The name for not having a religion

I think I was fortunate in my ‘spiritual’ upbringing. My parents sent their children to a Congregational Sunday school, but they never showed any evidence of religious belief and I suspect that was mainly to get us from under their feet on Sunday morning. (This was in the days when children could be trusted to walk a couple of miles by themselves.) And, conveniently, we could collect the ice cream for Sunday lunch from the sweetshop on the way home. I can remember very little of the experience that had anything to do with religion, although I enjoyed the social side of it (including quizzes led by our young teacher instead of bible lessons!) and discussions on all sorts of things, including psychic phenomena and non-belief. I read plenty of books, including Bertrand Russell. I had a sort of kind of type of vague sixties view of a supernatural being until my late teens. And then it just went.

Before I went to University, I discovered the local Young Humanist group, and on going up I found that the university Humanist Group was one of the largest and most active student societies. It had a major speaker every week and a Sunday afternoon discussion. I even joined the committee for a while, although I drifted off as I followed other interests.

The issue came up a while ago as to whether I’m an “atheist”, but I don’t see any reason to call myself that. I don’t like the word. It’s defined by theists, to imply an opposition to their own point of view, regarded as some kind of standard. I simply don’t have a religion. My own lack of belief in any god or supernatural power is exactly the same as my lack of belief in fairies, tree-spirits, ghosts or interstellar teapots. What all these have in common (apart, perhaps, from the teapot) is that people have expressed a belief in them, without presenting any evidence at all. But I don’t call myself an ‘afairyist’ or ‘aghostist’.

There is always the possibility that there is some first cause, ground of existence, transcendent force, Supreme Being or what-have-you, but as it never seems to make its existence known by any effects in the real world I just remain ‘agnostic’ to it.

All the arguments for the existence of God, whatever their merit, are really irrelevant to the real world. People do not practice ‘faith’ or believe in ‘God’ – they practise specific religions, which make very specific assertions about what their god is and what he wants from humans: he was crucified and rose again, he wants you to fast every year and to pray five times a day, or not to work on a Saturday, and always to regard other religions as mistaken. As far as I know, no theologian has ever been able to make that leap by argument from ‘God’ to any specific god that people really believe in. There is only one argument that really matters in religion, and that is ‘my revelation (or my teacher’s revelation) is better than your revelation’. It is at root a remarkably self-centred attitude. I would like to think that one need not be concerned about convincing people to abandon their beliefs, only to convince them not to force the beliefs on other people. However, because of the nature of theistic belief, anyone who believes something different, even another theistic doctrine, will always be a threat and a source of ‘offence’.

In organised religion, this is backed up by force and ultimately violence: ‘God’ threatens retribution if you don’t behave as he wishes, but since he unaccountably fails to do this, it must be enforced by old men, often with beards. And, if that doesn’t work, the young men will come and get you on their behalf.

I guess that, like most people, I could describe myself using various terms. I don’t believe any ontological claim without good reason – that probably makes me a ‘sceptic’ (this is entirely different from denying that something exists, either without evidence or disregarding good evidence). My attitude to discovering what exists is both ‘critical rationalist’ (after Karl Popper) and ‘scientific’. To the (considerable) extent that religious people try to force their beliefs on others, I am a ‘secularist’, that is, someone who thinks that people should be entitled to their beliefs, but that no religion should be an organising principle for society.

It seems clear that the origin of moral beliefs is based on people’s shared humanity, with an innate core of (not necessarily consistent) emotional responses that originated from our evolution as a social species. These beliefs are modified and added to (and not infrequently perverted) by religion and culture. Equally it is possible to modify them and add to them through rational thought, based on what best benefits individuals, society and the wider environment on which we are all dependent. I’d call this a form of ‘humanism’.

Richard Burnham


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