atheism: just not ‘cool’ enough today?

June 21, 2007 at 5:27 pm (atheism, community)

i was listening to a panel of speakers the other day at camp betty. it was called Barbarism Begins at Home, and whilst many interesting things were mentioned, and important issues raised, i found myself increasingly irritated by so many people’s lack of ability to talk about racism without making more generalisations. i think this is not a minor consideration, but a fundamental problem in how we deal with such issues.

unfortunately, due to the necessity of warmer clothing and my reliance on others in finding my way around, i couldn’t stay for the questions. on the way home, however, i thought more about another issue that had upset me. like the generalisations, i had sat there feeling irritated, but also feeling that i didn’t have the right to be. when i talked to others though, it came out as something important.

the second issue was with the very final statement of (i believe) Hegemony, Homonormativity and the ‘War on Terror’, which my memory has paraphrased as ‘maybe religious belief is the most radical thing left’.

i’ve heard this before. i’ve muttered about its obvious flaws of logic before. i’ve been scared that people actually seem to believe it before. there are some religious people you just can’t argue with, but when lefties and nonbelievers start saying things like this and expecting it to aid anti racism or religious tolerance, i start to get very uncomfortable.

i have two serious problems with this argument, as i have heard it previously. i wouldn’t want to make too many assumptions about this particular speaker, when i didn’t get to discuss it with him personally. the first problem is the smug belief of many people living within the bubble, that if something is not common within our little radical community, that actually makes it extra radical. i had trouble being accepted in the queer community when i had long hair. that is a serious problem, but it does not make my hair radical, even though hair does have the potential to be a radical issue. i felt marginalised when i lived in epping and nobody would come and visit, or help our campaigns at macquare because they said they needed a passport to get there, though i made the journey several times a week. maybe perservering with the losing battle at club mac could have been seen as radical; suburban living was just depressing. unusual does not mean radical, and we really don’t have enough hegemony to make something radical just because of its position within the bubble, when it is actually boringly common in the outside world.

i can understand that someone with a serious religious belief may also have difficulty fitting into the queer radical bubble of which i have become so fond since moving to newtown and achieving hair that gives out fewer wrong signals to this particular community. i sympathise, especially when that religion is one like islam, which is marginalised most places around here, not just in the queer community. though i’d like to think we’re better than some as we keep ourselves aware of the issues, there are certainly still many problems around inclusiveness which we need to keep dealing with. a difference, or a person, doesn’t need to be radical to deserve respect.

on to the second objection: i don’t want to rehash arguments against religion – there are many places you can read them, especially now we’re in a nice little nonbelief publishing boom. yes, religion tends to be heirarchical, patriarchal, warmongering, unprovable, incredible. what i want to know is why, when everyone knows these things, does noone stand up for atheism?

any left wing person, nonbelievers and religious people alike, can criticise the church. hillsong, opus dei, the mormons, jehovah’s witnesses, scientologists, catholics, anglicans, whichever form of orthodoxy they’ve even heard of. christian union, evangelical union, student life, css. the one one their neighbour adheres to, the one they were brought up with, the one they attend every week. the pope, pell, jensen, the archbishop of nigeria, fred nile, catholic labor parliamentarians, the liberals’ prayer group. conservatism, evangelicalism, evangelism, views on women, reproductive rights, discrimination loopholes, tax breaks. islam is a little tricky with all those issues relating to racism and imperialism, but we’re getting there now that spokespeople have been saying unfortunate things. in australia, judaism is fair game in some contexts, though in europe thoughtful people treat it just as carefully as islam.

why, then, don’t we stand up about our own fundamental beliefs about the world? there are stacks of atheists, agnostics, secular humanists, freethinkers, skeptics, rationalists, dissenters, deists, unitarians, pastafarians who profess to believe in the flying spaghetti monster, devotees of the invisible pink unicorn, adherents to jedi, even pagans, wiccans and satanists. almost anyone who identifies as any of these is a nonbeliever, or at least friendly.

phew! the rest of the argument needs more composition – not an easy question. watch out for the rest of the post!



  1. az said,

    Hiya… I found this blog pretty randomly through technorati and I don’t think I met you at CB, but my name’s Az and I was at that panel too. I wanted to respond, because in the question time someone did ask what Ibrahim meant. Maybe it would have clarified your concerns a little. I wouldn’t make the assumption that this particular speaker really lives in a queer activist bubble, at all. I took his point to be slightly rhetorical — when atheism doesn’t actually work as a defence against the state, then what other defences/attacking positions do people have available? His answer to the question about religion was something like this: “Well, my research respondents were mostly interested in arguing that within the history of Islam, there is a lot of room to move in terms of sexuality and gender, and they wanted to rehabilitate that version of Islam because it meant something to them, and is already within a cultural discourse they can communicate about within the spaces they inhabit. Merely being critical of religion per se is a privilege they might not have access to.” I’m probably misinterpreting what he said a bit, but I think it’s kind of important not to see that point as trendy radicalism.

  2. hanaleah said,

    hi az, yes we met – my name is kate.
    thanks for contextualising that comment, i’m really glad he had something worthwhile to say with it! if only all the other people i’m talking about also had good points.
    either way though, i still wish people wouldn’t use atheism to bounce other ideas off. maybe it’s a flattering assumption that atheism is strong, and atheists won’t be hurt by derisive comments, but it’s not true. now i just have to finish the post to explain it!

  3. Mr.Rocks said,


    I just want to make one observation. Atheism is a position from where we can’t discuss with believers. So every time we feel like we need to have some exchange with religious people, we’re forced to step down of our rational righteousness, accept their creed as a fair place to be, and try to work something out together. But I wouldn’t say that this makes religion lefty. No. Much on the contrary, every time we do it, it just makes us less radical, but a bit more palatable to everyone else and more accessible to interchange.

    Unfortunately, there’s no real middle place, I believe, between atheism and believing, except for people who don’t care, and hence won’t be willing to discuss those issues anyway. Our chosen interlocutors (for our atheist beliefs) will always be priests and the faithful followers. Hence the need some people feel (yuck) to boost them every time we want to include them.

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