Chris Stedman doesn’t get that conflict is inevitable and necessary.

Chris Stedman has an article in USA Today that, surprise, I find gut wrenching.  It starts with:

Last Tuesday, CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer interviewed Rebecca Vitsmun, asking her if she “thank(ed) the Lord” for the fact that she lived through a disastrous tornado in Oklahoma. Holding her infant child in her arms, she replied, “I’m actually an atheist.” And then she added: “You know, I don’t blame anybody for thanking the Lord.”

In a couple of short sentences, Vitsmun delivered two equally powerful messages: that she was not embarrassed by her atheism, and that she respected her religious friends and neighbors. Blitzer’s question represented a common assumption that most people believe in God. It was an indicator of widespread religious privilege in our culture, and Vitsmun challenged it in a way that also humanized atheists.

As Ed Brayton once said of Chris Stedman (in a wonderful blog), Chris doesn’t seem to get the distinction between criticism of ideas and hatred of people.  I applaud Vitsmun for what she said.  And it did humanize atheists.  But Chris gets it wrong on the bolded part.  Vitsmun made it clear that she respected the beliefs of her religious friends and neighbors when she said “I don’t blame anybody for thanking the Lord.”  That is quite different from making it clear you respect the people holding those beliefs, and far more problematic.

Should we respect the belief that a man rose from the dead 2,000 years ago and could’ve stopped the tornado but didn’t?  No, we should not.  There is not a shred of evidence for that belief.  Even if it were true, we should not respect the proposition that we must thank such a god.  Should we respect the notion that we should thank the architect of tornadoes even as children lay dead on account of one?  No, we should not.  Gratitude for one’s survival need not be synonymous with being grateful to a god who thought children needed to die just as much as he thought your oh-so-special ass needed to live.

This bears repeating, and must be repeated because this exceedingly simple idea still eludes people like Chris: telling people they’re wrong is respect.  Assuming a person would rather stay wrong than hear why they might be in error is disrespect.

That same day Arizona State Rep. Juan Mendez made headlines when the Democrat offered a rousing, moving atheist reflection during the time prayers are typically offered prior to the Arizona House of Representatives’ afternoon session, invoking the words of the late astronomer, author and agnostic, Carl Sagan: “For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love.”

Chris cited this as evidence that atheists are being viewed in a positive light, despite all those mean, confrontational atheists making people hate us.  The relevant part is here:

What was most remarkable about these three incidents wasn’t simply that each was about atheists, or that they made headlines. Rather it was that they showed atheists in a positive light. They demonstrated the reality that most atheists are kind, moral individuals.

This seemingly simple fact shouldn’t be notable, but it is. Unfortunately and unfairly, atheism is commonly associated with a set of negative stereotypes that are bolstered and reinforced when the primary public representations of atheism are voices of conflict. It frequently seems that atheists mostly make headlines when an organization such as American Atheists puts up a billboard like one that claimed that Christianity has a “sadistic god” and “useless savior” and that it “promotes hate.” When stories like that represent the most visible public expressions of atheism, it’s no wonder many people seem to think atheism is a synonym for antitheism.

Why is being antitheist a negative stereotype?  No religion on earth has the slightest good reason to believe in it, and I don’t think people should believe things, like people rising from the dead and walking on water, for bad reasons.  Guilty as charged.  Tell me, Chris, how do we differ in this regard?

Following the invocation by Juan Mendez, which was a case of an atheist (not a theist) giving a nod to atheists, over half the members of the Arizona Senate (most of them, if not all of them, Christian) held a do-over prayer meant to sneer at atheists.  Chris Stedman did not write an article condemning those people (that would have been confrontational), but instead decided to nag atheists like me who will speak out against them (because confronting the people who confront anti-atheist prejudice isn’t confrontational).  Priorities, they’re a great thing (that Chris has long had a problem with).

I think opposing irrational ideas and their offspring (abstinence-only education, anti-atheist bigotry, creationism, anti-LGBTQ sentiment, etc.) is the way to build a positive image.  All social movements began with a minority vocally opposing ideas held by the majority, and in each case there was the inevitable backlash from the majority.  The great leaders continued on, knowing that it takes time, time spent withstanding the slings and arrows of the majority, in order to change minds.  Sure, the people who cherish the irrational ideas (who make up the majority of the population) won’t like it, but if popularity is a person’s goal you can endorse all kinds of silliness and immorality to get there.  If you want to change things, feathers will be ruffled.  Counting on the majority to change their minds on their own never seems to work out, and so we speak up.

Even if, like Chris, you think conflict is a bad thing (unless you’re trying to stick it to other atheists), let’s get one thing perfectly clear: atheists did not create this conflict.  When Christians attempt to pass legislation that allows creationism to worm its way into science classes or to keep LGBT Americans relegated to the rank of second-class citizens, they necessitate our response.  They also do these things because it makes sense in the context of their religious beliefs.  It is noble and necessary to confront them.  And when we do confront them, there are only two ways to change their minds.  We must convince them that…

1.  God doesn’t really want the things they think god wants.

Or…

2.  God does not exist.

And the first one is an outright lie.

When religious people do or support silly things because of their religious convictions we must tell them they are wrong, not just about what god wants, but about god’s existence.  That people like me do so in response to religious barbarity and silliness is not a bad thing.  Even if standing up for what is good is a detriment to our image (Chris fails to note in his article that public estimation of atheists is on the rise, especially in the youngest generation), not unlike how standing up for gay rights was a detriment to a person’s image not very long ago, our image does not take precedence over the integrity and truthfulness of our message.  Sure, if we tell Christians that their religion is rational and/or beautiful (which is a contemptible lie) or if we stay good and quiet when Christians in the Arizona legislature thumb their nose at non-believers we’ll be more liked by Christians.  If you think trading your integrity for popularity, all while coddling irrationality (as if irrationality doesn’t drive most of the harmful actions of humanity), is the way to be respectable, go nuts.  But if you insist that I should do likewise, sorry.  I am infuriated by what transpires in the name of religion and care far too much about what’s true to play the politics of treating unreason as though it merits respect.

Public representations matter because they change the cultural climate and make it easier for people to be honest and open, which facilitates destigmatizing relationships across lines of difference. Positive media representations have helped more and more LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer) Americans come out, and the resulting relationships that LGBTQ people have built with others have transformed public opinion. The Pew Research Center reports that among the 14% of Americans who changed their mind from opposing same-sex marriage to supporting it in the last decade, the top reason cited was having “friends, family, acquaintances who are gay/lesbian.”

You know what demographic was stigmatized and constantly being told to stop being so brazen and offensive not even a decade ago?  You guessed it: LGBTQ people.  The source of this wasn’t their frequent confrontations with those who would have inequality persist forever, but rather the displeasure of the haters that anyone would have the nerve to oppose them.  It was the haters who, up til then, had held the societal power using their offense as a means to get the people yearning for equality to shut up.

That’s precisely how it is with atheists today.  If you doubt this, put up a billboard saying “Atheists can be happy without god” and see how long it takes for it to be vandalized.  It’s the atheism that’s hated, and that extends when uppity atheists push back against the products of faith.  Staying silent about the anti-atheist/anti-human deeds of religious people will not make them accept us – it will only mean that we’ve become like the god who watched a tornado kill innocent people while never lifting a finger.  It will mean that we have given foolish ideas, and their real-world results, our silent consent, all in the name of peace.

I do not want that kind of peace.  And if a relationship with my fiancee, a friend, or a believer requires me to stay quiet about harmful things, I don’t want that kind of relationship.

Atheists and people of faith need to build such relationships, too. Instead of beginning with trying to convert or convince the other, let’s start by listening to one another’s stories.

We are listening, Chris.  Pretty much all atheists are.  We’ve read their holy book.  We listen to their leaders and to the people in the pews.  And when they are irrational, we tell them so.  When they are immoral, we tell them so.  This is only possible because we are listening.  I do blog posts every day about what religious people are saying.  We are listening.

Telling someone the truth, or telling them they’re wrong, is not something that precludes the formation of relationships.  To confirm this, look no further than the fact that religious people saying atheists are wrong and immoral has not stopped Chris Stedman from being willing to gloss over the society-damaging actions of believers in order to build relationships with theists.  And if telling someone they’re wrong does prevent the formation of a relationship, it’s the person who cannot handle disagreement who needs to change, not us.

If we’re not willing to say that stealing lunch money is bad, we can build a bridge to being liked by the school bully.  Or, if we’re good people, we can tell him that stealing is bad and that if he wants a relationship with us, he’ll have to live with us telling him that stealing is bad consistently and condemning his thievery.  I view religion the same way.  I’m all for relationships with religious people.  But because my integrity (and the well-being of the world) is important to me, that relationship will involve me explaining why I think faith is dangerous and irresponsible and why the actions of religious leaders are often dehumanizing and cruel.  This is simply the way it must be if I want to be a good person.

It’s not my job to be liked by everybody (that’s the job of con men and politicians).  It’s my job to give allegiance to compassion and to reason while encouraging others to do likewise.  This does not always lend itself to popularity, and Chris and his handful of atheist followers (I have no doubt tons of Christians love him) need to figure that out.

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.


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