, I had a godless summer. Not deliberately and certainly not in the abandoned-hedonistic sense (sadly). No, I just decided to take Richard Dawkins on holiday with me, or rather his book, The God Delusion, and it went from there. A friend happened to have Christopher Hitchens’ book God Is Not Great (which had a handy sub-title “How religion poisons everything”). Which, of course, I had to read. Actually, a really good read, and one that both made me laugh at the sheer ridiculousness of some philosophies, and remin-ded me to be angry about the injustice and suffering caused by religious intolerance and the exploitation of ignorance and hardship by fundamentalists of all persuasions.
And then, as a bit of light relief, I picked up what I thought was fluffy fiction in the form of The Labyrinth by Kate Mosse (the final “e” and a few billion neurones separate her by some way from the other one). Even there, no escape: an ancient secret society, persecuted by the (evil) established church, blah blah. You get the picture.
By the time I got home, and read an article in a Sunday newspaper by John Humphrys, capturing the argument of his book In God We Doubt, I was in no doubt at all. Someone was trying to Tell Me Something.
It was also interesting that Humphrys sub-titled his book “Confessions of a failed Atheist”. The other writers referred to the anger, pity and hysteria that atheistic views can generate, most topically in the US where to be declared an atheist is akin to confessing you’re a child molester or, at least, an amoral nihilistic misery. Not surprising in a country where research suggests some 240 million out of the 300 million population apparently believe that Jesus will return some day and orchestrate the end of the world with a miracle and where many believe that the world is only 6,000 years old.
However, the “activist creationists” have been clever in re-coining creationism as “intelligent design”, and this got me wondering about the desirability and effect of repositioning exercises on the “non-skygod” types of beliefs. Of course, organised religion has all the frameworks and trappings of strong branding on its side. Clear organising principles, trademarks and icons, consistent products and behaviours. The great faiths have also had extraordinary and continuous investment.
But if you’re not in that religious brand camp, in the belief market you’re either brandless or attached to loser causes. Er, humanist? Too nerdy. Agnostic? Too woolly. Naturalist? (Titter titter.) How about a follower of Gaia? Too hairy and hippy.
A recent attempt to create a self-conscious brand out of non-belief in the supernatural is The Brights. You can go to a Brights virtual shop, buy stickers, T-shirts, lapel pins and much, much more – and, of course, you can join an “international internet constituency of individuals whose worldview is naturalistic”. Unfortunately, they might as well throw in a sick bag too.
So, what’s the answer for people who want to live well, happily and ethically without religion and faith? Well, obviously, there is the “I think religion is a private matter” route: living a decent life without having to justify why you don’t believe in God/ Woden/Zeus and so on. After all, despite what fundamentalists believe, it is possible to explain why humans have evolved a tendency not to kill, steal, do it with their neighbour’s spouse and generally act up when trying to live together in communities. Indeed, as Dawkins points out, it is also very possible to explain people’s desire to believe in a higher something using evolutionary theory, too. And, you might ask, isn’t the natural world enough to generate awe and a deeply satisfying spiritual experience?
However, bearing in mind what an important part of people’s lives and influence on society, religion represents, how about some positive thinking about “not religion”? It’s interesting that the definition of atheism is either rejection of belief in God or gods – or, indeed, “godlessness”. This term godlessness reminds me of a debate I have had with friends with no children. They get fed up with the term “childless” because it suggests loss and something to be pitied, whereas several feel they have made a positive decision to be “child-free”. So, how about “God-free”? Now there’s a more positive start for branding – and how about cracking those other hairy and nerdy terms for a different sort of belief while we’re about it? You know it makes sense…
Rita CLifton, Chairman, Interbrand