see if it fits. When something doesn’t fit in within my experience its harder to understand the concept… maybe I’m simplifying things here, but having experience of something, positive or negative, or even just because its nearby and not something I’ve directly experienced, makes it easier to identify, positively or negatively with an opinion or experience of someone else.
I used to interview people seeking asylum in Australia and am used to having to understand situations far beyond my experience and knowledge. I have had to consider trauma, torture, gross discrimination and abuse in relation to people sitting in front of me that I barely know and who have gone through situations I can barely imagine. So, I do get that I have not lived a life full of everyone’s experiences, and nor would I want to.
But when I see a nation, that for all intents and purposes appears to be like my own country (Australia), specifically the US, I think that perhaps things should be relatively similar. Because they purport to be on TV and other media. With one HUGE exception… religion.
I spend quite a lot of time reading atheist blogs all of which are based in the US. I read about their desire for community, discussions about who is representing atheism and how, what atheism is, and how to make a stand for their beliefs (or lack of them depending on how you look at it) without losing family, friends or their jobs.
Big parts of these blogs don’t resonate with me, and I’ve been trying to put my finger on it, and finally did when I stumbled across an article in the free newspaper that is available each weekday evening at train stations in Melbourne.
Before I announce my revelation (which is in the title anyway), I do want to state that I am by no means dismissing the experience of atheists in the US or any other devoutly religious country and the experiences they have to go through to hold their heartfelt beliefs. This post is about my experiences and how they differ from atheists in the US.
Anyway… back to my thoughts and revelation. Australia is an incredibly secular country. In fact we’ve voted in a Prime Minister who was atheist, as well as other politicans and we clearly didn’t mind. Sure we have religious whack jobs in Australia who attempt at various times to gain political power, but they tend not to gain an amount that threatens the secular nature of the country and often the next political party to gain power distances themselves from the religious whack jobs. I’m specifically thinking of the Exclusive Breathren an Pastor Danny Nalliah as the two biggest, and yet still very uninfluential, religious whack jobs that have attempted to gain some political leverage recently.
According to census data, thankfully provided in nice graphical form by Wikipedia (go on, click the link and read the article), Australia may be as much as 30% non-believers or atheists. In the 2006 census, 18.7% of people indicated that they had no religion and a further 11.9% of people did not answer the religious question (it was optional), which is where the 30% figure comes from. As “Australia the Confusing Country” written by Jeremy Lee attests, “Religion and politics are safe topics of conversation (Australians don’t care too much about either) but sport is a minefield.”
The Wikipedia article previously cited also states:
- Although many Australians identify themselves as religious, the majority consider religion the least important aspect of their lives when compared with family, partners, work and career, leisure time and politics. This is reflected in Australia’s church attendance rates, which are among the lowest in the world and in continuing decline
- In a 2008 global Gallup poll, nearly 70% of Australians stated religion as having no importance, much higher than their American counterparts, and on par with similarly secular countries such as Japan, the Netherlands, Finland, and France. Only a few Scandinavian countries (Norway, Sweden, Denmark) and post-Soviet states (Estonia) are markedly less religious.
- The Sydney Morning Herald, an Australian newspaper with a centrist viewpoint, asked its readers “Would the world be better off without religion?”. 81% responded in the affirmative (April 2009)
- A 2006 study by Monash University, the Australian Catholic University and the Christian Research Association found that 52 per cent of Australians born between 1976 and 1990 have no belief in a God.
- A 2008 Christian Science Monitor survey of 17 countries reported that youth from Australia and the United Kingdom were the least likely to observe religious practice or see any “spiritual dimension” to life.
So I get that Australia is far, far, far more secular than the United States. So much of the struggle that American atheists go through is not something that atheists in Australia even have to think about. There many be family issues for some atheists if they are coming from devoutly religious families, but generally the issues for American atheists are far different than those of Australian atheists. This is why I struggle to identify with issues raised by US atheists on blogs at times, because I’m living in a vastly more secular world.