An atheist friend of mine recently said that any time I blog about atheism, it is to badtalk it. I laughed and pointed out that I myself am an atheist, and he reminded me that being female does not guarantee one is not sexist. This is true. But in this case, I think what’s going on is a bit more complicated.
When I say I am an atheist I mean that I do not believe in God. We often talk about the “atheist movement,” or online atheism, or New Atheists, but it’s important to remember that most atheists are likely not plugged into any of this. There are plenty of people out there who don’t believe in God but feel no need to engage in a movement built around that lack of belief. Instead, they simply go about their lives like anyone else, except that they likely don’t go to church—but then, neither do pagans, or those who consider themselves “spiritual but not religious,” or plenty of Christians. I suppose what I’m trying to say is that one’s atheism does not always have a large impact on one’s life or psyche.
But what of this thing we call the “atheist movement”? What of online atheism? What of New Atheists? There seem to be four main goals underlying this constellation of speakers, blogs, and conferences—providing atheists with support and community, protecting the separation of church and state, improving the public image of atheists, and working toward a world without religion. I agree with the first three of these goals, but not with the fourth. In fact, I actually feel that the fourth goal can in practice serve to sabotage two of the first three goals. Let me explain.
1. Providing atheists with community and support
For those with religious families and those living in the Bible Belt or other highly religious communities, being an atheist can be trying and lonely. I wholeheartedly support efforts to provide these individuals with community and support, whether through local atheist get-togethers or through building online communities. I have been told by numerous readers that my blog functions in this way for them. I have no problem with this goal, and I think it’s a positive one.
2. Safeguarding the separation of church and state
Many atheists take protecting the separation of church and state very seriously. I am one of them! I am grateful for organizations like Americans United and other organizations. But here’s the thing—this isn’t just an atheist thing. There are plenty of religious individuals who also support the separation of church and state, and this is important. Any time it appears that it is atheists and atheists alone who favor the separation of church and state, we have a PR problem. Not only do atheists look like meanies (which is unfortunate), the disagreement also becomes centered around Us v. Them, the religious vs. the nonreligious, and that is only going to make things more difficult. Defending the separation of church and state should not be a single constituency issue. So yes, I absolutely support defending the separation of church and state, but I am wary of this becoming solely an atheist issue.
3. Improving the public image and acceptance of atheists
Out of all religious groups, Americans feel most negatively about atheists and Muslims. The only constituency Americans have ever been less likely to vote for for president is gays. There is evangelicals’ belief that everyone who does not believe like them is destined for hell—a belief they apply to more than just atheists—but there’s more than that too. Many Americans seem to simply want everyone to have a religion—whatever that religion may be—and atheists upset that apple cart. I wholeheartedly support efforts to dispel negative stereotypes about atheists and to gain acceptance. The gay and lesbian community has been very successful in improving public acceptance in recent years, so this sort of change is clearly possible.
4. Working toward a world without religion
And here is where I have to pause. Many of those engaged in the atheist movement and online atheism go beyond goals 1, 2, and 3 as I’ve outlined here. They don’t just want atheists to be accepted as decent human beings and the separation of church and state to be respected, they also believe that religion is intrinsically harmful and they therefore make persuading people out of religion one of their primary goals.
I disagree with this goal for several reasons.
First, I don’t think it’s religion that’s the problem, I think it’s people that are the problem. There will be war, starvation, and atrocities with or without religion. I would rather focus on replacing bigotry with empathy and compassion and replacing tribalism with more holisitc understandings of humanity than on persuading people out of religion and assuming those other things will come too. Atheists can be bigots, and they can be tribalistic too. A world without religion would not be a world without problems, especially when we remember that some of the greatest atrocities of the past century were carried out not on the basis of religion but rather by the state (Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot).
Second, I don’t see religion as intrinsically harmful. Religion plays a role in the diverse and varied cultures across the globe and can be rich with tradition, history, and meaning. Retaining these religions and reworking them to suit modern times and modern needs—as has been done so many times before—can be rewarding and meaningful. I have no problem with people being religious (just as I have no problem with people not being religious). Do I think certain religious beliefs can be harmful? Absolutely. Do I think there are religious traditions that need reform? For sure. I believe in speaking out against harmful beliefs—like the idea that wives are to submit or the belief that homosexuality is sinful—but I also understand that religion does not have to be this way. Religion also can be (and has been) marshaled in the fight for equality or justice.
I worry that when atheists make a world without religion their goal, they may be unintentionally working against some of their other goals. If atheists speak of religion as intrinsically harmful and at the same time lead the fight for the separation of church and state, this may serve to support concerns that atheists are actually trying to use the judicial system to root out religion (whether or not these concerns are accurate). This, in turn, may inflate opposition to efforts to enforce the separation of church and state. Further, if the religious feel that atheists look down on them and their beliefs, that only furthers negative stereotypes of atheists. Denying acceptance to others is a strange way to go about gaining acceptance for ourselves.
I am extremely uncomfortable when atheists call for proselytizing. People don’t tend to like proselytizing, whether it comes from a Mormon or an evangelical or an atheist. I have a progressive Christian friend who just started a new job, and she has an evangelical coworker who keeps pushing her on this issue or that. She told me that he clearly sees her as a project, as a lost soul in need of a rescue, and that that is very uncomfortable for her. Yes, I hear atheists talk about the importance of spreading truth and transforming lives, but for me, with my evangelical background, it sounds only too familiar. When I walked away from theism I also walked away from my previous unquestioned self-confidence that I am Right and everyone else is Wrong and it’s my job to set them straight.
I also hear a lot about the importance of challenging taboos. I see atheists using terms like “sky god” and “pig cooties” and “blood sacrifice.” I see atheists going out of their way to be offensive to religious beliefs. “Religion deserves to be mocked,” they say. But do these atheists really think about the impact their actions have on the public image of atheism? “Nothing must be sacred,” they say. And then they say that the taboo against making fun of people’s religious beliefs is part of “religious privilege.” Well, fine. Far be it from me to censor anyone. But is mocking others’ beliefs really the best way to gain public acceptance, or to teach the importance of compassion and empathy?
Am I saying I want atheists to stay home and keep quiet about their beliefs? Absolutely not. I want a world where, when religion comes up, an atheist can explain what they believe without fear of rejection. I want a world where an atheist can run for public office and put “atheist” down as her religion without worrying that it will hurt her in the polls. The thing is, I don’t think calls for a world without religion will help get us to that point—especially when they are accompanied by a willingness to mock religion and the religious.
Can you see the quandary this leaves me in? I do support some of the goals I see associated with the atheist movement—providing atheists with community and support, improving the public image and acceptance of atheists, and defending the separation of church and state—but I often feel that efforts to meet these goals are sabotaged by atheists who mock religion and and speak of it as intrinsically harmful. Being an atheist does not have to mean being opposed to religion. I understand that these atheists simply have different goals from mine, but it’s difficult because their goals make attaining my goals that much harder.
Oh, and you want to know something else? If we could get to a world where atheism is accepted as just another belief, it would make it easier for religious people who are being actively harmed by their beliefs to leave. There would be less stigma, less to lose. But that’s not going to happen as long as those who represent the public face of atheism continue their present course of mocking religion and deriding religious believers.