Until recently so obsessively religious was Irish society that to be an atheist was to be a pariah. To a lesser extent this is still so today. On his recent visit to England the Pope likened atheists to Nazis. To be fair to the Pope his attack was on ‘atheist extremism’ and ‘aggressive secularism’. The Church herself, however, was pretty ‘extreme’ and ‘aggressive’ in her own time to the extent of supporting torture and having people burned for heresy.
I don’t know what the attitude of the Pope is to the ordinary decent atheist who in conscience simply finds it impossible to believe that there is a God and has no desire to convert anybody else to his or her point of view. He also warned against ‘the exclusion of religion and virtue from public life.’ It is an old canard that to be atheist is not to have a moral code. This is simply false.
Agnostics say they don’t know if there is a God or not. To be a Christian agnostic is to acknowledge doubt but to opt for believing that there is a God. Atheists believe there is no God.
Atheism is about belief;it is not a religion. There is no conclusive proof that there is or is not a God. People become atheist for different reasons. I have a friend who decided at the age of twelve that he could not believe what he was being taught about Christianity and decided that there was no God. Now in his seventies, he has been a quiet atheist ever since and has been perfectly content to be so.
The doctrines of religions are simply not believable to atheists because most of these doctrines were formulated in a pre-scientific age when people believed in a three decker universe and all that went with that. Furthermore why would a God create a universe of such unfathomable immensity and choose one tiny planet on which to put humans to the test; to judge them worthy of heaven or hell? Why in the first place would a God create a world in which there is so much evil? Why would an all powerful, all loving, all merciful God not intervene to spare the human suffering of the Holocaust, thousands of children dying daily of starvation, people dying in earthquakes and other natural disasters? – Divine absence. These and many other matters are the reason that atheists believe that there is no God. Religious people have their own answers to these problems, but their answers are not credible to atheists.
I found in my late sixties, having spent 33 happy and fulfilling years in the ministry of The Church of Ireland, that I could no longer believe there was a God. A friend told another friend of mine that if that’s what I believe I should keep it to myself. Why should religion, when so many people believe it to be falsely based, hold a sacrosanct position in society? A number of people who are committed believers have said that they feel sorry for me that I don’t have the comfort of religion. Of course I understand that for some people religion is a help to them in negotiating their way through this precarious world. On the contrary, however, not believing in God has relieved me of the need to struggle with the metaphysical doctrines of Christianity and helps me to make more sense of the world.
I have a friend, a theologian and faithful member of the Church, with whom I have wonderful discussions. We talk about the kind of issues I have mentioned and neither of us is trying to convert the other to his point of view. We live and let live.
Many atheists, while rejecting religion’s supernatural beliefs, acknowledge the value of its moral, social and ritual aspects. This is the subject of Alain de Botton in his book, Religion for Atheists.
There are aggressive atheists who ridicule people of sincere religious belief and there are religious people who consider atheists pariahs. Neither position is defensible. All are entitled to their view, but nobody is entitled to force their view on others.
Atheism is just another way of trying to make sense of the mystery that surrounds us.

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