Rejecting Religion Openly, and Being Polite About It
Tuesday, January 31st, 2012 at 2:47:00
It’s the million dollar question. You live in a world where almost everybody believes in a story that you do not. Besides the fact that societies are built around these stories, so are people’s most intimate hopes and fears. You don’t want to be silent about the way that you see the world, but at the same time you hate being rude.
So why challenge religion openly? I may take a round-about route, but in the following article I’ll try to at least give my own answer.
I don’t like getting shit upon.
In this way I am not unique. People generally prefer not to be oppressed, harassed, diminished, or abused; especially when it’s because of some aspect of their person that cannot be controlled. We all know that it’s wrong to revile an individual for their skin colour or handicap, precisely because those descriptives have been with them since birth.
I don’t believe in God. (or anything supernatural for that matter)
In this way I am also not unique, although I’m certainly not in the majority. Statistics regarding the prevalence of atheism vary depending on the source, but it remains clear that theism (belief in a god or gods) is the primary lens through which mankind sees the world. It’s a viewpoint so prevalent and so cherished that those who reject it might be the most universally loathed minority in modern history.
Most of us know the results of the 2007 Gallup poll which says that fewer Americans would vote for an atheist (45%) than for any other minority; including homosexuals (55%) and the thrice-married (67%); and far fewer than for any religious group. (Jews at 92%). Or the 2006 report that told us that “atheists are less likely to be accepted, publicly and privately, than any others from a long list of ethnic, religious, and other minority groups.”*
Anecdotally, most atheists will tell you they learned to keep their opinions quiet, at least for some period of their lives, thanks to interpersonal feedback. I’ve certainly been loudly dismissed by otherwise polite people once my lack of beliefs was revealed to them.
People seem willing to respect you no matter which god you worship, just so long as you worship one of them. Otherwise—unlike they would with any other minority—many people are quite comfortable telling you to your face that you’re less of a human being. Just ask Jessica Ahlquist.
All these factors have a chilling effect, making the accurate counting of non-believers very difficult. This despite some hints that it may be the fastest growing way of looking at the world, and in America, more populous than any of the minorities listed above.
Recently however, what was once a fractured and silent population of non-believers has begun to speak up. Unlike theism, where the god you believe in typically depends on the culture you come from, non-believers can pop up in any of these cultures, and on any part of the globe. It’s certainly no surprise therefore that the internet is the best place to find them. From all over the world faithless people are sharing their thoughts and being heard, (although sometimes using pseudonyms) making fertile ground for movements like the new atheism, skeptical activism, secular-humanist political groups, etc.
Like myself, I imagine not a single one of these heathens decided to abandon their faith. In fact, I’m not sure people are capable of deciding what to believe in the first place. One can make choices to insulate themselves against ways of thinking, surely. Self delusion sometimes takes work. But the idea that non-theists should ‘turn off’ their skepticism is simply a silly one. While I imagine that different people come to reject faith for different reasons, a lack of credulity most certainly has to be among them; a trait that, like skin colour, we’re probably born with a certain amount of.
To quote Popeye; “I am what I is.” Kinda sucks to be hated for it.
But while I’m willing to bet that I’m an atheist at a genetic level, I’m not sure how much of an anti-theist I’d consider myself to be. To put it more simply, while I don’t believe in God, I don’t think my job is to convince anyone else of the same. Well, maybe a little bit. Let me go on.
On Twitter I’ve been a repeated witness to fellow unbelievers chasing down and harassing people of faith. They scour through religious hashtags looking for anyone saying something bad (or inarticulate) about atheists, and then set to work on them 140 characters at a time. (You know who you are) Soon their atheist buddies join in, and it invariably becomes an evening-long flame war between the the faithful and the faithless.
This is a tactic I don’t fully understand. I guess some folks just like a good donnybrook, and I suppose that thousands of years of persecution gives a suddenly empowered populace of atheists some licence to be bitter. However exactly what is it that they hope to achieve by aggressively attacking the religious? We all know how hard it is to change another person’s beliefs, and let’s not just assume out of hand that it’s even ethical to try to do so if you could.**
It’s a fine line, but there’s a difference between standing up for what you believe in and tearing down the beliefs of others; perhaps for no other reason than because it’s rude. Since this blog was conceived not as a way to speak to the masses, but rather to introduce a little bit of skepticism and critical thinking to the people in my immediate sphere, it’s important for me to co-exist with those people. Some of my readers are relgious friends and family, and I’m not so much of a crusader to trade their feelings for pursuit of an agenda.
My goal is not to mock or punch holes in anybody else’s way of seeing the world, but simply to make sure the world makes room for mine.
Many have made the case that religion is a detriment to society, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t find that notion compelling. But even if it’s true, is religion the biggest threat our civilization currently faces? Is the threat of climate change not worse? Or poverty? Peak Oil? Nuclear arms?
Not that we shouldn’t try to solve smaller problems while we solve the big ones, but might there be some other motivation at play, which skews our priorities as rationalists?
Could it be that free-thinkers focus so heavily on religious beliefs thanks primarily to an overgrown sense of rejection? Of anger over being an outcast? Is their desire to diminish religion disproportionate to any pragmatic reason for doing so? And if that’s the case, then just how rational are we being?
What needs to end first is not intolerance among believers, but rather the silence of non-believers. Once the latter is commonplace, the former should take care of itself. We don’t need to diminish the religious, and we don’t need to throw our lack of belief in everybody’s face. We just need to be open.
We need to change our religion to ‘atheist’ or ‘agnostic’ on our Facebook profiles, whether Aunt Clara can see it or not. We need to not shy away from answering ‘atheist’ whenever the topic comes up in polite conversation at dinner parties.*** We need to be at least as comfortable discussing our beliefs as religious people do theirs, in every sphere of discourse.
By doing so people think you’re saying they’re stupid for believing in God, or that you think you’re smarter than everyone else. This is an unfortunate side effect of holding a minority opinion, but that doesn’t mean we stop being who we are for everybody else’s sake. What we say has to fly in their faces a little bit, simply by the nature of the argument. But the goal should remain only to be heard and counted, not to win a war of ideas.
Remember the homosexual example, and their successful (but ongoing) ascension towards acceptance in society. (below) Imagine how much more difficult their struggle would be if it were perceived that they were trying to make everyone else gay too. Remember the very reason that ‘pride’ is the word they use to encapsulate their movement. The more open and expressive a group of people are, the more difficult it is for the general populace to marginalize them.
Why? Because by being open the true numbers of that group can be counted, and more importantly, can impact the day-to-day lives of average people. By coming out in significant numbers, more people can say “I have a cousin who’s gay”, or “My niece is an atheist”. That’s the way a political climate is created, so that acceptance of a group is not begrudgingly done, but is instead unavoidable.
By simply stating who we are, so everyone can hear us, and avoiding the pitfalls of endless debate on the specifics of what we believe; we create the landscape on which tolerance for the non-religious can exist.
That’s the way each individual atheist avoids getting shit on. By being part of a vocal, proud, and mutually supportive whole; a group to whom it’s no longer socially acceptable to be rude.
*Thanks to the Friendly Atheist for that link.
**Listen, I know all the counter arguments to this notion, but you have to at least admit that it’s not an easily answered question. I don’t want to suggest that we should ‘bend over backwards’, as Dawkins puts it, to preserve the faith of others. But aggressively attempting to destroy the faith of others seems like a different beast to me.
***The hardest of them all?
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