Atheist Birthday Cake

Ophelia Benson

I’ve been unusually steeped in the history of atheism and freethought in the United States and the United Kingdom recently. Barry Duke, the editor of the UK magazine The Freethinker, sent me a history of the magazine published in 1982 to mark its hundredth year of publication (Vision and Realism: A Hundred Years of The Freethinker by Jim Herrick). Reading it has been an exercise in “spot the similarities.” There’s this, for instance, about the founder G. W. Foote:

In criticising religion by ridicule and sarcasm, Foote was defying a longstanding taboo. He challenged the assumption, which even respectable agnostics held, that religious views should be treated with reverence. He sought to establish that religion is a social phenomenon which should be open to the same range of comment, from vigorous intellectual analysis to polemical jibes, as other aspects of human behaviour.

Really? I thought that idea was invented by the New Atheists.

I jest. I didn’t really; on the contrary, I’ve been wearily correcting that ridiculous journalistic clanger ever since The God Delusion hit bookstores. Of course the putative “new” atheists aren’t the first atheists to notice that religion gets enormous special deference or the first to argue that that arrangement needs to be altered. Nevertheless, there is a certain pleasure in seeing it spelled out in such familiar terms.

My history-immersion program didn’t stop there: I spent Easter weekend at the American Atheists’ fiftieth-anniversary convention, which as an anniversary naturally spent a good deal of time invoking The Ancestors. I enjoyed all that, but at the same time I kept wondering what took everyone so long and why there aren’t more of us, especially in the United States. (A. C. Grayling was there to remind us that atheism is far more taken for granted in the United Kingdom.) I keep wondering why humans are so docile when being told to obey an absent, unapparent, always-hidden god. I wonder why our flimflam-detection device doesn’t get tripped more easily.

It is one of our central talents, after all. It’s an engine of morality, a motivation for trying to figure out other minds, a payoff for having such an expensive, calorie-burning brain—it’s what we do. We have a powerful, hardwired dislike of being tricked and made a fool of. So why aren’t we more suspicious of priests?

It’s not that I don’t know the explanations—childhood indoctrination, hyperactive agency detection, consolation, community, structure, identity, a shortcut justification for morality, to name a few—it’s that I still don’t get it. That’s how it is with human oddities: they can’t be explained in the satisfying way that an earthquake can. They go on teasing and puzzling no matter how many explanations are offered. I don’t get why the human impulse to be antagonistic and rebellious and “you’re not the boss of me” doesn’t play more of a role.

Then again, maybe it does, and we just don’t know about it. If there were closeted atheists over the past twenty or thirty centuries, we wouldn’t know about them. There weren’t shops full of notebooks that secret atheists could purchase and leave a record in. We don’t even know how many secret atheists there are now, so we certainly don’t know how many there were in the past.

I think we haven’t put enough emphasis on the snake-oil aspect of religion. We should skip God and talk more about the clergy. Forget whether or not God exists; the point is, do you really trust these human beings to know what they’re talking about? Do you trust them to tell the truth? Are you really sure they’re not just running another racket, like Nigerian bank frauds, power bracelets, and detox socks?

Really: think about it. What do you suppose priests and mullahs learn during their vocational training? Do you think there’s some special node or sauce or widget that shows them that God exists? Do you think they’re inducted into a magic of some kind?

It seems unlikely, doesn’t it? Anybody who wants to (any male at least) can get such training. It’s just a job. If there were really some kind of secret magic that provided access to a really real god surely millions or billions of people would be taking the training.

No, it’s not that there’s magic or revelations. But then why do people believe what the clerics tell them?

There is one clear reason—it’s be­cause the people who wrote the holy books had the shrewdness to include the mandate to believe within the books. It’s because—unlike their opposite numbers, us—they have a person to believe in, to have faith in, to wound or betray or anger by not believing in. That’s a considerable tool for leverage right there. It makes belief seem like the safer option, as in Pascal’s Wager. It makes refusal to believe seem like a personal stab in the back. It’s a bit like the hesitation to leave a dreary party too early for fear of hurting the feelings of the host.

That’s one motivation that we really can’t compete with at all. We have no personal Ungod who will be crushed if we say no. We don’t include binding circular mandates in our books. We don’t command, and we don’t resort to emotional blackmail or threats. Those tricks are unavailable to us. We color within the lines, and the religious get to splash all over.

It’s a bind. Our whole point is to say look to the human—we’re all on the same level, and that’s all we have, so let’s unite to make life in this world better for all of us. Erecting an overlord figure to demand loyalty is just not an option, so we play this game with an enormous handicap.

The result is, so far at least, that our history is inspirational but very thinly populated.

Ophelia Benson

Ophelia Benson edits the Butterflies and Wheels website. She was formerly associate editor of Philosopher’s Magazine and has coauthored several books, including The Dictionary of Fashionable Nonsense (Souvenir Press, 2004), Why Truth Matters (Continuum Books, 2006), and Does God Hate Women? (Bloomsbury Academic, 2009).


I’ve been unusually steeped in the history of atheism and freethought in the United States and the United Kingdom recently. Barry Duke, the editor of the UK magazine The Freethinker, sent me a history of the magazine published in 1982 to mark its hundredth year of publication (Vision and Realism: A Hundred Years of The …

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