Can You Really Love Religious People If You Hate Their Religion?

Atheists do not exactly claim to “love sinners but hate sins” (if for no other reason than that most, if not all, of us reject the category of “sin” as a meaningful or valuable way to talk about ethical failure). Also, atheists may be more realistic than to think that we really do, or feasibly could, actually love all people. And atheists may very well have different opinions on whether such indiscriminate loving would be a worthwhile ideal even if people could do this. (As I have argued before, there are ethically right and wrong ways to feel towards things and people based on what their objective value merits.)

But, nonetheless, insofar as atheists share Western liberal secularist values, I would hope that all of us share a moral, and not merely political, ideal that involves respecting and honoring the dignity of all people. I would hope that more than just politically tolerating people with whom we disagree, that we also seek to have generally benevolent dispositions towards all the people we encounter socially, as much as this is possible consistent with respect for truth in value judgments.

While some enemies in life are inevitable (and sometimes actually wind up providing as much or more benefit to each other as friends do), we should want as much goodwill and positive interaction with other people as possible, despite their manifold manifest flaws. And this means that even though we disagree with people’s immoral behaviors, we should try to be as sympathetically inclined to them as we can, consistent with justice, truthfulness, and their own well-being.

And as much as we disagree with and vociferously challenge people’s wrong and/or pernicious ideas, we should be able to bracket (or at least contextualize) these qualms as much as possible when considering people as whole people. For example, we should not let a philosophical disagreement, even a serious one, completely cloud our ability to appreciate someone’s overall excellent character where it exists. We should keep conflicts of the mind from precluding friendships of the heart. And a friendship of the mind where the minds disagree is in most cases something to cherish since it provides the benefits both of productive enmity and of harmonious concord.

But in order to walk the line between intellectual disagreement and personal friendship, the atheist must consider a difficult question. Can she both hate religion, as many atheists seem to, and yet simultaneously love the religious person any more realistically than the fundamentalist religious person can love gay people while hating homosexuality?

Of course, an atheist can say to the religious person something analogous to what the fundamentalist religious person says to gays, “I don’t care what you do in the privacy of your own church or home, but I just don’t want to hear about it.  Leave all your crazy ideas for when you’re with your other religious friends.  I don’t want you to talk about praying for me or about your spiritual experiences or about your ignorant opinions that come only from superstitions.  I hate all this stuff about you, even though I otherwise think you’re great and totally honor your overall character.”

The problem is that comparable to the way that most gay people do not think they can closet their sexual identity and be comfortably themselves and the way most gay people resent anyone who asks them to be closeted as callously rejecting them, it may not be entirely unreasonable for many religious people to say that their faith is too central a part of who they are to feel pressured to stifle it every time they go out in public.  I’m not talking about theocratic religious people who want to impose their faith or its more arbitrary moral ideas through legislation or who crave for special recognition of their religion or of prayer, etc. in government settings.  Of course we can ask that people not try to make the government an arm of their faith or a vehicle for its expression without being confused for being “hateful”.

But even politically secular and tolerant religious people have a lot of other ways in which being openly and fully themselves means expressing themselves religiously.  And similarly, for many atheists our atheism is not a small issue but an important part of our identity.  This might be because our atheism makes us feel alienated from friends, family, the larger and more religious body of humanity, etc.  And/or it might be because we were once religious ourselves and rejecting religion was a key moment in our self-formation that is important to us still.  It might also be because in questions of religion, and specifically in contradistinction to it, we most clearly see what our intellectual and moral values are and find the greatest conflict with others over these core character issues.

And of course, for many religious people, we are talking about a key way in which they form their own sense of identity, in which they fundamentally connect with their family and with the “spiritual”, hopeful, reverential, moral, loyal, ritualistic, traditional, communal, purpose-oriented, and/or intellectual sides of their nature.  Their embrace of their religiosity can be a major part of their self-formation and their way of life itself.  It can profoundly shape core values—or at least their personal conceptualization of them.

So, both serious atheists and religious people can have a lot of themselves bound up in their complicated relationships to religion.  The stories of their lives and the dynamics of their psychologies would likely be woefully distorted were their religiosity or irreligiosity, their belief or their unbelief, scrubbed out of them.

Now, of course, for the sake of each other’s sanity and their mutual friendship, both serious atheists and religious people may make truces as far as their personal friendships are concerned, by which they either do not discuss religion or by which they employ deliberate or implicit means of not letting it become a wedge between them.  But to the extent to which this is necessary, there is a fundamental alienation between people who are otherwise friends, which can still be lamentable.  Maybe adherence to intellectual principle is a great enough good that it is justifiable to prioritize it even at the expense of better friendships and more “truces”.  But if there is a way to separate intellectual criticisms of each other’s core beliefs and values from emotional, visceral dislike or hatred?

There is a potential trade off in making our dislike of existing religion less emotional—it might mean not accurately enough feeling negatively towards what is genuinely bad in the existing religions.  It is a good thing to feel dislike for what is bad.  The bad deserves that.  And negative emotional dispositions provide motivational aid to get us to work reducing the bad.

But this brings me to the real crux of the problem.  When we orient our minds to eliminate the bad of religion, we are also possibly orienting ourselves to eliminate constitutive parts of our religious friends’ ways of life.  Describing how we want people to never again do or think the things our friends do or think risks saying to them, “we don’t want people to be the way you are.   We don’t want stories like yours to exist.  We don’t want the practices, traditions, rituals, etc. in which you form yourself and live your life to exist.  We don’t want people to have psychologies like yours or values like yours.”

Looked at in this way, of course religious people feel threatened and sometimes hated by our more vituperative denunciations of the beliefs, practices, institutions, and values through which they live their lives and construct their identities, hopes, moral judgments, etc.  It can be as bad for them to be told their religions should not exist as it is for gays to be told that their basic psycho-sexual love drive and love relationships should not exist.

And, of course, this door also swings the other way.  Religious attitudes that wish atheists out of existence and vilify us are alienating and harmful to some of us in comparable major ways too.

Is there a solution?  I think so.

I don’t think the answer is at all to pretend we believe things we don’t.  Nor is it to feign respect for badly formed and obviously false ideas.  Nor is it to gloss over our real and vital disagreements about moral values.  We are going to have to have these conflicts because truth and goodness ride on them.  Not everything in life can be sunshine and rainbows.  And some people will be evil in distinctively religious ways and be worthy of a good deal of denunciation.  Some atheists too.

But I don’t think we need to hate people’s reverential, spiritual, hopeful, traditional, superstitious, loyal, purpose-oriented, zealous, morally concerned, grateful, idiosyncratic, wondering sides that they are expressing through what we take to be the wrong means or what we see as aimed at the wrong objects.  We can appreciate that, in essential character, we share most of these same traits, only directed to objects and causes and people we think more worthy.

But these sides of our common humanity are what they are channeling through their religiosity and maybe if we can see these commonalities and appreciate their value in some of religious people’s religious expressions we can respect and appreciate as much of who they are as possible.  We can do this even as we are not shy about appropriately voicing our principled disagreements with their wronger abstract ideas and important value judgments when they are of consequence.

If we can see in their religiosity their admirable aspirations and character traits and not only their errors, we can find a way to love not just them but their religiosity itself.  When debating philosophically, we should still make the case to them that there are better ways to think about reverence, spirituality, values, etc. than the specific content of their religions when such content is foolish or pernicious.  We should even be working to develop more coherent and integrated ideas, for ourselves and our fellow atheists, about what proper, ethically enhancing uses the most distinctively “religious” tendencies of human nature can be put towards–consistent with truth and justice.

We should not shun or fear these parts of ourselves in their own right—only their abusive use in the service of superstition, falsehood, irrationalism, authoritarianism, cultishness, regressiveness, brainwashing, and all other forms of immorality.  We can recognize that our religious friends do not need to change their whole ways of life or deny their religious nature’s value.  We do not need to wish they were not who or what they are, just to wish they would correct some erroneous beliefs and counter-productive moral judgments.

And even as we openly criticize false beliefs, values, and institutions, we need to see what particular people are really expressing of value through their religiosity itself, amidst all the errors it might be twisted up with.  We might even be able to learn a thing or two about a side of ourselves that need not be opposed to reason or rediscover a side of ourselves that was never necessary to abandon when we rightfully left an irrational faith behind.

But is it possible to love someone’s religiosity despite thinking their beliefs and values are to some considerable extent pernicious?  In my next post on this topic, I addressed the question, “What Can An Atheist Love In People’s Religiosity?

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