Wednesday, 6 August 2014

The Right to be Wrong Part 2: Stuck in the Middle With You

It would be easy to get the impression from this blog that I get all my news from the BBC.  Well, that’s pretty much the case, except when I go on Russia Today to get the opposite side of the story, and become slightly frightened.  This week the BBC website had a story about atheists in the United States, and the fact that (according to the story) they are effectively an oppressed minority in some parts.

A couple of posts ago, I was defending the right of more traditional Christians to hold and act on their beliefs in the face of secular society.  This time, I will be upholding the right of atheists to hold and act on their lack of belief in the face of religious society.  It is the problem (and, in some ways I suppose the privilege) of being a wishy-washy medium-liberal moderate.  I sit in the middle, arguing the cause of one end to the other and vice-versa, with “why can’t we all just get along?” as my plaintive refrain.

In the increasingly secular (and increasingly vocally so) UK, the concept that atheists might be oppressed for their lack of belief might seem strange, at least outside of certain Middle Eastern or African fundamentalist Muslim countries.  Although officially religion and politics are mixed here, with bishops in the House of Lords and an Established Church, in reality they very rarely come into contact.  “We don’t do God” is the famous quote from the Blair administration (which is ironic seeing as he’s quite a staunch Catholic nowadays).  Recently Mr. Cameron said a few things about faith, and having confidence in being Christian and, while they were appreciated, caused quite a lot of uncomfortable shuffling even amongst many Christians.  Similarly, British patriotism tends to be of a quiet and understated sort, except for the Last Night of the Proms, which is the only socially acceptable occasion in which one is allowed to get noisy and enthusiastic about it.  In this country, being overly enthusiastic about religion, especially for a politician is simply not done.

Our colonial cousins on the other hands expect their politicians to be openly and vocally religious.  According to the story linked to above, there is not a single openly atheist politician in the US.  This seems bizarre to me, since in the UK, while I assume that most politicians are atheist, or at best agnostic, very few of them are openly Christian (except, one might hope, for the Bishops who are only politicians, at least public politicians, part time).  In our increasingly secular society, the idea of ‘coming out’ and admitting your atheism seems strange, since it (or perhaps a vague unconscious agnosticism) is generally seen as the default position unless otherwise stated.  It is a bigger step to ‘admit’ to people that you’re religious.  The fact that by stating their unbelief, people in (parts, at least, of) America face ostracism or outright abuse seems incredible.

It need not be said that I think that atheists are mistaken, and I would like to be able to convince them of that if I were capable, but as I have said in that earlier post, what is far more important than being right is the right to be wrong.  It can be easy sometimes to forget that the vast majority of atheists are not of the loud, aggressive and mocking Dawkinsian school, and that indeed most are of the quiet, live-and-let-live type, who simply want to be able to believe what they want, and get on with their lives.

If I go through that article and replace the word ‘atheist’ with ‘Christian’, it immediately becomes even more offensive to me, although of course it shouldn’t.  Ultimately, if I want the right to believe what I want and not be ashamed of it, the right to be able to say what I want and have no-one try and shut me up, then I need to be equally rigorous in upholding that right in others; those whose beliefs are opposed to my own, those whose beliefs are offensive to me, and even those who believe that I should not have the rights that I will fight for them to enjoy.

Ultimately, as Someone once said, “Do unto others, as you would have them do unto you.”  And, perhaps even more pertinently, “Love those who hate you, bless those who curse you.”

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