Abdul Azim Ahmed on Atheism


"Interfaith efforts have gone a long way in the last ten years. Many organisations up and down the country have worked to develop links between the religious leaders of Britain's varied and diverse religious traditions. This is particularly prominent between the three Abrahamic faiths, but clearly it is not restricted to these alone.

Some of these interfaith efforts began out of a desire to build the relationships that seemed broken or absent in the wake of international crisis such as 9/11, particularly so in the Welsh context. First Minister of Wales at the time, Rhodri Morgan, established an interfaith network to advise and work with the Welsh Assembly immediately after the terrorist attacks. The fruits of these endeavours are multiple. At more grassroots levels, there are a plethora of charitable activities and community projects run by religious groups, reminding us all of the social value that religions bring to society and how interfaith dialogue can often lead to interfaith action.

As these faith groups met to discuss and find common ground, a common enemy was often cited - secularism and atheism. This was only natural of course, as a common enemy can sometimes be a very reliable means of opening communication, however I'm sure I would not be the only person of faith who feels that atheism and secularism have been caricatured into a 'folk devil' of sorts. Secularisation, in Britain at least, has never been a potent threat to people of faith or religion in the public sphere - a recent publication, "Religion and Change in Modern Britain" authored by a number of academics researching religion in the UK, have noted the paradigm of increasing secularisation should not be taken at face value. Likewise, it would be wrong to blur the aggressive atheism of Richard Dawkins with the general non-belief of many of those who live in Britain. 

It may be time then to lay the "folk devil" notions to rest. If as people of faith, we truly believe that we are called to dialogue and communication with each other, and that these conversations have moral value, then we can't restrict them only to those with whom we feel comfortable. There is a genuine need then to engage in dialogue and conversation with Humanist, atheists and secularists - recognizing that these groups themselves may still be negotiating their own self-identity with regard to each other.

Some atheists certainly have provided ample opportunity for engagement. I think of what is sometimes termed New New Atheism. Individuals like Daniel Trilling, editor of the New Humanist, who in his inaugural contribution to the New Humanist argued that criticisms of religion can at times be racist, that people of religion are not less intelligent than atheists and that religion does have a role in the public sphere. All of these points were aimed squarely at what Trilling saw as the excesses of New Atheism. Likewise, the new President of the British Humanist Association, Jim al-Khalili, is someone who has shown appreciation for the intellectual contribution of people of faith (presenting a series of documentaries on medieval Islamic science on the BBC) and indicated a significantly less aggressive approach than his predecessors. Public philosopher, Alain de Botton published a book, "Religion for Atheists" which highlighted the value and contribution of religions that cannot be simply replaced by atheism. All of these individuals hold an open door to dialogue. 

However, in many ways, that would be taking the easy way out. It would be naive to argue that there are not many atheists who find themselves agreeing more so with the Four Horseman of New Atheism, known for their criticisms of religion and desire to eradicate religion altogether. Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, A C Grayling and many others have all contributed to an atheism that is deeply antagonistic towards belief. 

Here still, I believe there may some value in engagement. What common ground is there for such engagement however? Well, reflecting over my own experience at university, there may be some space. I noticed how the atheist/humanist students often had friendships (for want of a better word) with Muslims and Christians with whom they enjoyed debating. They may all have held different ideas about God, religion, scripture, reason and truth, but they all agreed that these issues were worth debating, that they were important and that they needed to be discussed. So it may be a small common ground, but it is something. "


Abdul Azim Ahmed, Researcher, Cardiff University

A Conversation about Atheism - the missing link in inter faith?

12 March 2014


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