Andrew Brown is wrong: atheism isn’t about class. Anyone can join our club if they don’t believe in God
Tuesday 29 September 2009 09.30 BST
On Friday, Cif belief editor Andrew Brown wrote, "It is entirely possible that Ariane Sherine's book on enjoying an atheist Christmas will sell this Christmas; but come the new year, it won't be found on the bookshelf in the toilet but in lavatories nicely warmed by Agas." His assertion is that atheists (or "new atheists", as he confusingly calls us – are we the ones who refuse to stay quiet?) are "educated and professional" snobs, and that we use our lack of belief as an excuse to look down on people who are working class: "Obviously, it is no longer done to sneer at the working classes for being idle, brutish, smelly, and breeding too much. But it's perfectly OK to sneer at 'faith heads' for all these things: that shows you're enlightened. It's pure coincidence that the despicable believers are for the most part lower class as well."
This line of thinking is puzzling and wrong on every level. The atheists I know have only one thing in common: we don't believe in God. Beyond that, there are very few generalisations anyone can make – our social class, ethnic backgrounds and political views are often extremely disparate (though there is a definite correlation between atheism and being a liberal – that is, believing that everyone has the right to do and say whatever they like and express themselves as they choose, so long as their actions are peaceful and don't hurt anyone). As he himself has come out on this site as an atheist, it is baffling that the majority of Andrew's pieces seem to lambast atheists, when the sole criterion for being one is merely accepting the truth as science reveals it.
The book I have edited which Andrew refers to, The Atheist's Guide to Christmas, provides a clear example of how different atheists can be. It features 42 freethinking writers (28 men, 14 women), aged between 26 and 79 – many of whom will have little in common other than their kindness and generosity of spirit (each has contributed their time and talent for free). Hopefully it will dispel stereotypes about atheist demographics: 12 contributors are from ethnic minority backgrounds, while four are from the predominantly religious US. Many of the contributors' styles and views couldn't be more different: from Derren Brown to Simon Le Bon, Charlie Brooker to Claire Rayner and David Baddiel to Simon Singh, there is a huge range of uplifting and lighthearted views and ideas for all readers to enjoy, atheist or not.
It is true that some of the contributors, such as Richard Dawkins and AC Grayling, come from very educated backgrounds (yet do not remotely fall into the unrecognisable description of an atheist put forward by Andrew); many do not. I have written before, in this comment on a Madeleine Bunting article, about my childhood and how it contributed in part to my becoming an atheist – and it wouldn't surprise me if many other atheists have had similarly tough experiences.
As book contributor Christina Martin writes in response to Andrew, "You've got me! The reason I am an atheist is not that I was brought up in a freethinking household, it's not that from an early age I realised the world was full of ills which didn't add up to there being a divine plan – my brother being born brain damaged, my father living every day in chronic pain. No, the reason I am an atheist is that I like to deride the working classes. Which is unfortunate, because half my family live on a housing estate in Elephant and Castle. Oh, and my parents struggled for money all through my early childhood. By the time I was a teenager we were fairly well-off, but only because my dad had worked himself so hard for us that he was forced to retire on health grounds. In conclusion, using lazy generalisations to accuse other people of using lazy generalisations is not only ironic but eminently foolish."
Lastly, though Andrew didn't mention this, The Atheist's Guide to Christmas is the first atheist charity book, with all contributor and editor royalties (along with the full advance) going straight to the UK's leading HIV and sexual health charity, Terrence Higgins Trust, which provides testing, medical and legal advice and emotional support to people living with HIV. Contributor Ben Goldacre suggested we support THT as he has seen the tremendous difference they make to people's lives in practice (and they also seemed a fitting choice, given the pope's unhelpful comments earlier this year suggesting that condoms make Aids worse).
Maybe if Andrew reads the funny and thoughtful contributions in this book, he will stop thinking less of us – and finally feel proud to be one of us. We can only hope.
The Atheist's Guide to Christmas is published by The Friday Project