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Ask Auntie Pinko!
Posted by AuntiePinko in Editorials & Other Articles
Thu Jul 27th 2006, 01:11 PM
Dear Auntie Pinko,

You have identified yourself as a religious person in the past, so I want to know how you think we should deal with the kind of nasty atheists who insult religion and religious people, calling God “invisible friend” and things like that? I am not a fundy and I hate what fundies are doing to real religion but it’s just as hard to have anything in common with the nasty atheists even though politically they have most of the same views I do.

How can we work together when as soon as any mention of religion or faith comes up they start talking about how evil religion is and how deluded people of faith are? I don’t talk about my faith a lot but it’s part of who I am and I don’t make fun of them for being atheists.

Salem, OR

Dear Andrea,

Well, if your faith is Christian, you might consider turning the other cheek, although that seems to be out of favor these days. Remember that there are still states in which discrimination against atheists is legal, even institutionalized. While the latter half of the 20th Century saw a move toward greater secularization in American Society, even at the height of that trend, there remained many, many places where atheism was actively sanctioned in very negative ways. Many atheists have had very negative experiences with people of faith, and all atheists have good reason to fear the ongoing attempts to “theocrize” our government and public institutions.

But people of faith have good reason to fear those attempts as well, since we will suffer just as much if the sad, angry people whose notion of “Christianity” is subverting the Constitution to force others to conform to their beliefs prevail. Although it’s easy for some atheists to see all religion and all people of faith as equally threatening in the political sense, most do understand that not all people of faith want to live in a theocracy. And even those who have strong negative feelings about religion and faith understand that many religious folk share their views about keeping religion out of the government and public sector.

Sometimes just being aware of differences can help head off problems. You mention the ‘nasty kind’ of atheists, and I think you mean the ones who do not hesitate to express dismissive contempt for all religion and people of faith. While there is no real excuse for that kind of childish bad manners, there are mitigating factors to take into account. One is the ‘last nerve’ factor that can impel even the most even-tempered, good-natured individual to lash out when they are defending, for the X,XXXth time, an important personal belief that is integral to their identity. The well-meant assumptions by many people of faith that someone who is an atheist just “hasn’t figured it out yet,” or “doesn’t know any better,” can build to a high level of grating monotony pretty fast!

People of faith often assume that atheism is simply a ‘lack of belief’ or an unwillingness/inability to experience faith. On the contrary, atheism is a belief as richly grounded in experience and thought as any faith. Do atheists the courtesy of assuming that their belief is based on thoughtful consideration and analysis, and is as important to them as your faith is to you. They may be willing to engage in a mature discussion of their beliefs versus yours, but constantly having to defend the very existence of their belief is oppressive enough to make anyone a little snarky.

Some faiths embrace proselytization. If you believe that your faith holds the key to salvation and that making that salvation available to others is a good work demanded of you, you might feel impelled to let others know. There is a difference, however, between letting people know, and haranguing them, threatening them, lecturing them, etc. Atheists in America recognize that they live in a diverse, pluralistic society where people of faith are in the majority and they will often experience proselytization. But they do expect people of faith to take “no” for an answer, and (hopefully) quit trying.

It is equally unreasonable for atheists and people of faith to expect each other to stop being what they are. A religious person shouldn’t expect an atheist to express respect for their religious symbols and certainly not accept or tolerate them in a sphere where religion doesn’t belong (such as in a public or government institution.) An atheist, on the other hand, shouldn’t expect people of faith to refrain from expressing their faith anywhere except hidden behind closed doors to avoid offending atheists. And both should try to compromise or find middle ground in integrating the historical and cultural role of faith into the larger context of contemporary life. In other words, sometimes a cross (or a star of David, or a reverently calligraphed verse from the Q’ran, or a statue of Ganesh,) is a symbol of worship, and sometimes it’s a work of art and a representation of culture and history.

Still, just as there are rude, childish people of faith who continue to pester atheists about how they’re ‘going to hell’ or whatever, there are rude, childish atheists who have only to learn that someone is religiously devout and they start insulting religion. In a case like that, it’s perfectly alright to express your discomfort and ask them to stop, and if they don’t, to avoid them. There are plenty of atheists who don’t indulge themselves in petty displays of intellectual and philosophical one-upmanship to work with on our common ground of keeping the Constitution vibrant and protecting our faith (as well as the belief of atheists,) from the threat of theocracy. Thanks for asking Auntie Pinko, Andrea!
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