What's the point of Atheism? That's the title of a panel discussion I'll be taking part in at this weekend's "Battle of Ideas" at the Barbican, organised by the Institute of Ideas. The blurb on the event's webpage asks "how relevant is [atheism] in a society where fewer and fewer people are being raised with a belief in gods which they can reject? Is it precisely the lack of an experience of this personal emancipation, or journey towards humanism and reason, that leads atheists instead to direct their hostility at religious believers and institutions?"
I'm sure the writer of these questions was trying to be provocative but I hope that he or she does not really believe that "coming out" as an atheist is no longer a big deal for anyone, that the journey to atheism is an easy one for all of us. I think there's a misconception held by many people that atheists are some kind of homogenous mass of cosy liberals with nothing better to do than casually adopt the latest identity fad so that they can go around feeling superior. But not all atheists are the same and, even in 21st century UK, being openly atheist is simply not an option for far too many of our fellow citizens.
Within a one mile radius of where I live in South-East London, there are numerous shops that have been converted into churches serving the local African and South American communities. There's even an old pub that's been converted into a mosque. Religion still plays a massive role in the lives of many of my neighbours and I see children all around me being raised to believe in the god of their parents. Like me, most of these people are immigrants, or the children of immigrants. Unlike me, religion remains central to their cultural life and therefore to their sense of identity. For the atheists among them, and I assure you they are there, it is not necessarily easy to be open about their lack of faith - they risk being ostracised from family and friends, and indeed the wider community. For many, this may be too high a price to pay. Instead, these people live compromised lives, ones in which they cannot be true to themselves and have to lie to those around them.
I've heard heartbreaking stories from many such people - both face to face at meetings of "ex-Muslims" arranged via the internet and in numerous emails I've received since I first started writing and talking about my atheism in public. But don't just take my word for it - in 2011, Suzanne Brink and Nicholas Gibson of the University of Cambridge carried out a study, "Losing Faith without Losing Face", which found that "There are cases in which people have ceased to believe in their religion yet continue to pretend to believe in that religion. The reasons behind this decision are generally social in nature. It may be that they are afraid of getting hurt when stating their disbelief openly, or it may be that they do not see enough merit in disclosing their newly found disbelief to justify hurting the people whom they love... around one-third of all narratives included statements to the effect that the authors considered it a necessity to keep their deconversion a secret."
It seems to me that how we see the world is central to our sense of self; I cannot help but feel that people who are unable to be honest about these matters are, in a very real sense, oppressed by their circumstances and forced to lead unfulfilled lives. So while much of the public discourse around atheism may indeed be pointless - the world probably doesn't really need any more books putting the case against the existence of god - there is every point in continuing the discussion around atheism if doing so allows more people to break free from the pressures that keep them leading lives of quiet misery as secret non-believers. What's the point of atheism? Well, for me, it's simple: it's about standing up for the truth, about being honest with oneself, and the world at large, about how we think the world actually is.