This arose from an article in last week’s New Scientist titled Thou shalt believe – or not by Jonathan Lanman (26 March 2011, pp.38-9). Lanman lectures at the school of anthropology and Keble College, Oxford University. He’s giving a talk, entitled Atheism Explained, at St. Mary’s University College Twickenham, UK on 5 April (a couple of days away).
Lanman spent 2008 studying atheism in US, UK, Denmark and online. As a result of his research, Lanman made a distinction between what he calls ‘non-theism’ and ‘strong atheism’, whereby non-theists are effectively agnostic – they don’t really care – and strong atheists vigorously oppose religious belief on moral and political grounds. He found a curious correlation. In countries that are strongly and overtly religious, strong atheism is more predominate, whereas in countries like Sweden, where religion is not so strong, the converse is true. In his own words, there is a negative correlation between strong atheism and non-theism.
I live in Australia where there is a pervasive I-don’t-care attitude towards religious belief, so we are closer to the Swedish model than the American one. In fact, when I visited America a decade ago (both pre and post 911, as well as during) I would say the biggest difference between Australian and American culture is in religion. I spent a lot of time in Texas, where it was almost a culture shock. My experience with the blogosphere has only reinforced that impression.
What is obvious is that where religion takes on a political face then opposition is inevitable. In Australian politics there are all sorts of religious flavours amongst individual politicians, but they rarely become an issue. This wasn’t the case a couple of generations ago when there was a Protestant/Catholic divide through the entire country that started with education and permeated every community, including the small country town where I grew up. That all changed in the 1960s, and, with few exceptions, no one who remembers it wants to revisit it.
Now there is a greater mix of religions than ever, and the philosophy is largely live and let live. Even as a child, religion was seen as something deeply personal and intimate that wasn’t invaded or even shared, and that’s an attitude I’ve kept to this day. Religion, to me, is part of someone’s inner world, totally subjective, influenced by culture, yes, but ultimately personal and unique to the individual.
If people can’t joke about religion in the same way we joke about nationality, or if they feel the need to defend their beliefs in blood, then they are taking their religion too seriously. Even some atheists, in my view, take religion too seriously, when they fail, or refuse, to distinguish between secular adherents to a faith and fundamentalists. If we want to live together, then we can’t take religion too seriously no matter what one’s personal beliefs may be.