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Absence of faith

06 November 2015

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HOW many types of atheist are there? There are the out-and-out Dawkinsians, and the "spiritual-but-not-religious", and materialists and Mother-Naturists — not to mention Christian, Muslim, and Jewish atheists. Yet, on the surveys that gauge social attitudes, there is normally just one box to tick. There are choices a-plenty for people of faith, but for atheists it is all or nothing.

So ran the complaint of the sociologist Lois Lee and the philosopher Julian Baggini on Thinking Allowed (Radio 4, Wednesday of last week) in a discussion of Lee’s recent study of atheist identities. In the 2008 Social Attitudes Survey, more than a third of respondents declared themselves to be "very" or "somewhat" non-religious; but how these numbers break down is still a mystery to researchers.

Part of the problem, Lee says, is that few people like to declare themselves to be outright atheists, for fear of sounding aggressive. Others are apparently embarrassed by the cultural connotations of determined atheism: they don’t wish to be mistaken for muesli-munching Guardian-readers.

In some cultures, to be atheist is a stance of defiance, and Lee has encountered people who will "come out" as atheist with the same mixture of trepidation and liberation as a homosexual might.

One would hope that, in the 21st century, the response to such liberation is not to erect a pyre. Last week was, of course, the season for witch-watching, and Radio 3’s Free Thinking (Tuesday of last week) provided a broom’s-eye view of modern witchcraft.

On the basis that the popular image of witches comes via the lens of a Hollywood blockbuster, then a film such as The Last Witch Hunter seems an appropriate starting-point for discussion, even if this latest Vin Diesel film is utter tosh.

Yet, in one sense at least, the witchcraft film genre reveals an unfortunate and powerful alignment between historically informed and Hollywood perceptions — specifically of older women. Just as the Salem trials picked on older women whose childless state was presumed to result in demonic jealousy, so modern witch films have as their protagonists older, rich, sexually rapacious divorcees.

With almost the same seasonal inevitability came a documentary about the Archbishop of Canterbury. Welby: The turbulent priest (Radio 4, Monday of last week) had all the hallmarks of a piece compiled through a sense of obligation to some long-forgotten principle determining the coverage of national figures. So far as I could tell, Mark D’Arcy’s programme told us nothing except how clubbable Archbishop Welby is.

I mean clubbable in the non-violent, Athenaeum sense of the word. No view was expressed here that might lead one to believe that there was a plot afoot to use either club or sword against this priest. "Turbulent" he most certainly is not. Everyone was telling us what a great guy he was — principally because he can do politics.

Programmes such as this do nobody any favours — least of all the subject, whose personality and opinions get smothered underneath a thick quilt of establishment approval. For everyone’s sake, sharpen those swords.

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