Why Won't You Atheists Just Go Away?

Why Won't You Atheists Just Go Away? December 2, 2009

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!

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