Absence of belief is not the be-all and end-all

Charles 10 Comments



In an article in the Telegraph, atheist Brendan O’Neill asks:

When did atheists become so teeth-gratingly annoying? Surely non-believers in God weren’t always the colossal pains in the collective backside that they are today? Surely there was a time when you could say to someone “I am an atheist” without them instantly assuming you were a smug, self-righteous loather of dumb hicks given to making pseudo-clever statements like, “Well, Leviticus also frowns upon having unkempt hair, did you know that?” Things are now so bad that I tend to keep my atheism to myself, and instead mumble something about being a very lapsed Catholic if I’m put on the spot, for fear that uttering the A-word will make people think I’m a Dawkins drone with a mammoth superiority complex and a hives-like allergy to nurses wearing crucifixes.

What’s gone wrong with atheism? The problem isn’t atheism itself, of course, which is just non-belief, a nothing, a lack of something. Rather it is the transformation of this nothing into an identity, into the basis of one’s outlook on life, which gives rise to today’s monumentally annoying atheism. The problem with today’s campaigning atheists is that they have turned their absence of belief in God into the be-all and end-all of their personality. Which is bizarre. Atheism merely signals what you don’t believe in, not what you do believe in. It’s a negative. And therefore, basing your entire worldview on it is bound to generate immense amounts of negativity. Where earlier generations of the Godless viewed their atheism as a pretty minor part of their personality, or at most as the starting point of their broader identity as socialists or humanists or whatever, today’s ostentatiously Godless folk constantly declare “I am an atheist!” as if that tells you everything you need to know about a person, when it doesn’t.

It’s O’Neill’s conclusion that is especially relevant to atheist funerals: 

Today’s atheism-as-identity is really about absolving oneself of the tough task of explaining what one is for, what one loves, what one has faith in, in favour of the far easier and fun pastime of saying what one is against and what one hates. An identity based on a nothing will inevitably be a quite hostile identity, sometimes viciously so, particularly towards opposite identities that are based on a something. 

The BHA seems to have largely absorbed this message in its definition of its Humanist Ceremonies™. The Scottish humanists prefers a more hectoring tone, quoting journalist Reg McKay:  “Don’t you just hate it when a funeral seems to be all God and Jesus and sod all about your good pal? The Humanist Society of Scotland provides people just for this purpose. Called celebrants, they’ll whoop up the deceased’s life, not mourn it. That’s for me.”


Please note that here at the GFG we now post most of our stuff on Facebook these days. If you want to spice your day with newsy snippets from our web-harvesting team, make your way over to https://www.facebook.com/GoodFuneralGuide and Like us. 


  1. Charles

    Interesting and valuable things here from Brendan O’Neil; witless nonsense from Reg McKay. So every family wants a funeral in which whooping it up is to be expected? Fatuous polarisation between mourning and whooping. An undertaker I greatly respected said after a ceremony recently: “Tears and laughter, both; that’s when we know we’ve done our job.”

    Charles, please don’t desert your excellent blog completely – though I appreciate you are very busy just now. I don’t like Facebook much; I find it a horrid, spluttery interface with all sorts of junk on it, not well suited to lengthier thinkings such as Richard’s excellent Victorianisms here recently. We’ve had a lot of wonderful things on here that aren’t newsy snippets, and are not a matter of “Like” or not.

    Just a personal preference, of course, but I doubt it’s a unique view!

    1. Charles

      Well, hear! hear! to ‘Dislike’ facebook, Mr/Ms/Mrs/Miss Mundi, can’t abide its gratuitous nonsense and it’s no place for sensible debate about good funerals. Bah!

      As for atheists, just because you smoke doesn’t make me a non-smoker, or because you eat dead animals doesn’t make me a vegeatrian. Far too much is made of Not-something here. Atheists, there’s probably no god AND not no god, so just go down the pub where at least there’s not no alcohol.

  2. Charles

    Bravo, Brendan O’Neill, an atheist who believes in free speech, as opposed to doublespeak that replaces clarity with confusion.

    ‘Tolerance’ once meant living peaceably with those who might disagree. Now it’s used to criticise those with firm beliefs. This is faux equality as it aims to silence those who are not morally relativist, which has ironically become a conviction in itself.

    ‘Personal liberty’ continues the point. Unless it’s harnessed to personal responsibility, it’s mere self-fulfilment. Just as children help adults grow up and out of themselves, virtues such as industriousness, sacrifice and community spirit make personal liberty valuable. Note how unfashionable those words have become: virtue, sacrifice…

    It’s a shame the ideals of humanism and liberalism are threatened by shrill illiberalism, and the meaning of words are being distorted as a consequence.

  3. Charles

    Jonathan and GM, your very great antipathy towards Facebook is noted. Our business consultant advised us to broaden our agendas and engage in outreach to new audiences, stakeholders and partners by working across sectors and communities of interest in a multi-disciplinary way with Facebook constituting an integral part of this. Five grand, that cost us.

    Posting blogs is a lot more time-intensive but, yes, perhaps the time has come to bring death back in-house.

    Thank you for speaking up.

  4. Charles

    I hear the sound, from RR this morning, of nails being deftly clouted right on the head. It is a puzzle to me why some people who in various ways could be described as “liberals” are so illiberal – anxiety? Laziness? Even when materially they have so much, relatively speaking. An old friend of mine who is an atheist finds religion puzzling, so rather than attacking it, he is setting out to explore it, via e.g. a book on very early Christianity. I don’t think he’s a moral relativist, at least in the social and political sphere, because of his Marxist/socialist background and ideals, but he is in general a very tolerant man. (Though I’m afraid he draws the line at the present goverrnment…)

    If I might be so bold as to suggest to Webmeister Charles, without whom etc., that his policy of reducing the number of posts – was it about a year ago? – and concentrating on more occasional and substantial postings worked very well. I’m sure Facebook has a role in the Deathly Empire, but Jonathan and myself, and I hope others, wouldn’t want the blog to disappear into the Fcbk, that’s all.

    1. Charles

      I love your ‘Fck-bk’ GM, to misquote you!

      As for ” broadenour agendasandengageinoutreachtonewaudiencesstakeholdersandpartnersbyworkingacrosssectorsandcommunitiesofnterestinamultidisciplinarywaywithFacebookconstitutinganintegralpartofthis”… all I can say is oh! how I lament the demise of Sir Ernest Gowers!

    2. Charles

      GM, it’s understandable that your atheist, socialist pal draws the line at the present government: the Cameron/Clegg Coalition is hardly inspiring for those of us whose views tend to be a mix of small ‘c’ conservatism and libertarianism.

      Labour/Tory, Atheist/Theist and even secular/religious funeralist, many driven individuals refuse to be simply defined, realising there are many nuances to ideologies.

      I’m no moral relativist either but the libertarian v conservatism conflict certainly keeps me vexed. While free speech is a given on either side, other areas are hazy. Military intervention in foreign countries: sometimes or never? More immigration control or more freedom of movement? Government incentivising virtue or intruding in private life? Etc.

  5. Charles

    Well, if we all need to find out more about the beliefs we don’t share – & I think it’s a great idea – I’d quite like more believers to find out about atheism, please. (I do know quite a lot about Christianity & a bit about some other faiths). I don’t agree that atheism simply a negative. To me, saying I don’t believe in god is the beginning. What follows is that I think this life is all we’ve got so we’d better get on with it; that we have to rely on ourselves to shape our destiny; & so on.

  6. Charles

    ‘Religion. It has given people hope in a world torn apart by religion’.

    As an isolated soundbite attributed to a famous name on Wikiquotes, it gives one that frisson of recognition we give to clever quips. Ah, nice irony there. True too on both counts. Religion has indeed given people strength when they’re persecuted by people of another faith. And religious convictions certainly do lead people to be cruel and destructive.

    But dissect the line for a moment, and you might conclude that religion itself surely doesn’t make war, people do. What should be peaceful faith in a perfect loving God is perverted by flawed mankind.

    How about changing the soundbite to, ‘Religion. It has given people hope in a world torn apart by atheism’. Also true of people of faith in atheist regimes, whether Soviet Russia, China and North Korea.

    Let’s change the quote a bit more. ‘Atheism. It has given people hope in a world torn apart by religion’. True again? Do atheists gain comfort from the hope that the world would be in safer hands without religious people? Would universal atheism make for a better world? The Soviet experiment implies otherwise.

    But again, just as we shouldn’t judge religion itself by man’s behaviour, we shouldn’t judge atheism itself by crimes by atheists. Osama bin Laden or Stalin don’t represent theism and atheism. Atheism is just a belief in no deity and theism is just a belief in deity. People of either persuasion can be good or bad. Not all atheists live by the highest ideals of humanist ethics and not all theists live by the purest doctrines of their religion.

    Now let’s change the original quote again to, ‘Atheism. It has given people hope in a world torn apart by atheism’. Does this ring true?

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