One of the things I like about being part of Patheos is the opportunity for interreligious dialogue. On this site you can find bloggers from many different religious backgrounds who write from many different perspectives. Too often, though, we stay in our own little silos and don’t notice what’s going on in other communities, or hear how people of other religions are responding to problems in our common society. In doing so, we can miss the opportunity to find common ground and make allies – and friends.
To help us focus on our common ground, today Patheos has a special feature called “Share What We Share.” As part of that feature, Atheist Channel blogger Matthew Facciani (“According to Matthew”) and I interviewed each other. We asked questions designed to let us say who and what we are in our own terms, to discuss our challenges with finding common ground with those of other religions, and to find our own shared interests and concerns.
Matthew’s interview with me can be found on his site.
John: What does your atheism inspire you to do?
Matthew: My atheism inspires me to defend secularism as I strongly believe in the separation of church and state. Any activism I do within secularism is only a direct response to religious (often Christian) privilege and oppression. I don’t have a problem with people believing in Gods, but I do have a problem when they try to force their beliefs onto me and influence the government. Abortion restrictions and anti-gay discrimination are some of the most blatant violations of church and state today. I also think that churches should have to pay taxes since they obtain massive amounts of money.
Thus, my atheism doesn’t inspire me to really do anything by itself as it’s just a lack of belief. However, it does make me want to fight for the separation of church and state, which I think everyone should want to support. Right now Christians are dominating my country, but that might change someday and I’m sure these same Christians wouldn’t want another religion telling them how to act.
How does your atheism influence your ethics?
Because I don’t believe in any Gods I believe that humans determine the outcome of our society. Thus, we as humans should try to make Earth the best place as we can and also be kind to as many people as we can. But a common question is what motivates me as an atheist to care about doing good things?
Humans are social animals and working together in social groups has been adaptive for our survival. Our brains are capable of empathy, compassion, and kindness. So to put it simply, I try to be kind to other people because I know what it feels like to feel pain and I do not want any other person to have those negative feelings. This is a complicated question and I might write up my thoughts in a future blog post, but that is the real crux of how I think atheists are able to be ethical: empathy.
What motivates you to reach out to people of varying religions?
Religion is not going away anytime soon. Like I said above, I don’t mind if people are religious as long as they don’t force their beliefs onto others. I do care about social justice work and it would simply be unproductive and isolating to only reach out to those who share my atheism. Also, by reaching out to various religious groups we can learn from each other and reduce any stereotypes that we might have.
Where have you been able to find common ground with theists?
Pretty much all of my activism involves working with theists in some capacity. Last year I provided scientific testimony against an anti-abortion bill in front of my local Senate and Congress subcommittees. I was able to do this from working with other pro-choice Christians and I actually was connected to them through an organization called Catholics for Choice. I also volunteer at my local sexual trauma center and Planned Parenthood where most, if not all of the staff is religious.
What are some challenges you’ve experienced while trying to find this common ground?
My atheism hasn’t been a problem with any of the organizations I mentioned above; however, there definitely have been some Christians who wouldn’t want to work with me simply because I’m an atheist. For example, in my state there was a group of atheists who wanted to work with a church in order to feed the homeless. When the church found out they were atheists, they refused to work with them. Of course there are many friendly religious people who would happily accept a helping hand, but there are enough who simply want nothing to do with me because I don’t believe in God.
What is one stereotype you would like to break regarding atheists?
We are not a threat to you. Studies have shown that atheists are perceived as untrustworthy and they are one of the most stigmatized groups in the United States. However, atheists tend to be some of the most compassionate and caring people I’ve met. Yes, of course our small community has its share of bad apples (which I try to call out as much as I can). However, every group has its bad apples and I feel like because we are already stigmatized any loud atheist jerk tends to represent all of us. So I would ask my religious friends to realize that we are people, not monsters, and there are many things we agree on with you outside of religion.
What is one thing you would like people to know about atheism?
We are a diverse group. Again, because we are so small, it’s easy to lump us all in one group as there are only a handful of public atheists who also happen to be very similar (Dawkins, Harris, Maher, etc.). However, I’ve spent a lot of time in atheist circles and I can attest to the variety of perspectives within atheism. Yes, demographically we still are largely white men, but even within those white men are a variety of different perspectives and approaches to life. We are also becoming more diverse along the lines of race and gender, but it’s taking time.
So please try to not to put all atheists in a box even though you might only be familiar with someone like Dawkins. Many of us have much in common with you, we simply believe in one less God than you do. If anyone has more questions for me, I’d be happy to answer them!
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If you’ve been reading Under the Ancient Oaks for very long, you’ll notice numerous areas where I share Matthew’s interests and concerns: separation of church and state, LGBT rights, and reproductive rights. We agree that ethics and morality are best explained by a naturalist approach – we can figure out right from wrong without having a supreme being dictate it to us. And while we’re both blogging to advocate for our religious beliefs (or lack thereof), neither of us want to force others to adopt our ways.
We need not agree on the nature of the Gods to work together to build a better world here and now.