A 2016 CE Mini-Manifesto?
I’ve had a variety of online discussions of late that make it clear to me that many, many Americans are still confused or worse about what people like me mean when we say we’re atheists or that we think they’re mistaken about Christmas, this being a “Christian nation” or other matters. Some of this confusion seems to me to be pernicious and intentional, based on a dogged determination to define us, however incorrectly, in a way that allows our interlocutors to feel superior to and be angry with us. But some of it is probably honestly confused and ignorant, not malicious. David Silverman’s excellent new book, Fighting God: An Atheist Manifesto for a Religious World, is quite good at eliminating this confusion (when that is honestly what it is) for those who read his book. My manifesto (or resolution?) as I begin 2016 CE is to make clear to any honest and reasonable inquirer what I mean by saying I’m an atheist (or by these related statements). For those who won’t take the time to read Silverman’s book (yet), here are a few points about atheists, or at least about me as an atheist (we’re not all alike; I claim to speak for sure for no one but me here):
1. According to my detractors, “You’re mad at God” or “You’re rebelling against God because you don’t want to follow His rules.” I’m not so stupid as to be mad at something/someone I don’t think even exists. And I’d really have to be stupid indeed if I were trying to con an all powerful, all-knowing entity (who, remember, these folks claim I really do believe exists). I do certainly do get angry at times, but only at people claiming to represent or speak for an all-powerful being who wants me to do what they say he wants me to do. And the claim that some make that I’m always angry about anything religious is nonsense. As often as not, I think the religious ideas I hear are silly or, if dangerous, mostly dangerous to believers or only to me if politicians pander to the religious too much. (But see my second comment below—now blasphemy rules/laws do make me angry!) And if you want to really understand atheist anger better, read Greta Christina’s fine book, Why Are You Atheists So Angry?
2.“You have the freedom to reject religion, but you should respect the religious ideas and practices of believers.” Religious freedom is meaningless unless it includes complete freedom to reject and or critique claims that all religious ideas are true or deserve respect. If people act as reasonable and decent people, I will treat them with respect as fellow human beings, whether or not they happen to be religious. And I respect the right of everyone to believe differently from me—but that is quite different from respecting the beliefs or ideas they hold. If my neighbor believes that it’s going to rain gold and silver tomorrow afternoon, I can respectfully conclude that his beliefs are groundless and unwise.
A subset of this “religion deserves respect” business is the idea that at Christmas-time (or at Easter or other holidays), atheists like me should be respectfully quiet, not make comments, even accurate ones, on the non-Christian origins of the celebrating then. If Christians were content, as some are, to put up trees, wish folks “Merry Christmas,” and worship away in their homes and churches, I wouldn’t be interested or comment. The trouble is at least some of them want me to accept and honor their ideas, but not comment. They want to make up malarkey about “attacks” on Christmas like wishing someone “Happy Holidays” or failing to put snowflakes on a coffee cup. My view is that the Christians stole the holiday fair and square from the pagans, and I’m under no obligation to pretend reverence anyway.
The subset of the ones who think I should, as a default, respect religion who really do anger me intensely are the blasphemy proponents. They are justified biblically—see Matthew 12: 31-32, where you’ll learn that a blasphemer like me cannot even be forgiven—but my core problem, my deep outrage, is reserved for those who want to turn governments or violent believers into enforcers of this nonsense. In the modern US, blasphemy cannot get you legally fined, beaten, imprisoned, or executed. This is not the case worldwide, though—in Bangladesh, for example, six atheist bloggers have been murdered—hacked to death with machetes or meat cleavers in the street—just in the last three years, for “blasphemy.”Believe whatever nonsense you wish, theists (all of you), but understand this: if you demand government sanctions or violent enforcers of your ideas, then neither you nor your ideas are any longer entitled to any respect whatsoever.
3. “Even if you deny it, you have to have ‘faith’ to be an atheist.” Even if someone else claims I do, I don’t have any faith in any religious propositions. I have just concluded that there is no credible evidence or sound logic that supports those propositions. It takes no faith at all to be an atheist—it just takes the reasonable position that one must be convinced of important matters before accepting them as true. And most people, theists and atheists, operate this way a practical matter most of the time. Even my most devout religious friends don’t have any “faith” that it’s going to rain gold and silver tomorrow afternoon.
4. “You atheists are out to destroy Christianity or Christians.” Guilty—but only if someone means by saying that that I’m happy to argue or debate the wisdom of being a Christian in an intellectual and civil way. Any theist who is content to quietly believe, who does not seek governmental support for his views nor require a default respect for them, is safe from me and my arguments.
5. “You may be an atheist and part of a tiny minority, but it’s a Christian nation, so… .” The United States has been, since its beginning as a nation governed under the Constitution in 1789, a secular nation, one where all religious and irreligious views are equal, where ideas with exclusively religious origins don’t get enacted into law. If by “Christian nation” one means no more than that a majority of citizens tell pollsters they are “Christian,” then yes it’s a Christian nation—but only in the same sense that it’s a white nation, a female nation, a nation of people who live in states with an adjacent ocean or gulf boundary, a nation of automobile owners, et many, many ceteras. But being Christian should give you no special rights or any status different from mine as a voter or in court. For much more on this, see my own (my son is the second author) book, In Freedom We Trust: An Atheist Guide to Religious Liberty .
6. “Only someone who really believes in God would have so much interest in religious stuff.” This makes no more sense than it would to claim an anarchist or even a doctrinaire libertarian is therefore for big government, since s/he is interested in and writes about, argues about, big government.
7. “If you’re hypersensitive and don’t like getting mistreated as an atheist, you don’t have to identify as an atheist—just keep your mouth shut, and… .” One reason I’ve gotten comments like this is that some have mistakenly thought I was hurt or offended at what people think about atheists and that I therefore want some enforcement of a political correctness. This is silly—I enjoy arguing and debating, especially about religion and atheism, and I don’t think government agents or others with power should use it to protect oversensitive atheists (or members of most other groups). I do demand a chance to respond to mistaken claims about me or about my ideas. And no one has any right to keep me in the closet nor any power to do so, unless I grant it—and I will not.
8. “Atheists like you are necessarily immoral, for the simple reason that God sets the moral standards and you refuse to follow His rules.” This is a completely groundless attack, but it is nevertheless one of the oldest, most persistent one hurled at atheists. Any reasonably objective historical analysis will show that not just actions and behavior but religiously based moral standards shift, dramatically, from era to era and from group to group. If there were an all-powerful god, surely he would at least be able to communicate clearly to his followers what his moral standards were, whether or not human beings were so flawed as to be unable to follow those standards. This is another issue that requires more than blog-sized space to address well. David Silverman discusses and sums up the issue nicely in Fighting God. He makes the case, with sound logic, that actually “…atheism holds the moral high ground.”