I'm no atheist, I'm a rationalist

Observations on religion (2)

You may have expected godless folk such as myself to welcome a proposal from Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, that schools should teach atheism, humanism and other "secular philosophies" in religious education classes. But Clarke is misguided, I fear. He will give succour to the erroneous notion that atheism is "just another religion". In my view, atheism should not be taught in RE classes. More to the point, I think we non-theists should jettison the term "atheism" altogether.

The accusation that non-theism is "just another religion" will be familiar to those who have had a bar-room conversation with Christian friends. "Ah-ha," they pronounce sagaciously, "you atheists are just as dogmatic in your non-belief as we are in our belief." They will cite the likes of Richard Dawkins and Jonathan Miller - atheists whose often bad-tempered invectives seem to resemble those of evangelical priests thundering from the pulpit.

And it is true that we non-theists are often our own worst enemies. The French revolutionaries of the late 18th century secularised religion into deism, and by doing so, unwittingly erected a comical parody of Christianity. Marxism was no better at successfully escaping its Christian inheritance, what with its prophet (Karl Marx), its holy book (Das Kapital), its teleological philosophy (dialectical materialism) and its promise of a future heaven (communism). All of which encouraged the argument that atheism is "just another religion".

But this is sophistry. To say our non-belief is "just like any other religion" is the same as saying that not supporting a football team is "just like supporting another football team". It is Catholics, Protestants, Jews and Muslims who have decided to subscribe to their faiths (or have been indoctrinated by them from birth). We non-theists have simply opted out of the system. Theists invented the conceit of a world that was created by a mysterious patriarchal figure. They have the case to prove, not us.

The problem is largely semiotic. They call themselves believers and we define ourselves with a negative: non-believers or believers in atheism, which can be dismissed as just another "ism". Instead, we should call ourselves "rationalists". They should be known as "non-rationalists".