Recording of the week: 'English atheist'
This week's selection comes from Dr Paul Merchant, Oral History Interviewer.
Nearly twenty years ago, on the 4th of March 1999, an interviewer working for BBC Radio Thames Valley’s contribution to the enormous BBC Millennium Oral History Project – ‘The Century Speaks’ – visited a local school to interview an 11 year-old girl. She was one of the youngest interviewees among a UK ‘sample’ of over 5000. The opening question produced a response which clearly surprised the interviewer:
Interviewer: How would you describe your identity? By that I mean your national identity.
Interviewee: English. English atheist.
Interviewer: Ah. [...] You’ve said atheist very quickly; tell me about that.
Interviewee: Erm, I just like, I didn’t want to be any particular religion but I didn’t want like committing- commit myself into saying I didn’t believe there was anything there, so I decided to be an atheist.
Interviewer: So you…
Interviewee: Because being an atheist means you believe that there’s someone- something around or up there, but you don’t know what it is. And you don’t think it’s really God, but you don’t know.
Interviewer: Oh right, and do you, do you- what do your parents believe?
Interviewee: They’re the same, they’re atheists.
Interviewer: Do you think that you’re an atheist perhaps because they are?
Interviewee: Yeah, just been influenced by them, so...
Interviewer: Yes? Is that it, do you think?
Interviewer: Are any of your brothers believers?
Interviewee: No. They’re all atheists like us.
Interviewer: And do you feel that being an atheist actually is a sort of definition – it really does define you as something; it’s like a religion of a sort?
Interviewee: Yeah. It’s like on its own.
Interviewer: Tell me a bit more about it, how it defines you, being an atheist.
Interviewee: It’s just like: you don’t need to commit yourself into anything; you can just like say you’re an atheist when people ask you what religion you are. And then they don’t ask anymore. So that’s it really. [laughs] [C900/17576, 00:15-2:00]
The clip is engaging not just because the interviewee is charmingly open and positive. It is also because it seems to wake us up from a strange dream in which the only people who talk about atheism are rather senior, male intellectuals of one sort or another. Here, an eleven year-old girl speaks of a form of atheism that:
• is related to religion but not through opposition to it: “you can just like say you’re an atheist when people ask you what religion you are”
• is chosen (“I decided to be an atheist”) but happily acknowledged as the outcome of context – her position in a family of atheists (“yeah, just been influenced by them”)
• is regarded as a substantial position (“its like on its own”) without being claimed as superior to any other
• involves a denial of the existence of ‘God’ (“you don’t think it’s really God”) without in any way placing limits on what existence itself might consist of (“you believe that there’s someone- something around or up there”)
The British Library holds all of ‘The Century Speaks’ interviews in a collection called ‘Millennium Memory Bank’ [MMB]. I found the interview with this young “English atheist” as part of a project – a new collaboration with the major Understanding Unbelief project at the University of Kent – exploring the nature of religious ‘unbelief’ in MMB and other oral history collections at the British Library. What will I uncover next?