Should the President of a Humanist Organization Be More Aggressive?

Jim Al-Khalili was just named the new President of the British Humanist Association and, in an interview with The Independent‘s Tom Peck, he explains why he’s content to just let sleeping faiths lie:

Jim Al-Khalili

Mr Khalili’s mother is still a devout, church-going Christian but, next week, her 40-year-old son will become the next president of the British Humanist Association, the ever-expanding organisation for, in its own words, “people who seek to live good lives without religious or superstitious beliefs”.

“Yes. Cuddly. I am a cuddly atheist. Someone who doesn’t feel the need to tell you that what you believe in is stupid. Take my mother, I will tell her: ‘I’m happy for you, because I know your religious faith fills a hole in your life.’ I can see how important it is to her to have this faith. What right do I have to destroy it?

“I’d like to see her one day say: ‘You know, I don’t think God exists,’ but I’m not going to be arguing and pushing that she is wrong.

“I am against creationism being taught in schools because there is empirical evidence that it is a silly notion, but I don’t put religious faith in that bracket. I have no evidence to prove there is no God. The burden of proof is on them, yes, but I don’t force it upon them to prove it. If they want to have a religious faith that is up to them. I won’t dictate to them.

That’s not a bad approach for a lot of us to take. Hell, I do it myself. I don’t really care to argue with you if you believe in God unless your beliefs are harming people in some obvious way or you try to proselytize. If praying gets you through rough times, fine. Especially with family members, debating religion is something I try to avoid because no one’s going to “win” the argument.

But I still think theists are misguided and I still want people to lose their faith. I don’t see how you can think any other way if you really care about the truth.

I’m actually surprised Al-Khalili doesn’t think religious belief is a “silly notion.”

Al-Khalili says later in the interview that he will go after religion-based abuses and pseudoscience, which is great, but shouldn’t the leader of one of the largest Humanist organizations in the world be a little more blunt about the fact that religious beliefs are inherently fictional?

Strategically speaking, we can always “agree to disagree” in order to achieve our common goals. But when it comes down to it, either one of us is right or we’re all wrong. To suggest that others can believe whatever they want — even when they’re wrong — and you’re not even going to try and dissuade them of those notions is exactly what we shouldn’t be doing. You don’t have to be a jerk about it. You don’t have to call religious people “stupid,” to use Al-Khalili’s word. But should we really remain on the sidelines during the entire game? We’ve been silent for way too long as is; if atheists have made any strides over the past decade, it’s because we finally began speaking up about why we’re not religious and speaking out against nonsense in general.

I understand PR. I understand Al-Khalili’s trying to reach out to as many people as possible. I understand that not everyone should be trying to “pick a fight” with religious people during every interaction. I understand he’s not (nor should he be) another Dave Silverman. Indeed, if you read the comments on The Independent‘s website, people are loving this guy.

But as someone who’s relatively non-confrontational when it comes to religion, even I thought this interview made Al-Khalili seem too soft.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Erp

    I suspect it is in part the difference between being the head of the BHA versus the head of the NSS (soft versus hard). Note also anytime theists try to apply their belief in god (e.g., god created the world in six days and it should be taught in schools) the BHA will push back.

  • GodVlogger (on YouTube)

    Each group, and leader, and person, gets to set their own tone.

    Different levels of anti-theism will appeal to different members of the secular community.

    Some of us may feel inspired to join the in-your-face American Atheists. Others: Freedom From Religion Foundation. Or American Humanists, or CFI, or JREF, etc.

    Many of us believe that it works best for the secular movement to have MANY different approaches at once, and we choose to support/join MULTIPLE secular organizations that have very different styles of engaging the theist community.

  • Mitur

    There is a place for both an aggressive and a more passive stance. We need both.

    We have the irrational, hate mongers like Watson and we have the sane, rational people like Harris and Dawkins. The nutters help us see how others might see us if we try to tell everyone not to be a dick while, ironically, being the hugest dick on the face of the planet.

  • Veronica Abbass

    Khalili tells his mother, ‘I’m happy for you, because I know your religious faith fills a hole in your life.’

    Why does Khalili’s mother have a hole in her life? Is religion just for filling holes in lives just like Polyfilla is used for filling holes in plaster? This makes religion sound so benign. Khalili needs to rethink his position (in both senses) as president of the British Humanist Association.

  • Isilzha

    I doubt most atheists get the equivalent acceptance from their religious family members. I know my mom has NEVER said she was happy about my atheism. In fact, she’s gotten really upset (actual tears and sobs) and said things like how horrible it was that she had to face the fact I was spending eternity in hell. So, I don’t see her religious faith as providing much real comfort to her overall.

  • chicago dyke

    i cannot be happy for people who fill “holes” in their lives with religion. just like i can’t be happy for closet cases, or uncle toms, or battered women who want me to ‘understand’ that their husbands really ‘love them.’ i can’t be happy for people who think jeebus is real and rode a dinosaur on his way to galilee. i can’t be happy for people who think the buddha did yoga and became a dolphin and then the ultimate being. mythology is myth. period. is it “rude” to say that at the holiday dinner table? maybe. but i won’t be “happy” for people who embrace it, unquestioningly. nope, i just can’t. i will feel sorry for them, wish they could use their brains more, realize that the world will be a better place when more of them do, etc. but “be happy?” oh, hell no.

  • nonfictions

    From what I got from this, the BHA is more concerned with atheist well-being instead of debating theists. With that being said, Jim’s POV makes a lot of sense. He’s less anti-theist and more pro-atheist (concerning himself more with the advancement of atheists vs the degradation of theists).

  • Octoberfurst

    I heartily agree. We need both approaches in the atheist community. We need people who are in-your-face as well as people who take a soft,let’s-talk-about-this-over-coffee approach. It all depends on what type of theist you are dealing with.

  • Sandy Kokch

    While the BHS do some sterling research and work, such as actively leading the successful drive to ensure UK schools do not teach creationism as science, I find them a little weak on other aspects, Jim personifies this weakness – they are too willing to play nice. With the Conservative party and its stealth theocrats like Baroness Warsi in power the velvet glove is not needed nor any use.

    I prefer the stance of the UK National Secular Society set up by Charles Bradlaugh in the 1800s and still active today. Charles was a great atheist leader and writer, as well as an MP whose refusal to pledge an oath with “god” in it saw the laws eventually changed. His writings are freely available online at

  • Mathew Goldstein

    I agree completely with Hemant Mehta here. It is counter-productive to adopt a stance that many different and mutually exclusive beliefs have equal merit, that it is fine for people to have false beliefs, that beliefs are nothing more than personal choices which should be arrived at without debate over disagreements. Humanist organizations would be more effective if they exhibited genuine conviction that humanism is better and that everyone should be a humanist, starting with the organization’s president.