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Issue Date:  March 25, 2005

Atheism is its own belief system

New British education framework pulls atheists off pedestal of neutrality


The curious relationship between church and state in Great Britain took a little-noted shift this fall with the release of a new “national framework” for religious education in British schools. Largely drowned out in the babel leading up to the U.S. elections, the British government for the first time recognized atheism in the new framework as a belief system that should be taught alongside “traditional” faiths to British schoolchildren.

To the American observer, the response from religious leaders might seem remarkably tepid. Rather than protesting what might seem to be an elevation of atheism, the Church of England, the Muslim Council of Britain and the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales all issued statements welcoming the new framework. Indeed, it was the National Secular Society that complained that the new framework did not go far enough in allowing children to question religion.

If law permitted such education frameworks in the United States, it is easy to imagine some segments of America’s churchgoing public spilling out into the streets to protest such a move. As it is, a first inclination may be to shake our heads at secularism’s muscle in Europe. Yet given another look, the Brits’ new education framework is not one that the religiously minded should be so quick to bemoan.

Religious life in the United States and Great Britain may seem to have little in common. Religious education has always been a part of British education. National legislation mandates that such religious education programs “reflect the fact that religious traditions in Great Britain are mainly Christian, whilst taking account of the teaching and practices of their other principal religions represented in Great Britain.” All the while, nary a week goes by without a church closing in the United Kingdom. The reasons for the dwindling numbers of Europeans who take their faith seriously depend on whom you ask. Some attribute it to a creeping relativism in European Protestantism, which, they say, has robbed it of its credibility. Others point to the overlap between church and state that, if it does not stain the church with politics as it once did, at least sucks the life out of faith.

For many American church leaders, the takeaway message of contemporary Christianity in Western Europe is “Don’t let this happen to you.” In the United States, mega-churches are popping up as fast as the exurbs can creep. We fumble for excuses about having God on our money, but have pretty well reined in prayer in the schoolhouse. Our guns are likely be pried from cold, dead hands before we will talk about setting standards for religious education in public schools. Hence whether you welcome the British decision or condemn it, it might seem irrelevant to the United States. Yet the fundamental question faced by those who developed the new British framework is one that most of us in the United States have been assiduously avoiding for some time, and would do well to take on: When we are talking about the place of religion in the public square, just how comparable are atheism and “religion”?

Americans have never been quite sure what part religion should play in public life. On the one hand, decisions about public policy are often predicated on our deepest held beliefs. On the other, in a pluralistic society, we cannot justify our policy prescriptions by pointing to a holy book, and expect everyone to be convinced. Should a senator get up on the floor and maintain that she voted for welfare reform because she felt a calling from God? Should a Congressional representative cast a vote for an amendment banning gay marriage because it is “against God’s law” -- and say as much? Are these appropriate arguments, even if one thinks they narrow the debate and exclude the unbeliever?

In recent decades, atheism has tried to hold itself above this fray. Some of its adherents have condemned “sectarian” argumentation, implying that believing in nothing is qualitatively different from believing in something. Part of the frustration of some religious believers in this country is that they feel excluded by a public square where unbelief is the only belief system that is acceptable. Yet in fact, atheism is the affirmative belief that there is no deity. If one follows Pascal’s famous wager, it may take more faith to affirm the absence of God than to maintain a belief in God’s presence.

So is atheism properly considered a “belief system”? The British have said yes. While from the viewpoint of the religious partisan, the Brits’ new education framework may appear to be the elevation of atheism, in fact it drags atheism down from the pedestal of public neutrality to which it has clung with white knuckles in recent years. Negotiating a place for belief in the public life of a pluralistic community -- a place that serves to draw people in rather than driving them away -- will always be difficult. Yet the British decision constitutes an important step in the process of reinvigorating the discussion. Rather than ceding the public square to those who consider themselves neutral because they are secular, we should allow ourselves to be provoked by our neighbors across the Atlantic.

The concerns and lively debate about the role of religious believers in American politics today is altogether fitting and needed. Yet we should not lose sight of the fact that those who see the world through the prism of disbelief are looking through a prism nonetheless and are not as different from their “religious” compatriots as they might think.

Brian Brennan is a graduate student in politics at Oxford University. He was a 2003 Pew Charitable Trusts Civitas Fellow in Faith and Public Affairs.

National Catholic Reporter, March 25, 2005

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