People don’t ask me why I got into atheist activism. I suppose it’s assumed that, like others I know, I simply “live” atheism, that it’s something I’m passionate about and wish, with a sort of missionary zeal, to spread to the world. There’s nothing wrong with this viewpoint, of course, but it’s not my experience. In my ideal world, my religious views would never come up except as a conversation piece – I could have my beliefs to myself and everyone else could have theirs. And that would be the rule I would live by today, if it weren’t for an incident in high school that still drives my involvement in the atheist movement.
I went to a nominally Anglican private high school, although it had long since abandoned all pretext of being religiously oriented. The one holdover from its less pluralistic days was a bi-weekly chapel session, which was conducted by a chaplain well aware of, and open to, the diversity of beliefs and cultures within the school. Rather than a regular religious instruction, chapel was a time to put on our dress uniforms and watch presentations, either by students fired up by some form of injustice, or somebody more prestigious coming in to speak to us about what they did or knew.
The time was mid-September, 2008 – my graduating year. It was our first chapel session of the term, which meant introductions were necessary for new students. We were being graced by a visit from our headmaster, who we usually didn’t see much – he sat beside the chaplain at the front of the building.
The chaplain was the first to speak, and he explained the chapel sessions. He explained that he wanted everybody, regardless of their beliefs, to feel safe in this building, despite its Christian focus, particularly, the large cross on the alter.
The headmaster stood to speak next. He attempted to echo the chaplain’s sentiment of inclusion, but tried to add a joke: “personally, I find atheists to be the mosquitoes in the underbrush of life.”
There was dead silence, and then an awkward laugh. If he’d said that about any religious groups, there would have been uproar. Yet, he chose atheists, and all he got was an awkward laugh.
Some time later, my friends and I managed to get time in chapel to give a presentation on atheism. I won’t pretend it was good, but it was my first foray into publicly defending the movement. The headmaster was absent. He never apologized for his remarks.
I don’t mean to portray this incident as symptomatic of malicious oppression atheists undergo, especially in an increasingly secularized world. However, it serves as a poignant reminder that the atheist movement is still far from respected. Until atheism is accepted as a legitimate alternative point of view, there must be people that are willing to stand up for themselves and their beliefs and demand respect. To this day, I have tried, through education and interaction, to put a positive face onto a movement often lacking one. Someday I’ll be able to go back to keeping my beliefs a private matter; until then, I’m out to prove that, at the very least, this mosquito bites hard.
One Less God is a twice-monthly column on atheist communities and philosophy. Harmon Moon is a U2 History student and VP External of the McGill Freethought Association. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org