Background

What is the O Project?

The ‘O’ in the O Project is what you are left with when you take ‘god’ out of ‘good’.

In other words, it’s about how you can live a good life without following a religion. It has two goals:

1. To champion the contributions that humanists and other non believers make to wider society in the fields of social justice, equality and human rights.

2. To promote good relations and cooperation between believers and non believers

However it does not assert that people should become atheists – it demands equal respect for region and atheism as potential vehicles for good.

Who is behind the O Project?
My name is Hamish MacPherson. I’m a British humanist who believes that the everyday contributions that non-religious individuals make to society are often overshadowed by the commonplace assumption that religion has a unique ability to drive such contributions.

I also believe that, for example, challenging religious privilege and promoting a rational and scientific world view does not mean that we should or can even afford not to work alongside fellow religious citizens or religious organisations. My professional background is policymaking in the areas of communities and integration.

The O Project is less of a traditional organisation and more of an idea that I hope will be taken forward by anyone, both religious and non religious, who is sympathetic with its aims.

How did the project begin?

The O Project was conceived in 2005 in response to two observations I had made over the previous four years.

1) The first was that for some people, being an atheist disqualifies you from being a moral person.

This was brought home by a couple of messages posted in 2004 on the BBC website in response to recommendations that Religious Education in schools should also teach non religious ethical systems. One poster claimed that “morality without the underpinning of religion is like a ship without a compass, or a tailor without a yard stick”, another that “it’s about time that children were made aware of this dangerous ideology [atheism], which has done so much damage to the moral foundations of modern British society”.

2) The second observation was that interfaith dialogue – which was going through a boom period at the time – while often being seen as a cousin or even successor to the promotion of good race relations was actually something quite different. Nearly all public bodies in Briton have a legal duty to promote good race relations which since everyone is a member of a race, is a fully inclusive notion: it’s not enough for example to promote good relations between White Britons and Black Britons.

Interfaith dialogue on the other hand as the name suggests only includes religious groups. I appreciate that religion and ethnicity are quite different things and that interfaith dialogue will often exclude many religions (for example Pagans) and many religious individuals (for example gay Muslims)

It is also true that the exclusion isn’t universal: 12 of the 253 (5%) UK interfaith bodies do have humanist representatives and humanists do sit on some Standing Advisory Councils on Religious Education (the local statutory bodies that advise Local Educational Authorities on Religious Education and collective worship), although only when co-opted by sympathetic groups.

But the exclusion of atheists was the rule rather than the exception and risked, as far as I could see, leading us to a situation where there was some degree of harmony between ‘believers’ and yet enmity with agnostics, atheists and humanists.

The two things I oberserved were undoubtedly linked – lack of contact was preventing religious people from questioning misconceptions and prejudices about atheists and with such prejudices in place there was going to be little motivation to start talking to atheists.

How many atheists are there in the UK?

In 2001, over 15 percent of people in Great Britain when asked by the census what their religion was declared that they had no religion. 72 percent described themselves as Christians and the third largest group were the 2.8 percent of people who said they were Muslim.

Younger people are more likely than older people not to belong to any religion, reflecting the trend towards secularisation. Among 16 to 34 year olds in Great Britain, almost a quarter (23 per cent) said that they had no religion.

There is good reason to believe that many of those people who claimed to have a religion are only culturally religious: According to a 2006 Ipsos MORI poll, 41 per cent of people endorsed the statement ‘This life is the only life we have and death is the end of our personal existence’. Fractionally more – 45% – held the view that ‘When we die we go on and still exist in another way’. According to a 2006 Guardian / ICM poll 63%, say that they are not religious – including more than half of those who describe themselves as Christian.

And even higher numbers have non-religious foundations for their morals – the Ipsos MORI poll found that 62 per cent of people agree that “human nature by itself gives us an understanding of what is right and wrong” compared with only 27 per cent of people who agreed that “people need religious teachings in order to understand what is right and wrong.”

What do you mean by ‘good’?

Good is clearly a subjective term and we certainly don’t want get into discussions about whether people are good or foster feelings of self righteousness.

But there are certain concrete activities that most people will agree are good such as volunteering; get involved in defining and tackling the problems of their communities; donating money to inclusive causes; and campaigning for equality and social justice.

This is not to say that humanist contributions to science or the arts, for example, are not for the good of humankind also or that the everyday ethical choices we make in our private and public life don’t count.

But we believe that humanist invovlement in volunteering and active citizenship is what is most overlooked and is most important in challenging assumptions that atheists are unethical, selfish and hedonistic.

Although more than two-thirds of Britons say they do not belong to a religion or have never attended a religious ceremony according to a poll in 2004, 55% of people in the UK thought that a belief in God makes for a better person.

This was nowhere near as high as say Nigeria or Indonesia (both over 90%) but still cause for concern for those of us who try to leave ethical lives based on reason alone. The detailed views we often come across are that we are amoral and nihilistic:

Atheists give me the creeps…somehow I just can’t trust them or something. They also give me the impression that they are cold people for whatever that means.” (Chris 9234)

“…it is easy to declare that you are an atheist but it doesn’t actually mean anything, and it could actually be construed that you don’t believe in anything” (New Zeal)

“morality without the underpinning of religion is like a ship without a compass, or a tailor without a yard stick” (Rev. Doye Agam)

“it’s about time that children were made aware of this dangerous ideology [atheism], which has done so much damage to the moral foundations of modern British society”. (Isa)

In the USA the picture seems to be worse than in the UK: There, the public continues to express overwhelmingly favourable opinions of Jews (77% favourable) and Catholics (73%). About six-in-ten (57%) express positive opinions of evangelical Christians, about the same number who have a favourable view of Muslim-Americans. By comparison, just 35% express favourable opinions of atheists; 50% have a negative opinion of atheists.

But does this mistrust manifest itself as discrimination?

Detailed 2001 research into religious discrimination in the UK did not look at discrimination faced by people because of their lack of religious belief although it did acknowledge that policy makers should not “ignore the possibility that secularists, humanists and agnostics may also experience discrimination on the basis of religion.”

But the 2005 citizenship survey showed that three percent of people with no religion claimed to have been discriminated against because of their ‘religion’ by public authorities, most commonly by a local school or a council housing department or housing association. This is nothing like 13 percent of Muslims, 12 per cent of Sikhs or six per cent of Hindus (we would not claim by any stretch that atheists are the most disadvantaged group in society) but slightly larger than the 2 per cent of Christians.

And in the USA, a 2006 survey found that 43 percent of American voters say they would never even consider voting for a Mormon Presidential candidate. 61 percent of Likely Voters say they would never consider voting for a Muslim Presidential candidate. 60 percent say the same about an atheist.

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