A Scottish View of the MN Atheists Conference

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By Charles Coventry

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As part of my third holiday to Stillwater, Minnesota, to visit my friend Ken Moses, we attended the Minnesota Atheists conference this past August.

At the conference, my Humanist Society of Scotland T-shirt aroused interest because of our motto “We’re A’ Jock Tamson’s Bairns.” This is an old proverb meaning that everybody is the same. Supposedly in a certain village the entire population had been fathered by Jock Tamson, the blacksmith.

I am always amused on these visits to see the response when I am introduced as being from Scotland—people seem to react as if I were from some other planet. Somebody at the conference did detect “an accent,” presumably not North American. This doesn’t cause me any offence; as a linguist I just see it as a topic to investigate. Perhaps our preoccupation with differences is a survival from an earlier period in our development. Ken remarked that at the conference people showed no concern regarding disabilities. I have mild cerebral palsy and there was somebody at the conference with spina bifida. I just took this acceptance as normal in an atheist group, but I think fundamentalists from any religion would have been frightened or curious.

The conference started with a talk on “How Archaeology Killed Biblical History.” This talk demonstrated that modern archeology is in conflict with the historical stories of the Bible. Yet we know how common it still is for tourists to visit the purported locations of Biblical stories.

For the first workshop, I chose “Answering Your Child’s Difficult ­Questions and How to Teach Religious Literacy.” I chose this workshop because on my three visits to America I have been struck by just how much religion, or at least Christianity, dominates large parts of the United States, much as it did in Britain in the nineteenth century. In the workshop, the question was raised of what to tell children when they ask why they don’t go to church. I told the group that in Britain today it’s more likely that children in religious families will ask why they have to attend public worship when other children are out at sports.

For the second workshop, I chose “Dealing with Religious Relatives while Raising Freethinking Children.” In Britain, dealing with religious relatives is probably much less of a problem now than it would have been even when I was growing up in the 1950’s and 1960’s. If there was to be any problem now, it would most likely be with grandparents.

Nevertheless, many religious parents and grandparents still have many sectarian prejudices, particularly if they support certain football teams. (In Scotland, some teams are distinctly denominational.) While such parents and grandparents probably have no more than a vague superstition about the Bible and other cult objects, their attitudes can certainly affect how they treat children.

I bought a copy of Atheist Voices of Minnesota and found the same outdated religious ideas criticized there as at the conference, especially in the authors’ childhood memories. It’s hard to believe that some of the authors were writing about the 1980’s and not the 1920’s or even the 1950’s. Only two old-fashioned religious ideas seem to be missing. One is temperance meetings. The other is Sabbatarianism, the practice of observing the sabbath very strictly, such as using the car or public transport during the week, but walking to church on Sunday no matter how far away it is.

People who attended the workshops on science reported that many people in the US still believe the Genesis creation story. Later on, Ken and I visited Como Zoo, where we noted that the information about the apes made no reference to Homo sapiens. When we pointed this out to another visitor, she went into hysterics, insisting that God created man before the animals. When we reported the mistake to Visitor Information, the reply was that they couldn’t have anything so controversial in Minnesota! That man is an ape should be common knowledge in the US as it is to any educated person in Europe.

Even what remains of religious belief in the United Kingdom is quickly declining. An email I received recently from the British Humanist Association reports that in the last census, conducted in 2011, there was a large drop since 2001 of people claiming to be religious. The drop was bigger in Scotland than in England and Wales. The building of churches reflects this too. The last great period of church building was in the 1950’s. In Edinburgh, the only surviving synagogue dates from the 1930’s and the Sikh temple is a former church. Only the relatively small Central Mosque is recent, from the 1980’s, and if immigration from Afghanistan and Pakistan stops, it will probably close.
Things are looking better for nonbelievers all the time.

Charles Coventry lives in Edinburgh, Scotland

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