A reader writes:
First, thank you for giving atheists a say in your conversations about religion. One of your readers referred to atheists like me as “dickheads” because he gets tired of us constantly talking about our disbelief in gods. Okay, I’ll happily join the ranks of feminists who were dickheads about getting the vote, African Americans who were dickheads in the pursuit of equal rights, and those dickhead gays who demand respect and the same rights as heterosexuals. I only want my government to respect my right to not believe the existence of a god, to remain neutral when it comes to religion, to not push Christianity as a national religion, or give special privileges to religions. I want a social climate where atheists are not stigmatized.
A number of friends and relatives have told me in private that they, too, don’t believe in the existence of gods but either cannot or prefer not to make that public. I want that to end someday. I want to see a day when people believe or don’t believe because it makes sense to them, not because everyone else believes it, or that’s what’s expected of them.
I speak out so that our leaders understand there are atheists out there who feel just as strongly about our belief as they do about their religion. I never want another person to experience what happened to me a few years ago.
When my wife’s sister collapsed and died suddenly, her whole family was devastated. At the funeral they were still reeling. My wife’s family is devoutly Catholic and she never told them that I was an atheist (she’s accepted it). During the Catholic service honoring her sister’s life, the priest spoke highly of her sister’s service and devotion to the church, that she is now in a better place with Jesus, and how Great our Lord Jesus is. To reinforce this, he exhorted everyone who believes in the love of Jesus to stand up. My wife and I were seated near the front of the church and I quickly had to decide what to do. I chose not to stand. Everyone saw this and it just added to the pain of the moment for my wife. (I might add that I am not the same race as her family, which added to the awkwardness.)
I want religious leaders to understand that exhortations like this can embarrass those who aren’t Christians, and in some cases it can break up families and marriages. If the priest had just asked those who believe to say “Amen” few if any would have noticed those who said nothing. This has left a lasting scar on my marriage and my relationship with my wife’s family.
I honestly don’t care if people believe in a God or not. I never talk about people’s religion or try to convince them there is no God unless they bring my atheism up first. I’m only a dickhead when people force their religious beliefs on me or on my government. I want people to understand that there are a lot of atheists out there, that we are sane, moral citizens with rights we are willing to stand up for.
I don’t think New Atheists are any more militant or angry than other minority advocacy groups, but I can freely admit that there is some actual anger, and that there are some pretty legit reasons for it. There is a large segment of the population that believes that an atheist is inherently immoral because humans are incapable of having a moral compass without divine belief. There is the mirror belief, even among agnostics, that being religious is somehow an indicator of higher ethical standards. Given history, a lot of atheists find this annoying, dismaying, and at times infuriating. Does not every minority encounter and react to these sorts of morally superior arguments and broad based but inaccurate characterizations and assumptions? Why is the bar for anger and militancy set so low when discussing the godless? And I have not even touched on religion’s extraordinary influence on the culture wars and politics, which Thomas Wells makes only the briefest mention of before dismissing it.
Lastly, regarding your reader who analogized atheism to his dislike for soccer, questioning the appropriateness of him constantly berating his friends and relatives if they ever watch the sport: Know what I do at the half-dozen events per month that involve someone telling us to bow our heads in prayer? I remain quietly respectful, as all atheists I know would do. Know what I do if someone asks me about my religion or what church I attend? I tell them I am an atheist. See the difference? The only time it may get a little tense is if I am baselessly accused of immorality, hatred of god, willful disobedience to what I “know must be true”, or encounter the justification of a preferred public policy decision because “its in the Bible.” You tell me who is being the dick in such a conversation.
Great thread, thanks. Let’s say the New Atheists are indeed “dickheads” and “contrarians,” as your writer argues. That’s even more of a reason to speak out, and do so with grace and kindness. One of the best compliments I ever received was from a Christian co-worker after she found out about my atheist activism, saying that my kindness disproved the stereotype of the amoral atheist.