F 1 D 0 - 2003 12 28 at 1400

Bring on the Atheism.


Adjust your window to a comfortable reading width. Article has been edited slightly from the original.

It's time, as a wise, marginally white man with a peculiar knack for the internal rhyme once said, to clean out our closets. While Canadians still overwhelmingly identify themselves as Roman Catholic or Protestant -- 72 per cent of the population in 2001 -- statistics indicate a trend towards people identifying themselves as irreligious (atheists, agnostics, humanists or people who indicate they have "no religion"). A generation ago, fewer than 1 per cent of the population had either renounced religion or had yet to find it; this had jumped to 12 per cent by 1991, and 16 per cent by 2001, bringing the total to 4.8 million non-believers in Canada -- more than double the combined numbers of self-identified Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs living in the country.

Other religions get their fair (or sometimes unfair) share of play, but when's the last time you heard a report on the meteoric rise of atheism, especially among the young? Forget those charismatic Christian sects that supposedly have youngsters in their thrall -- almost 40 per cent of non-believers are 24 and under, making atheism the hipster faith-no-more of choice.

Yet very few of the irreligious are standing up to proclaim the sanctity of their beliefs; our national anthem continues to plead for God to save our land. Why are the belief systems of 4.8 million Canadians so easily dismissed? Old prejudices, particularly about agnostics, remain -- irreligiousness is seen less as a positive choice and more of a cop-out from someone who hasn't made up his or her mind yet. One of the most common charges levelled against atheists is that, without Allah or Jehovah or L Ron Hubbard to impose an external set of values, people will run amok, selfishly indulging their every desire with no regard for others. Somehow, believing in even the oddest set of ridiculous beliefs is seen as more worthy of respect than believing in justice, wisdom, the scientific method, the Hegelian dialectic, democracy and beauty, but nothing supernatural.

Besides, the whole no-atheists-in-the-foxholes rhetoric that is accepted in our culture ignores the higher moral standing of those who refuse to attribute all that is good and just to some external and probably imaginary entity. The humanist or atheist insists that what is good is good in essence, not good because some arbitrary supernatural ruler dictates that it be so. Upstanding irreligious folk act out of a genuine concern for themselves and the world around them, not because they fearfully or selfishly seek divine rewards. When looking at a world in need of fixing, they plead with themselves and their fellow humans to roll up their sleeves.

Of course, there's a cultural element to which box you tick on the census form: Catholics, mindful of a mental image of Sister Mary of the Divine Rod of the Perpetually Culpable from the fourth grade, hesitate to forswear the One Holy Church completely; bacon-eating, atheist Jews still have their sons circumcised and, when push comes to shove, stand up and are counted among the Chosen People.

But identification as a cultural Catholic isn't the same as being a believer, and perhaps it's time census forms began reflecting this crucial difference. And maybe it's also time principled non-believers began to develop a culture of their own. For instance, there are a whole heap of celebrities -- Woody Allen, Bjork and David Cronenberg, to name a few -- who have publicly come out of the godless closet. Unbelievers can also claim two unlikely patron saints: John Lennon (whose song "Imagine" is an excellent candidate for something to sing at the end of the non-believer's Sunday morning gathering) and Bob Geldof. Despite their irreligiousness -- or perhaps because of it -- both men had a powerful sense of social justice. So many of the common objections to issues like gay marriage and abortion rights are completely predicated on religion -- all reasonable discussion is expected to cease at the mention of the Bible, as if morality were dependent on a magic man in the sky and not purely human things like reason and conscience (the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, right? Bad thinkers! Bad!). We are expected to bow down before the divinely written Word, even when that Word famously contradicts itself.

While it's true that Western society rests on a solid Judeo-Christian foundation, the ground floor of our edifice is filled with goodies like skepticism, science, rational thought and humanism untempered by the supernatural. Nietzsche's declaration of the death of god is as much a part of the Western tradition as Constantine's suspiciously strategic conversion to Christianity.

In this season of joy, when the Christian faithful gather and god's love is in the air, take a moment to reflect upon your true level of belief. Do you genuinely believe there is an intelligence -- we're not talking about things like The Universe here -- that created, guides and judges you? Do you really? Or are you a closet atheist? It's OK, come on out. We won't hurt you. And neither will that bolt of lightning. Really. See now, isn't that nice?


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