Last week, I wrote a piece calling for religious people to reach out to atheists to engage us on our own terms. This impulse come from by belief that atheists and the religious are in dire need of reconciliation. And reconciliation will not be accomplished without both sides actively seeking constructive interaction. I asked religious people to come to atheist space rather than wait for atheists to come to them, because we don’t have time to wait.
First, I want to point out that I wrote this piece from a mostly US perspective. I live in the US and that is the context I know best. Though humanists are largely misunderstood in the US, our lot is less challenging than in many other countries. As imperfect as it is, there is a separation of church and state that protects my right to not be a Christian. Prejudice is alive and well here, but there are also many contexts here where atheism is a complete nonissue.
Commenting on the piece, several people felt I was recklessly inviting religious people into atheist safe spaces. To clarify, I do not believe that religious people can or should have a right to enter all atheist spaces. Safe, closed spaces where atheists can relax, be themselves, and be among themselves are important—for atheists, the religious, and for all birds of a particular feather. Safe, closed spaces are a right.
Atheists can, and in my opinion should, host semi-open spaces. Here the ambassadors are invited. Atheists can still be themselves—it is still their turf—but are prepared to meet others there.
Religious people who attend would not, of course, be allowed to proselytize or harass. Attendance is strictly for educational or relationship building purposes. These open spaces or events should remain atheist events. I want the religious to come and meet atheists on their terms, in their own setting, where the atheists are the comfortable party. Atheists are the hosts of this gathering. It is still in their house.Which is exactly why the religious interested in relationship building should want to come. How else will they get to know the natural, complete, wonderful people we are unless they meet us in a context where we can truly be ourselves? Not where we are trying to carve space for ourselves, but actually in that space.
I believe that one of the most constructive things a person can do is seek out those who are different from oneself. Not to convert them to make one homogeneous society, but to hear their stories and learn from them. This is particularly important for members of a community’s dominant culture—Christians in the US. The majority’s story is everywhere—it is the cultural foundation to which all other stories are compared. Parallel, competing narratives are easily overlooked by members of the majority because minority narratives are not always readily available.
It is a very rare person indeed who can truly grasp what life is like outside the majority without venturing out of that majority space. Fish can’t see the water they swim in. If we want to build relationships with religious people we need to give them an opportunity to see the water. Our water.
I understand there are any number of atheists uninterested in building these kinds of relationships. I can think of any number of reasons why. People who are leaving or recently left an unhealthy religious family or community already have their hands full dealing with relationships with religious people. I can easily understand why forging relationships within the atheist community is a priority during that time. Or living in a community where atheists are hard to come by either because there are not many or because it is not safe to be openly atheist understandably makes the kind of relationship building I am talking about less attractive.
But communities exist for many purposes and to serve diverse people within them. For atheist communities, one of those goals is often a religion-free safe space. However, we should not allow that safe space to become fortresses. A parallel goal should be relationship building with other communities, especially faith communities. These goals can coexist. They actually support each other. The safe space is where we grow strong in order to do the difficult work out in the open.