Atheist but not anti-theist: Julian Baggini on his not so incongruous atheist sermon at Westminster Abbey
Last Monday, I delivered an atheist “sermon” from the pulpit of Westminster Abbey. It was surprising enough that the chaplain of Westminster School had invited me to give a “thought for the day” to the assembled students, even more so when he suggested I talked about why I was an atheist.
The fact that this sounds strange, shocking even, tells us something important about how atheism is now perceived, and its relationship to faith. The problem is that while the word atheist itself means nothing more than “not-theist”, it seems that for many, “a” stands for anti.
Of course, in one sense, anyone who believes anything can be described as being anti what they don’t believe. But, for instance, we would not usually call a Christian an anti-Jew, or a Muslim an anti-Hindu. Why not? Because being anti suggests more than just disagreement; it suggests hostility, active dislike, the desire to eliminate the thing one is against. That’s why anti-capitalists are rightly called, because they don’t just disagree with capitalism, they want to destroy it.
If being an atheist meant being anti-theist, then I would not be one. I am an anti-dogmatist, an anti-fundamentalist, yes. But I have no hostility to theism as such, and have no desire to strip all theists of their faith. Of course I think theists are mistaken, but no one should be automatically hostile to everyone they disagree with. Hostility should be reserved for the pernicious, the wicked and the harmful.