“An it harm none, do what ye will”

Sometimes atheists who hear my story respond by saying “wouldn’t it be great if your whole family deconverts?” The first time someone said this, my gut response surprised me, because it told me something I didn’t realize. You see, I honestly don’t care whether or not my siblings become atheists, and I feel the same way regarding my children. I do, however, care a great deal about whether they are caring, compassionate, loving people who do good and not harm to both others and themselves. I’m finding myself more and more drawn to the Wiccan Rede: “An it harm none, do what ye will.” Let me explain how I have arrived at this point.

I grew up in a conservative evangelical home where absolute obedience and adherence to the family party line was held up as extremely important. There wasn’t much allowance at all for independence or thinking for yourself. We were always pushed in one direction. Only one view was seen as acceptable When I broke out of all of that the thing I clung to the tightest was the value of being an independent thinker and forming one’s own beliefs.

Some of my siblings have begun asking questions. If I were to pressure them to adopt my beliefs regarding religion I would be repeating my parents’ mistake. I can’t and won’t do that. I want my siblings – and my children – to think things through for themselves and come to their own, independent beliefs. I would much rather someone believe differently from me but have come to their views themselves than for someone to believe exactly as I do because it’s what I told them to believe. And coming from my background, this is revolutionary.

There’s something else, though. After growing up surrounded by complete and total certainty, I don’t want to reject one illusion of certainty for another. I don’t believe in a god. I’m pretty sure no god or gods exist. But I also know that the moment I close the door to the possibility that I am wrong, I risk creating my own dogma. No matter how sure I am of a given position, I try to view everything I believe as tentative and open to revision based on future information and experiences.

I see life as a journey, not a destination. Similarly, I see asking questions as more important than having the answers. I would rather admit that I don’t know everything than deceive myself into thinking that I do. And you know what? Life is more interesting this way.

Instead of trying to win converts – or, rather, deconverts – I crave an open and honest exchange of ideas. This exchange may change either of those involved, or more likely both. But the important part is that it’s not about trying to make the other believe what you do but rather about working to share, listen, and build mutual understanding. It’s about two people discussing what they believe and why, one speaking, then the other, and both learning from each other.

Having said all of this, I do care very much whether someone’s beliefs cause themselves or those around them harm. I believe strongly in equality, in social justice, and in caring for our planet. I don’t care a fig whether or not my siblings or children become atheists. I do, however, desire that they be caring, compassionate, civic individuals.

I openly and without reservation combat ideas like sexism, racism, classism, and homophobia, whether these ideas are rooted in religion or in simple prejudice. I openly and without reservation combat religious doctrines that cause harm, especially those that give women a second class status, those that mandate that children be beaten or deprived of medical care, and those that are used to control people. Further, I hold religious leaders who spend their lives telling others what to think in utter contempt. I will stand in opposition to those who try to force their religious beliefs on others, especially when they seek to use the government to do so.

I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t see religion in and of itself as a problem. Instead, I see blind acceptance and being told what to think as a problem, and I see beliefs that cause others harm, like homophobia or sexism, as a problem. While these things can and often do suffuse religion, they don’t always, and they can exist outside of religion as well.

As the Wiccan Rede says, an it harm none, do what ye will. I like that.

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Rikard Molander

    That is a damn fine philosophy. It surprises me how often people can’t see the forest for the trees when it comes to religious issues; this post cuts straight through all of that and focuses on what’s important.

  • Craig

    I’m going to forward this post to a local pastor that I have an ongoing debate with. The post states the points I’ve been trying to make for the past few years more eloquently than I.

  • http://mymusingcorner.wordpress.com Lana

    Agree. Pol Pot was an atheist, yet he was exists, homophobic, and a classists. Just like some religious people.
    I consider myself a progressive Christian, but I would much prefer to be around atheists who think than Christians who blindly except the flow and then condemn others for not being like them.

  • Kálvin

    Very well said. Even as a Christian, there is practically nothing to disagree with here.

  • machintelligence

    A scientist always asks: but what if I am wrong? That and requiring, you know , evidence.
    Religion is not a bad thing, once it has been defanged and declawed. Unfortunately conservative type personalities place less value on independence, fairness , and doing no harm, and more on loyalty, authority and purity. This makes them easy marks for the nastier religions.

  • paksmrbk

    Thank you, Libby Anne. I have been reading your blog for several months (since before the move to patheos) and while we don’t always agree, you always give me food for thought. In thus entry, however, you have echoed some of my deepest thoughts pretty nearly perfectly and much more articulately than I could. Thank you for sharing your journey. :)

  • Jason Dick

    I guess I mostly agree with you, Libby. The only time i’m really going to feel I should vehemently disagree with somebody’s religion is when they’re advocating against gay rights, women’s rights, etc. I might also do it if I know they’re attempting to proselytize for a religion that is nasty for social justice (e.g. Jehovah’s Witness).

    That said, all religion makes me rather uncomfortable. Religion is an abandonment of critical reasoning, it is a ceasing to think for yourself in order to take dictates from some authority figure. That is always going to be risky. So even if somebody claims they follow a liberal religion that is very positive on social justice, well, it’s still going to make me uncomfortable. I certainly wouldn’t oppose it vehemently, but I might say something small like, “That doesn’t make sense to me,” or explain my own reasoning on gods without directly criticizing theirs.

    I should mention, however, that I oppose Ayn Rand devotion and other forms of harmful irrationality just as vehemently as I oppose those religions that are nasty for social justice, because they also harm untold numbers of people. Objectivist economic philosophy is, in my mind, the #1 most destructive influence in American society today.

  • plutosdad

    I have read very similar thoughts from atheist parents all over the web. None of us want to repeat the mistakes of our parents. For us, those mistakes include trying to control what our children think and believe, failing to teach them to think and evaluate for themselves, etc.

    When I read comments, it seems a lot of atheists without children, and a lot of Christians with children, just don’t get this or even understand it.

    • Anat

      Well, my parents’ mistake was different: They did not tell me they did not believe in those religious teachings they thought were so important to expose me to out of ‘respect for culture’. It took me a while to figure out. It was very confusing for a while – on what grounds do they choose which customs to follow and which not? Either the beliefs behind the customs are true or not.

  • thalwen

    Excellent article. Conversion is very off-putting no matter what side it comes from. It just seems fundamentally disrespectful to tell someone that they’re stupid/wrong/sinful for what they believe or don’t believe (when it doesn’t harm anyone – I agree, it’s absolutely appropriate to call out whatever source of misogyny, homophobia, racism, etc.) When I hear people make conversion arguments for whatever cause, it instantly makes me discredit their opinions.

    Religion itself isn’t the problem, it’s the authoritarian attitudes around it that are, and authoritarianism isn’t confined to the religious, it’s just more convenient for them to function in religion rather than atheism where there are less written out rules.

  • abra1

    Love it. I have been very turned off by the virulent anti-religious attitude of some atheists, particularly men who then in the next breath utter something astoundingly misogynistic without blinking.

    In my opinion religion, or lack there of, is a means for ordering life. It can be used to order it in positive ways — guided by generosity, caring, and respect. Or it can be used to order it in ways that repress people justified by some sort of divine sanction. It is merely a tool for implementing it. Some tools are better than others but ultimately the selection of said tool and implementation is a reflection of the people creating/using it.

    As an agnostic — someone who isn’t willing/ready to say there is no God but not particularly drawn to any divine explanation — I miss my days of faith. I am sure that is part of the reason why I am not a full-blown atheist (not to mention that profound abrasiveness of atheist evangelists) but I also hold fast to the idea that faith *may* be a gift. I’ve read a fair amount of fantasy with my daughter recently and I am amazed by some authors’ ability to dream up other worlds as I have a very pedestrian imagination. I could see this as evidence that religion is false because, obviously, some people can create fantastical world with no claim that they are “real” but I see it as an invitation to keep the door open because I was no gifted with an ability to see such other imaginary worlds, it is possible that I also do not have the gift to appreciate other real worlds.

    • M

      As an atheist with a very strong imagination (I write stuff for D&D-type games, which is basically fantasy writing + math), I obviously don’t think religion and imagination have to go hand-in-hand. I like this real world quite a lot, though of course it isn’t perfect, and for me the ability to draw a firm line between what-is and what-is-not is very valuable. YMMV, of course.

  • Mike

    Eh. I think it is not as easy to disambiguate the two as we’d like. First, I think there is a false equivalence between religious indoctrination and skepticism. There is a tendency to think that asserting you are right and teaching your kids is the problem. It isn’t. Thinking you are right without doing any of the homework required and then teaching your kids what you want to believe in the face of evidence is the problem. I don’t tell my son what to believe, but I do put a strong ephasis on evidence.
    Second, faith by definition requires you to accept things as true without any reason to do so. There are of course milder versions of this, but there are far reaching consequences of accepting and glorifying as a virtue believing without evidence. There are real, hard to solve problems in front of us as a nation as a species. Faith, at its best, can get out of the way and of course faith is not always at its best.

  • smrnda

    Since I’ve never really been a believer I never felt a huge need to make a stand against religious belief. I grew up thinking that religion was mostly a museum piece, or something that perhaps a few people took part in because of it being a part of culture, like relatives of mine who observed Jewish holidays or friends of mine who went to church more for the community than the mesage. I wasn’t exposed to dogmatic evangelicals until I went to college – I figured fundamentalists existed out there, but it was kind of a surprise to find people who were religious but not what I expected. I got pretty familiar with the usual apologetics and I’m still puzzled by the beliefs – like meeting students of engineering who are convinced that homosexuality can be caused by demons (you’d think they’d apply the rationality they do in class to things like that.)

    I don’t think religion is the only, or even the most dangerous type of nonsense out there. I agree with Jason Dick that I think Ayn Rand’s philosophy is really just a religion – it’s based on axioms that you *must* accept as true and cannot question, and the absoluteness of property rights (which are really a relatively recent social construct) are taken as some kind of eternal principle on which all other things rest, and has the same disdain for an evidence-based approach to confronting social problems or even just an understanding of how economies or businesses or science really function – it’s all about implementing the ‘perfect ideas’ regardless of their outcome, where the real arbiter of true of false and right and wrong is what’s in Rand’s head, not in the world.

    • http://equalsuf.wordpress.com Jayn

      Actually, I think the most dangerous part of Rand’s philosophy is that it seems to be based wholly on logic rather than religious belief (though from what I can tell she has her own baseless assertions…reading about the subjectivity of value followed by an unexplained assertion of gold being exempt from that was hilarious). Even logic without religion often comes to different conclusions based on the person doing the thinking .

      • smrnda

        It’s based on logic in the sense that it starts with a set of axioms and then draws conclusions from those. However, whenever you deal with axioms, it’s worth noting that axioms function as assumptions about some known world. I just think Rand’s axioms are not valid assumptions about the real world, and in drawing conclusions she relies mostly on a priori reasoning rather than empirical evidence. People come to different conclusions using logic if they have different axioms (assumptions.)

        To me, it’s the danger of not using evidence based thinking when it’s available. In some areas (like mathematics) one is justified in using a non-empirical method of inquiry, but not if you’re trying to describe society or economies, since those happen out there, in the physical world. She also takes morality totally outside of a historical and social context. You can’t talk about the morality of private property rights unless you examine how private property emerged.

      • Rosie

        I agree whole-heartedly, smrnda. My dad is a very logical person, but he tends to start his logic chain with “the Bible is the true and inerrant Word of God”. His conclusions are highly logical, but I don’t agree with any of them because I think his premise is BS. However, since for him it’s a premise, a presupposition, he doesn’t consider that part subject to empirical inquiry. Nor does Rand seem to consider her presuppositions subject to empirical inquiry. But in both cases (as opposed to abstract mathematics), I think there’s enough real-world evidence lying around to in fact question the presuppositions empirically.

  • Ibis3

    A few points to consider:

    * What about the argument that all religion requires one to forgo scepticism in favour of a reliance on faith in subjective perceptions and authorities? No matter how benign a religion you have, if you accept things on faith, you can’t justify supporting one belief over another. This is sure to be harmful, and certain to produce evil things done for “good” reasons.

    * You are not factoring in resource cost into your evaluation of harm. For an example, think of all the money and time spent on churches. How many person-hours in your country in Bible Study alone? What if those resources were put into secular education and scientific research instead? How much better off could we be if every hour spent in prayer were spent in physical aid?

    * Compassion isn’t enough. Your parents were compassionate. All those creationist teachers who want to “teach the controversy” say they want to give students a chance to come to independent beliefs. Even if that were true, it would still be wrong–not just scientifically, but morally. You don’t have a problem telling Sally that putting her hand on a hot stove will burn her hand. You’re telling her what to think, because you’re cognizant enough to understand the evidence and you know that the harm from her coming to her own knowledge by herself is too great. If you were to let her find out on her own, you wouldn’t be protecting her, you’d be damaging her through your own negligence. Would you deliberately hide any other knowledge from her and say to yourself it’s just an opinion because you’re not 100% certain? Not likely. When she asks you if there are demons and ghosts or aliens who abduct people from their beds, when she asks you if homeopathy or magical healing work, will you prevaricate and say that no one knows for sure so she can believe whatever she wants? Or even, “I don’t think so but I could be wrong”? I hope not.

    • abra1

      Just a quick response (rebuttal?):
      - We all have limited ability to understand the world and to a certain extent take a fair amount on faith — faith that others have done their job, faith that others understand what they are doing, etc. Granted, that should be backed up by evidence but there is not a whole lot of difference between evidence you don’t understand and no (scientific) evidence from the end-user’s stand point. In the best of all cases, religious faith addresses issues that physical science cannot and does not attempt to answer (no creationism here), and articles of faith are placeholders in the search of greater/deeper understanding. My faith tradition has a strong emphasis on mystery – not always honored – which I have always found high compatible with science.
      - Of course, this would be better but I see no indication that in the absence of religion would mean that time would be put to more productive use. And there is the counter case to be made that all of the people currently motivated to preform charitable works (among others) by their faith would no longer be so/as motivated.
      - I didn’t read Libby Anne as stating that she would *not* teach her children. I read it as she was not going to insist that her children adopt her beliefs as their own. I want to teach my children how to think instead of what to think… but in order to do that, one has to accept that they won’t always arrive at the same conclusions (all the time, maybe eventually). I think this in inevitably a journey and if I insist at any given time that they are thinking the “wrong” thing (different from disagreeing with them), I have narrowed the possibilities for further discussion with me and why would I want to do that?

      • LeftWingFox

        I think conflating “faith” with “trust” in your first point is problematic. The problem is that the word “Faith” tends to also be used in belief without or despite the evidence, while “trust” is generally conditional on evidence.

        “I have faith in Bob’s plumbing skills” and “I trust Bob’s plumbing skills”, might be equivalent absent knowledge; but they take on a very different tone if we know Bob screwed up his last three plumbing jobs.

  • http://thechurchproject.me Tracey

    I don’t think I could boil what I think down to this Wiccan philosophy statement. It is good to “harm none”, but additionally I see the need to help as best you can. LA I know you are interested in social justice and as I can tell, spreading knowledge to encourage equality. That is helping others. So if it was me, I’d stick it in the catchphrase somewhere. One of my atheist friends uses that Wiccan phrase to describe what he believes, and he feels helping others is an unnecessary waste of his time.

    • Jessica

      So perhaps in addition to “an it harm none, do what you will”, “an it help some, do what you can”?

      • http://Thechurchproject.me/ Tracey

        Yeah that might work.

  • Chelsea

    Amen, Libby Anne.

  • http://eschaton2012.ca Eamon Knight

    The “New Atheist” argument is that religious faith is in itself problematic, as it makes a virtue out of believing things based on wholly inadequate — or even in the face of — evidence, and that bad reasoning enables bad decisions, both practically and morally. While I don’t think morally significant behaviour follows from belief nearly as inevitably as either fundamentalists or (some) atheists seem to claim, I have to agree that faith involves a kind of dishonesty.
    In practice, however, I’m not sure it makes much difference: it’s not like you can compel anyone’s assent, unless they already accept you as an authority figure. (Do your sibs still look up to you that way, Libby Anne? I thought you’d become a bit of a black sheep ;-)). The important intellectual value here is not atheism per se, but critical evidence-based thinking and free inquiry, and that is absolutely fatal to any dogmatic kind of religion (and IMNSHO if followed ruthlessly, to even the milder forms). Skepticism as a stance is not an answer, but a way of asking questions, a process — as you put it: it’s about the journey, not the destination.

  • ButchKitties

    I want to agree with this attitude. I really do, because I hate confrontation, and I’m much rather have an attitude of “whatever gets you through the night.” But then I come across situations like this one: An acquaintance of mine is schizophrenic. He is spiraling, badly right now. But he’s also been in and out of the system to know how to avoid being committed. We can occasionally get him in for a 72 hour suicide hold, but then he’s back on the streets and off his medications.

    He think God talks to him. A lot of schizophrenics have this delusion. And we can’t convince him that God isn’t talking to him, because (and this is a quote from a Christian friend): “The Bible is about hearing angels and the voice of God and stuff, and we all say the Bible is true, so try to tell him that the voice he is hearing isn’t actually God and there is something wrong with him.”

    There are many people who believe in a god for whom this belief causes no direct damage. But their beliefs prop up the delusions of people who are directly harmed by believing in a god. I just don’t see a good way around that problem without attacking theism itself, rather than focusing solely on the obviously harmful fundamentalist branches.

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