Closeted Christians

Ada Calhoun has an article in Salon about how she has been a closeted Christian (until now). She kept her beliefs to herself because she was surrounded by atheists and those who joke about her faith.

… Walking to the subway, I ran into a friend heading home from yoga class. She wore sweats and carried her mat over her shoulder. “Where are you going so early all dressed up?” she asked, chuckling. “To church?” We shared a laugh at the absurdity of a liberal New Yorker heading off to worship.

The real joke? I totally was.

So what’s the right reaction to this piece? Should we feel bad that atheists are being critical of her just because she happens to be religious, or is her tirade unwarranted?

It’s unwarranted.

The problem with her article is that her friends are generally right. They’re not mocking the few positive aspects of faith that Calhoun wants to hype. They’re going after the Christian mindset — the one that is sadly held by tens of millions of people in America — that is anti-gay, anti-woman, anti-science, and tightly aligned with the Republican party.

Look at what Calhoun likes about her faith:

All of us need help with birth and death and good and evil, and religion can give us that. It doesn’t solve problems. It reminds you that, yes, those challenges are real and important and folks throughout history have struggled and thought about them too, and by the way, here is some profound writing on the subject from people whose whole job is to think about this stuff.

She wants hope and comfort rather than the truth. She wants community. She doesn’t understand that Humanists have ways of dealing with all of these things. They’re not as well-established, but they’re there.

Calhoun implies that atheists are attacking the natural human desire for comfort and answers. As far as I can tell, though, her friends aren’t laughing at her for any of those reasons. We’re focusing on the notion that anyone’s faith has those answers, in some “holy” book, and that if you don’t accept those answers you’re eternally doomed.

Maybe her ignorance of the negative aspects of religion is better explained by her ignorance of atheists. When she doesn’t understand what motivates us, it’s easy to ignore what we’re upset about.

When she complains about atheists, she only digs herself into a deeper hole:

… atheists are at least as fundamentalist and zealous as any religious people I know, and they have nothing good to show for it: no stained glass, no great literature, no great art, no comfort in the face of death. Just dissipated Christopher Hitchens sounding off on “Larry King Live” and a stack of smug books with childishly provocative titles.


Christians have entire TV stations, radio stations, and publishing empires dedicated to their faith. And she’s going after Hitchens for being a guest on a show and atheists for writing books? (We’re “smug”? Has she seen the titles of bestselling Christian books?)

If atheists had the money and power hundreds of years ago, we may very well have those things to show for it. Unfortunately, the Church saw to it that that wasn’t the case. Thankfully, there are atheist artists and writers, and we do have ways of dealing with difficult times.

But to claim atheists are “fundamentalists” because we stick to logic and reason? It’s an old argument that has never worked in the past and won’t work in the future. We’re not blowing up buildings in the name of atheism and we’re not trying to legislate our beliefs into law. Our beliefs are based on reliable evidence and not stories passed down through the generations. They can change depending on new evidence and that’s a sign of strength, not weakness.

We’re just frustrated that so many people try to suppress the truth in the name of their personal mythology. And every time we show that frustration, people like Calhoun label us as “angry,” “aggressive,” “militant,” or “fundamentalist.”

It all just ties into this idea that Calhoun doesn’t understand atheism or why atheists have a problem with religion.

She tries to cite the Episcopal Church as a force for good:

I could reassure my atheist friends that the Episcopal Church is a force for equality and social justice. It ordained its first gay bishop, Gene Robinson, in 2003. It takes the Bible as a mandate to fight hunger and disease and to rebuild after disasters.

She doesn’t mention, though, that non-religious people have been fighting for civil rights and social justice long before the Episcopalians saw the light. Where’s our due credit?

The same church, regardless of their “progressive doctrine” believes in the existence of heaven and hell, the divinity of Jesus, Jesus’ resurrection, and the magic of Baptism. Every one of those beliefs is based in superstition. Every one of those beliefs has no foundation to stand on.

That’s why religious beliefs deserve to be criticized. You don’t get bonus points because you happen to hit a couple singles when the rest of your team is striking out.

We’re not going after straw men or individual figureheads like Pat Robertson or James Dobson. We’re going after the entire belief system.

If your church is only now coming around to accepting gay people and promoting good science and fighting against the Christian Right, you’re years behind the rest of us who have been doing all that for decades.

We criticize religious beliefs because of their basis in the supernatural. While it’s nice that some of those beliefs cause some people to do good works, the non-religious among us do those same things without needing a god to tell us to act that way.

When you support a power structure and belief system that has caused and continues to cause so many problems in this world — just because you feel it brings you “comfort” — you should have to defend yourself.

You shouldn’t be able to get away with saying your church does a few good things without defending all the other rotten and wrong beliefs they also hold — such as the existence of hell and the resurrection of a dead person and the refusal to marry gay people in their churches because homosexuals are not equal to you (at least in the eyes of some bigoted god).

It also makes no sense to claim a sense of persecution when, as the author herself mentions,there are churches on virtually every block and Christians in every branch of government.

It’s waaaaaaaay tougher to be an atheist in Alabama than a Christian in California.

Does saying all this make me “unfriendly”? I don’t think so. I still believe that progressive religious people can be among atheists’ greatest allies. But that doesn’t mean I have to agree with them. And I certainly don’t have to sit back and take it when someone attacks my beliefs without good reason. As Massimo Pigliucci said, “we should think of them as allies, not as kindred spirits.”

Atheists aren’t perfect by any means. And all people, regardless of their beliefs, deserve decency and respect.

But your beliefs are fair game, they have not earned any special protection, and we are going to keep criticizing them (when deserved) as long as you hold them.

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