Mapping the world of ‘anti-faithists’


It’s a complicated picture here too, one made up of sceptics/skeptics, humanists, secularists, atheists, agnostics, scientists and rationalists

One of the reasons I don’t like to put a label on my personal disposition and overall political views is that whenever a label is mentioned, it comes with a whole host of baggage. This baggage is the result of the actions of others – both recent and in times gone by, one that those questioning you will automatically ask you to justify. We see this with religions and political parties in particular. It’s all the more easier to pin onto large organisations with a top-down leadership – especially where that leadership demands uncritical loyalty.

I wrote about the impact and fallout of breaking away from religion in my previous blogpost. Those that have broken away from political parties or movements that they have dedicated a huge amount of time to, and have even built a social life around may feel similar. On the religion side, when you’ve been through a very bad experience, doing something to reduce the influence such organisations have on public policy is understandable.

Passive vs Active

Not everyone is going to feel strongly about everything. Trying to be outraged at everything all of the time is an incredibly exhausting business. We all prioritise our different interests and causes in different orders. That’s why I’m not a big fan of people trying to pin negative traits onto others that may not share the same campaigning passion on a given issue. This can range from ‘Retweet this if you care about [insert name of cause].’ Given that people individually have limited time and energy to commit to anything, better to focus on a smaller number of causes than to spread such limited time and energy so thin?

In the case of institutionalised religions and their impact on public policy, being non-religious and being ‘anti-institutionalised religion’ are not the same thing. Those brought up in homes where no one was part of any faith community & went to schools not attached to any faith may quite understandably have no strong views on it. Those – like myself who feel harmed in some way by an institutionalised religion may well have strong views – to the extent it leads to activism. Alternatively, those whose upbringing wasn’t impacted by institutionalised religion may take issue with the special treatment institutions get, while those harmed by those institutions may understandably want to shut off anything that even mentions them because of the emotions & memories they trigger.

So…who is active in ‘anti-faithist’ land?

For me, the main ‘big five’ that I’ve stumbled across are:

In those five, I’ve not mentioned the big London institution that is Conway Hall. I used to live close to the hall, but never went along to any of their events because…well it felt too much like going to church without the deity bit. Actually, one group have gone further to take the bits of church that people like, and leaving out the bits they don’t.

Now, some of these organisations have incredibly long histories. The Rationalist Association traces its roots back to 1885. Conway Hall goes back even further to 1787. As with any organisation, two of the questions I like to ask are:

  1. Who runs you?
  2. Who funds you?

With pressure groups and political movements, that way you find out very quickly which ones are genuine grassroots ones, and which ones are ‘fronts’ for other organisations.


One of the things that struck me on first viewing the trustee pages of the Rationalist Association and the British Humanist Association was the relative lack of diversity. It took me a little more time to find the council of the National Secular Society, but found them on page 19 of their 2012 Annual Report – who generally seem to be a slightly younger group than the other two. The people who run The Skeptic are listed here – the editor of which, Deborah Hyde came to visit Puffles – talking feminism and vampires.

An impact greater than the sum of their parts?

It’s a point I often put – mainly in a social media or in a local-to-Cambridge context is how individuals, groups and organisations can increase their impact by working together and co-ordinating what they do. Rationalists, humanists, skeptics, secularists and atheists: All the same? All different? A bit of some but not the others? Where are the similarities that allow joining up? What are the differences that cannot be overcome? It’s a similar set of questions movements on the left (as well as people in and around) often throw into the mix.

What about in Cambridge?

It’s a bit of a mix here too. For example there is the Cambridge Skeptics in the Pub (whose talks I go to regularly), the Cambridge Humanist Group (also here on Facebook) and not to forget Cambridge University’s Atheist and Agnostic Society. For both national and local levels, to what extent are both organisers and attendees engaging with each other online and meeting up/going to events that are put on?

On public policy

For me this matters both at a local level as well as at a national level. In the run up to the 2011 Census, those behind the Atheist Bus Campaign launched a campaign to get those who did not subscribe to/hold any religious belief to say so in the census. The impact was huge both in percentage points rise and in absolute numbers. That’s not to say those that hold no religion are automatically ‘anti-faith’, but in the context of public policy it raises questions (for some at least) about the concept and legitimacy of an established church. Why should bishops sit in the House of Lords, able to table amendments to legislation? Why should time be allocated in the House of Commons to answer questions specifically about the Church of England?

It also matters because of some of the inconsistencies within government policies of both the current and previous administration – in particular on faith-based schools. My views are here. Given that both were positively disposed towards such schools, the point I made was that the state has a responsibility to ensure children and adults are safeguarded – especially those that choose to disagree with or want to leave the religion they are brought up in. As I have mentioned in my previous blogpost and in others, this is not an easy thing to do. Hence perhaps the importance of campaigns such as this one. For me it is important because being part of a religion/having a religious belief is not merely an intellectual issue. They also encompass family and community – concepts that people can relate to far more easily than trying to unpick intellectual points about the existence or not of a deity.

The equal marriage debate

One of the things the debate did was to raise the political heat and to polarise opinion too.  This made things difficult for those people of various faiths that were in favour of the bill going through Parliament when the senior clerics of their faiths spoke out publicly, regularly and with increasingly high profiles.

At the same time, others that might otherwise not have given much attention to the issue subsequently did – because some institutions were very publicly positioning themselves as adversaries to values that those people have. The debate raised a number of other issues too about discrimination. With the Established Church, if an individual is barred from aspiring to the highest (ecclesiastical) office in the institution because of their gender, why should that institution be given special privileges to sit in the upper chamber of Parliament?

What we saw in the equal marriage debate was how various individuals, parties, groups and institutions tried to apply their values to a specific issue – with varying results. It was something that Cambridge MP Julian Huppert touched on when he was a guest speaker at Cambridge Skeptics. When faced with a question on a theme that he’s not familiar with the detail of, he’ll respond by putting the issue into the context of his principles and values. You may not agree with the answer but at least there’s some sort of logic to how he got there.

Is the map any clearer now?

A little. This post wasn’t meant to be much more than a pootle through a little of what’s out there. It doesn’t unpick some of the smaller details like people of faith also able to be passionate secularists too. For example they might have lived under a religious theocracy and not liked it at all, and see the issue of personal belief as separate to a person’s view about the relationship between a religious institution and the institution of state/government.


One thought on “Mapping the world of ‘anti-faithists’

  1. Just a quick note (and to complicate things further) – Skeptics in the pub (SITP) is not an event officially affiliated with The Skeptic magazine. SITPs in different towns and cities are run by many different people across the country – though Deborah runs (ran?) an SITP group. We do love The Skeptic and Deborah, though – at least, in Newcastle we do. I can’t speak for the other groups 😀

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