Enemy of Faith

It seems that the Christian Anti-Defamation Commission, which apparently exists, has released a list of the top ten instances of “Christian-bashing” in America in 2008 (HT: PZ). Taking a bold stand, this group has announced, “It is time for… Christians to no longer be treated like second-class citizens”.

Perusing the list, you’ll soon discover that the people who wrote it can’t grasp the difference between being criticized and being persecuted. Forget that at least three-quarters of the U.S. population identifies as Christian, that Christianity enjoys unanimous acclaim and official favoritism by government, or that Christianity controls a vast multibillion-dollar empire of books, magazines, radio stations, TV channels and private universities to spread its message. Never mind all that, some evil atheists said mean things about us on the Internet, which proves what a poor, persecuted minority we Christians are! Boo hoo!

But of all the items on the list, my personal favorite is the claim that President Barack Obama says he’s a Christian, but isn’t a Christian according to this group’s definition of the term, and that his election therefore represents persecution of Christianity. And then there’s this gem of irony:

During and after the November campaign stories flooded in of pro-Prop 8 signs being taken, people verbally and physically assaulted, church property and private automobiles vandalized, and person’s jobs and pastor’s lives threatened simply for exercising their right to campaign and vote in support of traditional marriage.

I don’t condone violence, but come on. It’s pure disingenuousness to say that you’re just “protecting marriage” by taking it away from people whom you don’t think deserve to have it, and then acting shocked and appalled when those people get angry. This is like the way cowboy movies depict white men as the heroes, under assault by those savage Native Americans for no reason whatsoever.

But even if these specific examples are laughable, there remains the overall accusation: that atheists are die-hard enemies of faith, unwilling to live in harmony with theists, seeking to eradicate religion from the earth by any means necessary. Is that a fair characterization?

I can only answer for myself, of course, but I consider this a most unfair and insultingly inaccurate depiction of my views. For the record, here’s what I think:

I have never spoken against freedom of conscience, nor will I ever. You can practice, in the privacy of your own homes and churches, any faith you want. You can even preach it in public and try to persuade others to convert. That’s part of the free flow of ideas that’s an essential part of any democratic society. (By the same token, just as you have the right to proselytize and to argue against other faiths, you should expect to be argued against and criticized by people who believe differently. That too is part of the flow of ideas, protected by the same free speech guarantees that secure your right to preach to others. Free speech covers every idea, not just the ones you happen to agree with.)

But what you do not have the right to do is to import your religion into public policy, to make decisions which affect all of us on the basis of a faith that we do not all share. A government that represents people of diverse religious views must be secular, showing no favoritism toward any sect, and justifying its policy decisions on the basis of facts and reasons which anyone can examine.

There’s one other condition I would add, which is this: You have the right to bring up your children in your own faith, but you should give them a meaningful chance to choose for themselves. You should teach them, at the very least, about the existence of different religions (and atheism), give them the opportunity to learn more if they wish to, and respect their choice if they desire to join one. Any belief system that brainwashes people via physical or emotional abuse, that seeks to deny them the right to make their own choices, or that punishes them if they leave, is an evil that society should not tolerate.

If you can meet these conditions, then I am not an enemy of your faith. Truthfully, I don’t care what other people do in private. It’s only when theists bring their faith into the sphere of public policy and assert that their understanding of God’s will entitles them to special treatment that I feel the need to speak out. If there weren’t so many intolerant, militaristic believers trying to force their will on others – if religious irrationality didn’t pose such a grave and continuing threat to the welfare of the human race – then I doubt I’d have this website at all.

I grant that I’ve expressed the desire to see all forms of religious faith fade away and be replaced by a more rational outlook, but that’s only because I think it’s inherent in the nature of faith to overreach. If I were proven wrong about that, I’d gladly accept it. I’d welcome the arrival of a new kind of faith whose followers were content to live and let live, and I would be happy to grant them the same courtesy in return. In any case, if religion does die out, I expect it will take place gradually through demographic changes and rational persuasion, and I absolutely would never condone any form of coercion.

The Hypocrisy of Tolerance at the Touro Synagogue
New on the Guardian: Atheists Are Diversifying
Some Thoughts on Trigger Warnings
How Low Will It Go? The Continuing Decline of American Christianity
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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