Saturday, July 31

Atheist is a four letter word

"I think this is absolutely disgusting. It is wholly inappropriate to promote religion in a public library. We do not pay our taxes to have this derisive, evil and destructive rubbish rammed down our throats."
Young Christian painting. A self-confessed agnostic wrote the above in an exhibition guest book at Bristol public Library. The Exhibition, isay:usay:wesay, was put together by young Christians and Muslims, expressing their faith through paintings which they discussed with each other to see what their religions share.

The paintings are largely harmless, symbolic paintings, with religious symbols, such as the cross, or the dove, or words of arabic used to represent beliefs and feelings.

There was a guestbook by the exhibition for the visitors to give their opinions. It was full of meaningless praise, as the British are inclined to give, until the comment above. Then the equivalent of a handwritten flame war began.

People were offended that someone had dared to voice these thoughts in writing. They called the commenter 'an absolute disgrace!!!' and told them to 'Go home and be quiet like a good atheist'  'An absolute disgrace!!!' And so it goes on for the rest of the guestbook. People criticise the writer for questioning the rights of religion and throw in the occasional insult for good measure.
Religious backlash against atheist comment
I don't agree with the original comment. The library is a place of learning, a place of thousands of opinions waiting to be read and understood, and an exhibition about two faiths getting to know more about each other is a display that belongs there. Rather than ramming religion down our throats it was an exhibition about understanding other faiths, and about training our children to think of other point of views. It was education in art form.

But the response to their comment scares me. Would the replies had been so vitriolic if the commenter had mentioned politics instead of religion? Almost certainly not. For a country that is largely considered Secular, openly questioning religion still causes offence, and 'Atheist' is still used like a four-letter word. The UK may not be so welcoming to atheists as I thought, maybe even less welcoming than we were 20 years ago. The stigma is so strong that the original commenter felt the need to deny any association with Atheism. They were 'Agnostic.' And agnosticism is the default, and therefore safe, position in the UK.
If religion is going to cause this much debate every time it is aired somewhere publicly then it should be done as often as possible. But we need atheists who can fight against it with charm and skill and make the word 'Atheist' a positive one, rather than link it to anger and hate talk. Because, to my surprise, it seems that atheists in the UK are still largely unaccepted.

What do you think? I'd love to hear your opinions in the comments. Maybe I'm reading too much into one guestbook. Or maybe I'm idealist and the situation is worse than I think!

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