Why Won't You Atheists Just Go Away?

The Newsweek/Washington Post blog On Faith has posted a series of responses from panelists to the American Humanist Association’s new holiday ad campaign (HT: An Apostate’s Chapel). Here’s the question they asked:

What do you think of the American Humanist Association’s new “Godless Holiday” campaign? The ads, displayed on transit systems in five major U.S. cities, will say: “No God? …No Problem! Be good for goodness’ sake. Humanism is the idea that you can be good without a belief in God.” Is this another front on the so-called secular “war on Christmas”? Or is this another example of the pluralistic strength of America?

The responses run the gamut, including the usual plaintive whines from theologians who stomp their feet and insist that we’re not allowed to be good people unless we believe in their god. There’s also this air ball from John Shelby Spong:

The religious community needs to understand the God that the humanists are rejecting. This God is defined as a being, supernatural in power, external to the world, who periodically invades the world in miraculous ways.

No, Mr. Spong, that is incorrect. We atheists reject your thin, watered-down porridge of a god as well, just as we reject the traditional theistic understanding. That is the definition of what it means to be an atheist: we reject all notions of gods, without preference or partiality.

But this is all old hat. I wanted to focus on a more interesting response from Susan K. Smith, a pastor in the liberal United Church of Christ. You might expect someone from such a denomination to be sympathetic to us – but her post is titled, incredibly, “Humanists, leave us alone“.

I cannot for the life of me understand why humanists don’t just leave people who believe in God alone.

…People like me who believe in God find comfort in the thought of an Almighty. Belief in that Almighty has been a mainstay of my life and of the life of my ancestors. I choose to continue to believe and will do so, and so I resent people telling me that I should not.

If your sympathies were with the accommodationists, you might want to use this as another piece of evidence for how disrespectful and rude the New Atheists are, that we’re driving away even liberal theist groups like the UCC. But look again, and see what Smith is complaining about: not some scathing attack or vicious polemic, but an ad which simply expresses the message that belief in God isn’t necessary to be good. You can’t get less confrontational than that, short of being silent. But even this mild, cheerful message is enough to provoke Smith to wish that we would just go away and leave her alone.

Glaringly absent from Smith’s piece is any recognition that religious people “don’t just leave humanists alone”. In fact, there are large, multimillion-dollar media and political ministries whose sole mission is to tell the rest of us what we should believe. The atheist ad campaigns, as laudable as they are, are just a drop in the bucket compared to the blizzard of religious evangelizing that pervades our society. And yet it’s our ad campaign, not theirs, that raises her ire.

Michael Otterson, a PR spokesperson for the Mormon church, strikes a similar note in his response. He essentially says it’s okay for humanists to speak out, just so long as they don’t make any religious person upset:

The potential for trouble lies in whether a message like theirs is allowed to descend into ridicule or condemnation of those who do profess a belief in God. Just as those who consider themselves nonreligious expect their lack of belief to be respected, religious Americans should also be able to safely assume their profession of faith will be respected and not just tolerated.

First of all, I hope I’m not the only one who feels a small chill down my spine when I read the phrase “is allowed”. This choice of wording carries the unmistakable implication that there should be some third party deciding which ideas may or may not be expressed.

But what really leaps out at me is the gigantic whopper in the second sentence. Did you catch it? Look again: He writes that atheists “expect [our] lack of belief to be respected”, and so religious people have a right to ask for the same.

This is an utter fabrication. We atheists ask for the same legal rights as believers. That is all we have ever asked for. We emphatically do not seek to be exempt from criticism. As a look around the atheist blogosphere shows, we do not fear theist arguments – we’re more than confident that we can defeat them, and generally speaking, we welcome the opportunity.

Otterson has distorted our position so that he can draw a false equivalency between our views and his. We seek only equality before the law, while he seeks the same thing religious groups have always demanded: freedom from outside scrutiny, from difficult questions, and from being held to account for the wrongs his church commits. He fears criticism and debate, while we welcome them. Make no mistake: he clearly wishes to be free from ridicule and condemnation even when his church does things that deserve to be ridiculed and condemned.

Remarkably, the person who most clearly grasps the point is an evangelical himself, Richard Mouw:

We evangelical types have paraded enough of our own in-your-face stuff in public places, so why should we complain when the unbelievers do the same?

Bravo! It seems almost superfluous to praise someone for recognizing such an obvious point, except that so many of his fellow believers seem incapable of grasping it. Religious groups of every kind, and Christian groups especially, have always had the freedom to advertise their beliefs, to argue with and persuade others, and to criticize beliefs that they disagree with. They have that freedom and they have exercised it to the fullest extent. It’s much too late to complain now that atheists have started getting into the persuasion game.

And what’s so terrible about atheists arguing for our point of view, anyway? America and the Western nations in general have a strong, lively tradition of free speech, which includes debate, ridicule, satire and harsh criticism. Every moral advance our society has made was because of rabble-rousers who spoke out against popular prejudices, even when they incurred the wrath of the majority or inspired fervent wishes that those nasty, uncouth radicals would just go away and stop disturbing the status quo.

This idea that public discourse should be gentle and peaceful and not disturb anyone, as if we were all elderly grandmothers meeting for tea, is a modern aberration. The reason we have a First Amendment is precisely so we can speak truths that other people would rather not hear. Free speech is only doing its job when it inspires action, passion, and anger, and so the New Atheists must be doing things exactly right, judging by the response we’ve received. So, no, we’re not going away, and we’re not going to be silenced. We’re going to say precisely what we think, and we’re going to do so as loudly and as often as possible. Do you have a problem with that? Tough!

About Adam Lee

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

  • Herb

    We’re going to say precisely what we think, and we’re going to do so as loudly and as often as possible. Do you have a problem with that? Tough!

    Hooray! The defining characteristic of the “new atheism”

  • Sarah Braasch

    I’ve been dealing a lot with this issue recently. I’ve lost friends over it. For some reason they couldn’t understand why I was not ok that they are allowed a discourse that is forbidden me.

    The religious don’t just want to believe their beliefs — they want to be free to express their beliefs whenever and however they see fit — as they should — this is their right to express themselves as they wish.

    Even if I find much of this discourse deeply and personally offensive. And, I do. I am offended when someone tells me that I am going to hell. I am offended when someone tells me that God loves and favors them, but hates the Muslims girls who take advantage of the services at the organization where I work.

    But, I am not allowed this same discourse. If I express my lack of belief. If I try to tell someone that religion is false. If I try to tell someone that Jesus probably never existed, then I am accused of being rude, obnoxious, impolite, insensitive, etc., etc..

    I got tired of it. I’m done apologizing for expressing myself.

    I demand the same rights as everyone else.

    I think it is evidence of how shaky and weak their beliefs are — that they require this degree of protection.

  • keddaw

    There is a great irony that the only people upset are actually upset on other people’s behalf.

    We get this in the UK, when people criticise Islam it is almost always Christians that are upset by it on their behalf.

    Anyway, if your belief is so weak that it is threatened by that message then you are exactly who should be reading that advert.

  • http://theorangesashford.moonfruit.com Steve Bowen

    Hooray! The defining characteristic of the “new atheism”

    Which is probably how it will be characatured. It’s much easier to shoot the messengers than deal with the message, especially if as Sarah observes their beliefs are not really strong enough to handle it.

  • Ritchie

    It’s much easier to shoot the messengers than deal with the message, especially if as Sarah observes their beliefs are not really strong enough to handle it.

    Hear hear! (or is it ‘here here’? Seems unlikely…)

    As far as I see, if people can only object to how we deliver a message, or whether we should deliver the message, it means they cannot address the message itself.

  • Kevin Morgan

    A short list of what it would take for me to go away and leave theists alone:

    1. Stop any public displays of your religion.
    2. Have your institutions pay taxes on their lands and income.
    3. Stop knocking on peoples doors asking if you can talk to us.
    4. Stop distributing all those tracks, pamphlets and magazines.
    5. Stop advertising your groups in print ads and billboards.
    6. Cease all protests against such things as abortion, family planning, etc.
    7. Cease all involvement in politics.

    Those are a few of my requirements just off the top of my head.

  • http://1939to1945.blogspot.com NoAstronomer

    “In fact, there are large, multimillion-dollar media and political ministries whose sole mission is to tell the rest of us what we should believe.”

    And when that doesn’t work they try to force their beliefs on us anyway through legislation, constitutional amendments and political lobbying.

  • Valhar2000

    Again and again, movements of advancement, justice and liberation come up to fight the statu quo, and again and again the inertia of society expresses itself in eerily similar ways, sometimes word for word. This leads me to a depressing realization: most people would gladly be tortured and killed, have their hosues burned down and their families sold into slavery, and have all knowledge and all trace of their existence removed from the earth, rather than learn something.

  • Pither

    Actually, the comments on the Richard Mouw response are quite a hoot.

  • http://www.turntheclockforward.org/ Jen R

    Those plaintive theologians just make me tired. Why do such ignorant people get a prominent forum to expound on subjects they know nothing about? Anyone who’s spent a few days googling secular ethics could refute those arguments.

  • http://www.WorldOfPrime.com Yahzi

    I didn’t read any hostile intent in the phrase “is allowed.” To me it was clear that the regulatory body should be the people posting the ads: that is, he was hoping they wouldn’t let themselves become uncivil.

    He would probably suggest trivializing (such as comparing God to Sanata) as an example of of uncivility. Oddly, he probably wouldn’t consider “telling everyone else they are totally wrong and deserve torture and death for being so wrong” as uncivil.

    I guess people’s definition of civility differs.

  • http://theorangesashford.moonfruit.com Steve Bowen

    He would probably suggest trivializing (such as comparing God to Sanata) as an example of of uncivility

    Actually comparing God with Santa would have Santa coming out the way better man in my opinion. Unless of course it was the robot Santa from Futurama (or maybe even then).

  • anna

    “as if we were all elderly grandmothers meeting for tea”

    Touch of ageism and sexism in that, wouldn’t you say?

    And yes, I know this is a post about censorship and I don’t intend to censor you. Leave the phrase just as it is if you like. But do be aware not every elderly woman is a sugary sweet lady who does quilting by the fire and would shrink in horror from a hard fought debate. Just think of Mother Jones or Maggie Kuhn.

  • http://piepalace.ca/blog Erigami

    I came by the comment page to post exactly what anna had to say: my grandmother would have no problem with what you had to say. She’d ignore you, she may even turn down her hearing aide if you kept badgering, but she wouldn’t have a problem with it.

  • Soulless_Wolf

    You two are aware that there actually are grandmothers that are like that? No one is saying that every elderly woman is this way, but there are some. All I assume he was doing was invoking an image that many of us are familiar with.

  • paradoctor

    “Be good for goodness’ sake”? That’s an interesting cooptation of a Santa song for the sake of humanism. Is Santa an atheist? He’s certainly given atheism plenty of support.

  • Evan

    “Bravo! It seems almost superfluous to praise someone for recognizing such an obvious point, except that so many of his fellow believers seem incapable of grasping it. Religious groups of every kind, and Christian groups especially, have always had the freedom to advertise their beliefs, to argue with and persuade others, and to criticize beliefs that they disagree with. They have that freedom and they have exercised it to the fullest extent. It’s much too late to complain now that atheists have started getting into the persuasion game.”

    Excellent! this should go in your “must read posts”

  • DSimon

    Soulless_Wolf, reconsider the form your comment as though you were talking about another form of discrimination, such as racism or homophobia, with its associated “image that many of us are familiar with” (e.g. stereotype). Does it pass muster?

  • Alex Weaver

    Soulless_Wolf, reconsider the form your comment as though you were talking about another form of discrimination, such as racism or homophobia, with its associated “image that many of us are familiar with” (e.g. stereotype). Does it pass muster?

    Do you consider various satirical statements about stereotypical middle class whites’ fear of “scary black men” racist as well?

  • http://www.myspace.com/driftwoodduo Steve Bowen

    No one is saying that every elderly woman is this way, but there are some. All I assume he was doing was invoking an image that many of us are familiar with.

    reconsider the form your comment as though you were talking about another form of discrimination, such as racism or homophobia, with its associated “image that many of us are familiar with” (e.g. stereotype). Does it pass muster?

    Do you consider various satirical statements about stereotypical middle class whites’ fear of “scary black men” racist as well?

    AAAArrrrggggghhh!! This is so frustrating, I will not derail this thread but…. I’ll tell you what Ebon, do a post on. oh .. I don’t know…”The Morality of Satire?”. To quote Peter Griffin (one of our greatest contemporary philosophers) political correctness “grinds my gears”. Sometimes stereotypes are relevant and can be invoked with love and humor to enlighten. Sorry, we were saying…?

  • http://she-who-chatters.blogspot.com/ D

    This idea that public discourse should be gentle and peaceful and not disturb anyone, as if we were all elderly grandmothers meeting for tea, is a modern aberration.

    Touch of ageism and sexism in that, wouldn’t you say?
    And yes, I know this is a post about censorship and I don’t intend to censor you.

    Meh, we’ve all got our prejudices. I don’t think this one is doing any harm, if it is there at all. Also, you’d be “censuring” him by calling him out on an imaginary insult; it wouldn’t be censorship until or unless you got the statement forcefully removed, and I’m pretty sure you’re powerless to do that.

    DSimon, you assume too much by saying that there is discrimination there in the first place. There is not. Nor is there insensitivity. Anna & Erigami are pretty clearly looking for a fight, and Wolf just called them out on it. Steve, I’m with you on this one.

  • DSimon

    D, I agree with you in that it isn’t discrimination; I should have said “prejudice”, as that’s a more precise word for what I’m talking about. Discrimination would be if we were talking about unfairly granting some sort of benefit to some and denying it to others. In this case, that’s not happening.

    How does this kind of prejudice cause harm? Well, it might make any older women who might be reading the article think, justifiably, that the author automatically assumes a bunch of mildly insulting things about them, such as that they don’t take their beliefs seriously enough to argue for them, or that they have a certain narrow set of interests.

    It’s a lot like how some people will automatically assume about any atheist, until they learn otherwise, that they’re obsessively interested in science, or that they can’t talk with theists at a party without starting an argument. Just because those things are true for some atheists doesn’t mean it’s not obnoxious when people act as though they’re true for atheists in general.

    I’m not saying the original poster is a bad person, or was acting out of anything but admirable motivations like the desire to write a good post. However, whether you say something insensitive by accident or intentionally, the effect on your audience is the same.

    Regarding Steve’s point on satire: in order to satirize a stereotype, you have to be making fun of that stereotype or the people who hold it. I don’t see how the original text is doing that; to my reading, it uses the stereotype directly, not in an ironic or satirical way.

  • Libby

    @ Kevin Morgan

    ….Well isn’t that exactly what they want us to do? You seem upset that they try to silence atheists, but then you say that you in turn want to silence them. That’s a bit of a double standard. I personally have no desire to take freedom of speech away from any religious people. I simply think that atheists should have a share in that freedom.

  • http://godlizard.com godlizard

    I cannot count the number of religious billboards, advertisements in print and broadcast, and even door-to-door proselytizers that I have seen in my life, but you’d think we were trying to burn a wooden A on their lawn if they detect any evidence of our existence.

    Of course that’s a bit hyperbolic, but then again, it’s just a bit. All the wailing and gnashing of teeth over the simple act of wanting to be heard, and wanting to take our place in the public consciousness — but how many people do you know who feel the need to hide their Christianity from family and friends lest they freak out? Are the Christian closets full of secret believers, afraid to come out and be known?

    There may be some atheists out there who are trying to prevail over the faithful and silence them, but they are not the majority — most of us just want to have our voices heard and our views acknowledged. The conflicts come when believers try to force non-scientific methods into government and schools in direct violation of the separation of church and state, and yes, in those cases we ARE trying to keep Christ out, because it’s not fair to Allah or Vishnu or the Flying Spaghetti Monster — not just unfair to us. And yes, we will be assertive on those matters, we have the Constitution on our side.

    But in matters of public visibility, we just want what everyone else has, that’s it. Equality. A voice.

  • Danikajaye

    Er, Libby, I think he was trying to point out the double standard.

  • ThatOtherGuy

    DSimon, you assume too much by saying that there is discrimination there in the first place. There is not. Nor is there insensitivity. Anna & Erigami are pretty clearly looking for a fight, and Wolf just called them out on it. Steve, I’m with you on this one.

    Geez, THANK you. I was wondering if anyone else read that original “You’re stereotyping old ladies” comment and immediately thought “Are you freakin’ serious?” Clearly, as you said, just looking for something to complain about.

    ———————

    ANYWAY, loved the post. It really is insulting the way these people get their knickers in such a twist over something that could not possibly be made less insulting without the speakers being shut up entirely. It really is as if the very existence of people who don’t buy into their mythology is offensive to them. I half think the only reason they don’t act that way to jews and muslims and hindus is that they’d act the same way back, while people who don’t believe ANY religion just don’t get incensed about things that easily.

  • Valhar2000

    It really is as if the very existence of people who don’t buy into their mythology is offensive to them.

    That is exactly what it is. Our existence offends them, and they want us to disappear. They cannot say directly like that, because the hypocrisy involved in doing so would be too great even for them, but that is how they feel, and you can’t help how you feel. Not very much.

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  • Maynard

    It really is as if the very existence of people who don’t buy into their mythology is offensive to them.

    It’s because they know that their beliefs are ridiculous but they still want to hold on to them for whatever reason. Other faiths are less threatening because they represent their own comparitively ridiculous beliefs.

    They’re drinking top-of-the-line, brand name Kool-Aid, just enjoying different flavors. Then some damned atheist points out that it’s only flavored, sweetened water and food coloring and ruins the illusion.

  • http://she-who-chatters.blogspot.com D

    @ DSimon (#22):

    I should have said “prejudice”, as that’s a more precise word for what I’m talking about. (…) it might make any older women who might be reading the article think, justifiably, that the author automatically assumes a bunch of mildly insulting things about them… (Emphasis added – D)

    Well, I went and looked up prejudice, and I gotta say, I still don’t see it. The internet defines prejudice as, “An adverse judgment or opinion formed beforehand or without knowledge or examination of the facts” (yes, there are other definitions, but this seems to be the most pertinent one). As Wolf pointed out, such old ladies do in fact exist. So I hope you can see that your point on “how some people will automatically assume about any atheist” is irrelevant. Ebonmuse was not making a judgment about old ladies, he was using a real thing that happens as a rhetorical device to illustrate a point of his about theists saying that we all ought to be that way.

    Anyone who takes exception to such an innocuous turn of phrase has it precisely backwards and, as I said before, is looking for a fight. This is starting to include you. Comparing this to, say, Bush the Elder’s remark that atheists shouldn’t be considered citizens, is nothing more than eager fault-finding. Grow up and don’t casually spout such serious words, or you’ll only cheapen them for when they actually do apply.

  • Joffan

    On grandmothers: Have we escalated the rhetoric to “hate crimes” yet? I’m not joining in this derailment unless we get flaming torches and pitchforks to march on the castle of the evil baron, who was definitely less polite to the butcher’s boy than he should have been.

  • Amber

    To avoid BS like this, I always preface my statements with the phrase “the stereotypical…” to make it clear I am specifically appealing to a stereotype as an illustration, and not necessarily a common reality.

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    I think it is evidence of how shaky and weak their beliefs are — that they require this degree of protection.

    Sarah, I think this hits the nail on the head. The reason they’re acting so threatened at our unmitigated gall to say, “Hey! We exist! This is what we do and don’t think!” is that this simple act does, in fact, threaten their belief. The foundations of their belief are incredibly shaky. The mere act of questioning it — or indeed, simply pointing out an alternative to it — is enough to undermine it.

  • http://she-who-chatters.blogspot.com/ D

    That’s a great point, Greta! It’s the same old “why don’t you just keep it out of sight” bullshit. Umm… the freedom to be me is the freedom to be me all the time, thank you very much. Their insecurity is irrelevant to the point – if they’re that worried about their ridiculousness being exposed, then maybe they shouldn’t believe such ridiculous things, eh?

  • DSimon

    Comparing this to, say, Bush the Elder’s remark that atheists shouldn’t be considered citizens, is nothing more than eager fault-finding.

    I made no such comparison, and have no idea why you bring it up.

    Furthermore, I don’t feel that that comparison would be appropriate since Bush Sr. was clearly being malicious, whereas the phrase about elderly grandmothers is clearly not intended maliciously.

    As Wolf pointed out, such old ladies do in fact exist.

    This doesn’t seem like a good method for determining whether or not an idea is prejudicial. Here’s an example of how you could make a statement about atheists in a way that’s very similar to the original statement:

    “The idea that we should always be starting heated arguments with others, like a lone atheist at a party, is a modern aberration.”

    Atheists who are always starting heated arguments about religion at parties also do in fact exist, but the above statement still invokes it as a mildly insulting stereotype and indicates (perhaps unintentionally!) that it’s intended to apply to atheists in general.

    Anyone who takes exception to such an innocuous turn of phrase has it precisely backwards and, as I said before, is looking for a fight. This is starting to include you.

    Please relax, I’m not trying to start a fight, just a discussion. As I said earlier, I don’t think making such a turn of phrase makes the speaker a bad person. I’m just saying that it could reasonably be interpreted as mildly insulting by some older women. It’s to our benefit to avoid putting off anybody we don’t intend to.

    I’m perplexed at the idea that merely bringing up the topic somehow indicates that I’m being uncivil. I do admit that I’m dragging the thread off-topic though. Should we maybe move this conversation to an open thread?

  • http://she-who-chatters.blogspot.com/ D

    I do admit that I’m dragging the thread off-topic though. Should we maybe move this conversation to an open thread?

    It takes two to tango; I’ve been derailing it right along with you. I’ve got a few things to say about your latest response, so I’m game! Where do you want to go? I don’t know if the Reader Feedback open thread is an appropriate place, so I’m not really sure where to take this.

  • http://dsimon.typepad.com/ DSimon

    You know, it’s about time I had a blog anyways, if only for situations like this. Go ahead and comment here, D. Anybody else is welcome to join in too if they want.

  • stephan

    Your quote for Michael Otterson. I think he was just thinking that what he and his fellow theologists wanted was what everyone else wanted. Not really trying to create a fabrication. just thinking that all thought the same. which is a common condition in the theologists community

  • http://brazilbrat.blogspot.com/ James Smith João Pessoa, Brazil

    A major difference between atheists and deists is, atheists do not have to lie, ignore or deny obvious facts, and do not attempt to have their ideas enacted into law so as to force everyone to follow one set of arbitrary rules.

    If deists would display the same courtesies, there would be no conflict. But I don’t know that there’s the least chance of that happening in say, the next thousand years.

  • anti_supernaturalist

    Misinterpreting suffering and ecstasy

    Taking Beyond Good and Evil ∫108 as a guide:

    There are no religious phenomena at all, but only religious interpretations of phenomena.

    Why is it Christ rather than Buddha who appears as an auditory hallucination to Saul of Tarsus on Damascus Road?

    Why does Teresa of Avila go into sexual ecstasy during Christ’s penetration of her rather experiencing her frenzy as from Krishna like that enjoyed by Radha and the voluptuous Gopis of Vrindavan?

    the anti_supernaturalist