The actor Warren Mitchell, most well-known for his role as the bigoted Alf Garnett in “Till Death us do Part”, is a distinguished supporter of the British Humanist Association. He’s of Russian Jewish descent, and has been quoted as saying, “I enjoy being Jewish, but I’m an atheist”. There are many atheist Jews like him. Warren tells a story about visiting Northern Ireland, where he was asked if he’s a Catholic or a Protestant. “I’m Jewish,” he replied. “Yes, but are you a Catholic Jew or a Protestant Jew?” was the response.
In August 2005, an Egyptian Arab set up a website called “Arab Atheists”. He wrote that it’s for “every person who wants to think freely in the Arab world,” but acknowledges that it can be dangerous to be open about your atheism in Arab countries. I imagine that it might be difficult to be openly atheist in some sections of British society too. Many people assume that all Arabs are Muslim.
Last week, I was watching a TV report about some children’s definitions of “Britishness”. One boy said that he thought we’re all “British”, whatever our religion, whether we’re Christian, Muslim or Jewish. He left out all the other religions (maybe they hadn’t got that far in his RE lessons), and it didn’t seem to occur to him that many of us are atheists too. According to a MORI poll recently commissioned by the BHA, about 17 million British people are broadly Humanist or atheist in their outlook.
There’s been a lot of talk about “community cohesion”, which is mostly about achieving harmony between different religious groups, but few have been clear about what they mean by the term. Every time I hear some lazy journalist or commentator refer to a “Muslim Community”, or a “Muslim country”, when he or she is talking about a geographical area, I’m irritated. When I’m told I live in a Christian country, I’m irritated. Rather than describing us in terms of our ethnicity, it’s become common to describe us in terms of our supposed religion; to assume that we all share the same beliefs because of where we live or our appearance. It’s also a mistake to assume that one religious person believes the same as the next. If we dispense with these labels, we’re forced to see people as just people, to communicate with them directly, and not through some confusing set of assumptions about their attitudes or beliefs. We live in a secular society where everyone has the freedom to believe whatever he or she likes, and no one should assume anything about us. Let’s be judged by how we behave, rather than notions of what we might believe.