frontline volume 2, issue 6. March 2008

Beyond Belief – a new approach to Atheism

With debate about religion seldom out of the headlines Nick McKerrell asks if it is time for atheists to stand up and be counted.

Atheism has gone through a bit of a renaissance in the last few years. This may seem counter-intuitive with the growth of religious fundamentalism across the planet which have taken on an increasing political role – be it Christian fundamentalism in America or Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East and Africa. Yet dotted around best seller lists there have been an increasing number of texts promoting a response to religiosity and its political voice.

Success of Dawkins

Leading the charge has been evolutionary scientist Richard Dawkins whose “God Delusion” has sold 1.5 million copies across the planet and been translated into 31 languages. This is even before it went into paperback in the States. Previously fairly obscure philosophical writings on the topic have been revised and re-published. As a result Dawkins himself has become a hate-figure for the religious right and as a side issue creating a cottage industry in anti-Dawkins’ books.1

Dawkins himself puts the reluctant agreement of his publishers to unleash the text down to “4 years of Bush” 2. Yet despite this explicitly political dimension to his polemic many of the left have not fully participated in the atheism v religion debate.
It is also true that perhaps this debate has not touched the vast majority of the world – but it is just the current dinner party conversation or does it touch on something more fundamental.

In fact some have argued that the debate is essentially irrelevant for socialists. Mark Steel, a comedian and until recently a member of the SWP, in his Independent column attacked “militant atheists” as “being smug and superior” and removed from ordinary people. Using the example of modern Islam he states that this has developed from anti-imperialism and hence should be engaged with and not be aggressively confronted3.

SSP Experience

I have helped facilitate discussions on this topics at a number of SSP branches and start every one with the question: “Should this branch discuss atheism?” Up until now the result of this has been positive. But it is not a facile question given the development of the party

The SSP as a political project had the aim of uniting the left in a pluralist organisation. Thus in terms of theoretical debates there was emphasis on the points that united rather than focus on largely abstract d