Do We Have to Choose between Aggressive Religion and Aggravated Atheism?

Do We Have to Choose between Aggressive Religion and Aggravated Atheism? May 13, 2021

Editor’s Note:  This is in response to a post that first appeared on Clergy Project member Chris Highland’s  personal blog, and I understand that it’s being discussed on the Clergy Project’s private site, as well.  It struck a nerve among some former fundamentalists – people who make up a substantial portion of the author’s colleagues in The Clergy Project. Why are there so many former fundamentalists in The Clergy Project?  I opine it’s because they are more likely to completely reject the strict religious teachings they are expected to believe and preach. In contrast, their more liberal colleagues have less dogma to reject and can find it easier to continue preaching and teaching a milder form of religion – and can continue to see the value of healthy religious communities even after they personally no longer believe in God. This follow-up is presented here to reach a wider audience and hopefully to receive a wider and perhaps a more diverse response. I personally plan to respond in the comments section and hope you do too. /Linda LaScola, Editor

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By Chris Highland

A recent post (“A-faith, not Anti-faith”) I wrote on my personal blog seemed to hit a nerve with some readers.  I was writing specifically about those in the wider atheist world who are anti-religious, who make fun of believers, post snarky memes and attack the integrity and intelligence of religious people of any kind.  That’s fairly specific, I think.  In my opinion, these people don’t reflect the vast majority of people in the secular world who aren’t interested in fighting battles in a war against religion and religious people.  It also doesn’t address what I assume to be the majority of seculars who may carry residual feelings of hurt and disappointment (as I do) from their life in the world of faith, but do not make these feelings the centerpiece of their atheism.

I wrote in reference to some of the angriest atheists, and as I expected, got an earful of anger in return.   What I learned from this exchange is that I should have stated more clearly that I was identifying a subset of atheists; I should have explained that I understand there are people who have been deeply hurt by their experience with faith, and that I share some of that pain.  I get the fact that many describe their whole experience in their past faith tradition as traumatic.  That should be taken seriously—and it wasn’t my intention to address those deep emotions in my original post.

Still, the response also showed there was some truth to my theory.

After stating that I have my own critiques of religion, I also said I sometimes call out fellow seculars, pointing out alternatives to being angrily anti-religious.

“You can be an atheist, secular freethinker without being an AAA (Angry, Anti-religious Atheist).”

I’ve heard from some others who are also not grievance-driven.

Since it is my personal blog on my personal website, I offer my own experience, perhaps limited in its own way:

“Years of working alongside people of faith, building cooperative coalitions with them, developing collegial and personal relationships, Im consistently sensitive to people I know and respect in faith communities (as well as friends and family who hold a faith position) … I may not agree with some of their beliefs, but I know too many good people in churches, synagogues, temples and elsewhere to disrespect them.”

My theory, based on years of observation, is that some of the atheist voices we hear, specifically those who frequently disparage believers, seem to lack a degree of depth and breadth regarding the religious world.

 Blame it on my thirty years of chaplaincy work, but I think it’s time for seculars to take a hard look in the mirror.  What faces are we presenting to the world (and each other)?

I hope it’s more than Hitchens and Dawkins.  Because I think it matters.  One concern is for any continuing constructive conversations or collaborations between the secular and faith communities.  How much could Americans United, the Secular Coalition, American Humanists or the Poor People’s Campaign get done if people were distracted by disagreements about religion?

Another concern is for those who are new to non-belief (or, for instance, new to The Clergy Project) who may get the impression that we are mainly fighting ongoing battles with the ghosts of our former beliefs.

A personal example: Surviving a messy divorce was a terrible experience that left me with lasting damage.  But I didn’t form an “Ex-Spouse Club” to gather hurt and angry people to spend time denigrating our ex’s (or wives and women in general.)  I also haven’t joined secular groups to be in a Religion Bashing Club.  Support is great, and necessary.  Venting can help sometimes. As a humanist freethinker, I won’t engage in and don’t encourage a tired battlefield mentality or a smug superiority. The chaplain in me would discourage that kind of thinking and encourage finding something positive to build upon going forward.

If someone had an awful experience with their Baptist or Pentecostal or Mormon (or anything) background, it’s completely understandable they would have some hard feelings and harsh words for those specific traditions.  What I’m questioning is judging every faith and person of faith in the same light (as many religious zealots do to atheists).  If someone is proudly anti-religious then I ask them to respond to this follow-up question: 

Why would you be anti-Quaker, anti-Buddhist or anti-Jewish?

When Hitchens says, “Religion poisons everything” or Dawkins rails against “the God delusion,” I want to be honest and get more specific. I’m in full agreement that there are aspects of religion that are poisonous and that there are people who are stuck in delusional thinking about a deity. I also think there are aspects of atheism that can be poisonous.  But dismissing and disrespecting all religions, leads me to wonder where this is coming from.  Hence, my blog post where I raise some questions – not to put down anyone – but to raise some questions, such as this main question:

Does a person have experience relating to people of diverse faith perspectives, not only their own particular former tradition?

We can all hash over negative stories around the campfire screen, but what about the good things we did, the decent folks we knew, positive stories we could tell?  I hope people can think of some.  There are many of us who have some good stories to tell, who still have relationships with people of faith.  I’d like to hear more about those.

I’m looking for balance, not sugary Pollyanna stuff.  If your church was all about faith and praise, never doing a damn thing in the community, that’s terribly sad.  I’d be angry too.  But instead of only expending energy criticizing that church, people could look around for what good things are being done in the community.

What concerns me is the extent to which an atheist (either before or after their deconversion) has learned about the wide spectrum of religious experience across the globe.  Have they had any positive interactions with people who are notfundamentalist, evangelical or Pentecostal?  I respect a secular person who says they reject what they learned in Bible College but can’t say they have deep knowledge of other faiths.  I have empathy for a former pastor whose main ministry was preaching the gospel while neglecting the social justice aspects of the biblical message.

I have a great deal of critique of my own Presbyterian roots (interlaced with Evangelical and Pentecostal), but I know many reasonable and respectable people who are still Presbyterians, and I was never a Methodist, Episcopalian, Lutheran, Catholic or other kind of Christian.

Do I have more general critiques of faith and religion itself?  Sure, a lot.  But before dismissing the diverse beliefs and personal lives of every person who claims a faith, I think it would be good get to know them, learn something about what their community is doing.  If we say we don’t judge immigrants or POC or any others who may be different from us, why not treat people of faith the same way?

 That seems basic to freethought as a reasonable, honest practice.

I suppose this raises another issue:

If we don’t want the religious community (let alone the media) to generalize and characterize all secular people as the same, why would we do that with all religious people?

I also think, as I say in the post, that a person who makes these generalizations and judgments exposes a certain narrow experience.  This is not to say I have better experience and don’t have my own judgments.  I can’t get inside your skin and you can’t get in mine.  We all have a lot to learn.  With an open mind, I wouldn’t be faithophobic any more than Islamophobic or transphobic.

Maybe what I’m most interested in for myself is the humanistic face of freethought.  I don’t often refer to myself as an atheist in part for the reasons addressed here.  I don’t want to be associated with the militant wing of non-believers—indeed sometimes, with a touch of irony, I find myself cleaning up from the latest attack on religious people.  I will continue to speak up in defense of freedom of religion and conscience, and I have said before I don’t see religion going away, so I think it’s much more productive to find ways of working with those faith communities who are open to it, and those seculars who are open to it, than complaining about them to score AAA points (or RRR points: Raging, Righteous, Religious points).

One of the first newspaper columns I wrote (in 2016) was about “devotion.”  The only other regular columns in the Religion section consisted of a “devotional” by an evangelical pastor and the “My Answer” column by our famous neighbor Billy Graham.  I wrote:

“The secular community cares about our shared world too, since it’s the only world we know for sure.  Seculars are not all anti-religious.  We are your neighbors, and maybe your friends and family.”

That’s the attitude that I will continue to present to a world that I think needs a more non-aggressive, humanistic alternative to the outrage machine often found online.  I think there is something to offer that is much better than that.

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Chris Highland has been a member of The Clergy Project since 2012.  In the span of 30 years he was a minister, chaplain, shelter director and housing manager.  He is the author of Friendly Freethinker, Simply Secular, Nature is Enough, Broken Bridges, A Freethinker’s Gospel, From Faith to Freethought and other books.  Chris teaches courses on Freethought in the Reuter Center at the University of North Carolina, Asheville.  He writes the weekly “Highland Views” column for the Asheville Citizen-Times.  Chris and his wife Carol, a Presbyterian minister, live in Western North Carolina.  His website is “Friendly Freethinker” (www.chighland.com).

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