In the wake of the devastation in Christchurch, a lot of outspoken atheists have been asking themselves if their open criticism of Islam is stoking the Islamophobia fire. I got this note from an Instagram follower the other day,
Hey there! I’m an atheist myself and I have a question. The question is, as atheists how do we support religious freedom and at the same time mock or not respect their beliefs?
and it’s a good question. As you know, I’ve been very loud about my position that we, as atheists, must treat religious people with respect. I openly confront my fellow atheists online who call religious people names and will, 100% of the time, stand up for the religious person in that exchange. I stand firmly in the camp that there is no difference between myself and a religious person, outside of a single belief. My life has been deeply impacted by religious people who I have loved and love still, some who I have unending respect for and many who have managed to change my mind on various topics over the years.
As an atheist, I want nothing more than for my fellow atheists to be kind and respectful to our fellow human beings whether they worship Jesus, Ganesh, Thor or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. What’s more, I think we should be respectful even in the face of disrespect. I strongly believe that we have everything to gain from situations in which a religious person is cutting us down simply because we don’t share their beliefs. Here’s a conversation with a fellow atheist a few weeks ago:
When a religious person comes at us with disrespect, I see it as an opportunity. It’s the perfect chance to demonstrate how an atheist can be the better person, proving beyond any doubt that one does not need guidance from a deity to be good and moral. Through this method, I have been able to break down the walls of several religious people who seemed to loathe atheists and now we follow each other on various platforms with mutual respect.
This is a large part of how we will normalize atheism. This is how we will take the stigma away and get to a place on our timeline where no one cares, not even in Bangladesh or Saudi Arabia, that you’re a godless heathen.
The other part of normalization, however, is being able to openly criticize the ideas that religion puts out into the world. This is crucial to normalization. We must be able to freely disagree with any idea we are confronted with, especially if those ideas are being used to influence policy or to indoctrinate children. The more we do it, the fewer people are shocked by it and let’s face it, the fewer people who are shocked by it, the less discrimination against atheists there will be. It will help us end the death penalty for apostasy and blasphemy in 13 countries. It will help us decriminalize atheism in 40+ countries across the globe. It will make living as an atheist a much, much safer thing to do in places like Saudi Arabia, Nigeria and Bangladesh.
It is also critical to be able to freely disagree with any idea for anyone, religious or not. We ought to be able to pick apart ideas and present our arguments as to why we disagree with them. No idea should be exempt from this. Your ideas aren’t more special than my ideas and deserve no extra protection. If you try to convince me of something that makes no sense to me or even seems to be dangerous, you’d better believe I’m going to say something. Why wouldn’t I?Where we seem to find trouble is when we are unable to separate people from the ideas they hold. I know, it sounds absurd, but for some reason, when it comes to religious belief, we seem to have this notion that the beliefs make the person despite the mountains upon mountains of evidence that show that people pick up new ideas and leave behind old ones all the time. There isn’t a single, solitary adult on this planet who is clinging to all the same ideas he held dear in childhood.
Our ideas change, they adapt, they morph and they become obsolete. They are as precious as the operating system on your computer, which is to say they are not precious at all no matter how attached you are to the lavender dream that was Mac OS 7.
You have rights. Your ideas do not.
So, when I get asked how do we respect the person without respecting the belief, the answer is simple: we respect the person and don’t respect the belief.
When I openly disagree with you, it doesn’t mean I don’t respect you. In fact, it’s the opposite. I have enough respect for you to tell you how I feel truthfully.
When I openly disagree with you, it’s not because I think bad things should happen to you. In fact, it’s the opposite. I don’t voice my disagreement this vehemently on topics that I don’t think matter. Only on the ones that do, because I care about the flourishing of my fellow human beings.
My own mom shares misinformation about vaccines on Facebook. You and I both know how dangerous that is. I criticize the things she posts and the things she says to me that promote vaccine hesitancy because I care about her and the people she has the ability to influence. I care about my fellow human beings and I don’t want to see our most vulnerable community members threatened by diminishing herd immunity.
My criticism of her ideas does not mean I want to hurt her. I f*cking love my mother.
This is the only example you need to understand how I can criticize a doctrine I find loathsome while still seeing the humanity in and the necessity to protect the rights of the people who revere it. Openly disagreeing with the ideas I’ve found in Islam does not mean I want bad things to happen to Muslims.
We must respect Muslims. We must respect a Muslim’s right to practice his or her faith. We must respect a Muslim’s right to revere a god even if we don’t believe in it.
This not to be confused with respecting that god, however. I do not have to show reverence to a god I don’t believe in and I am not promoting violence and hatred against Muslims by failing to do so.
You do not kill someone because they have ideas you don’t share.
You do not hate someone because they see the world in a different way than you do.
It is okay to openly disagree with someone. Yes, even in today’s ultra-sensitive culture of outrage, we can openly disagree with someone and not promote hatred at the same time.
When people ask if now is the time, my answer is yes. Until my fellow atheists are no longer being imprisoned for being godless; until there are zero countries that punish atheism with death or prison time; until it is safe across the globe to say “Sorry, I don’t believe in that,” it will always be the right time to criticize the ideas that are preventing these things.
What do you think? Can you criticize the belief but still have respect for the believer? Let me know in the comments.
Image: Creative Commons/Pixabay