How can atheists be civil and friendly with religious believers — particularly believers who are actively representing their beliefs — while maintaining our integrity about our atheism?
Which meant that the three-plus hours hanging around waiting our turn to get into the parade was spent in fairly close quarters with these religious groups.
Which posed an etiquette/ ethics conundrum: How can I be civil and friendly with religious believers — particularly believers who are actively representing their beliefs — while maintaining my integrity about my atheism? The basic principle — respecting people and treating them with courtesy and dignity, while retaining the right to criticize and even disrespect ideas — is a straightforward one in theory… but how does it play out in practice?
I’m going to be very clear right now: I’m speaking here only for myself. I am not speaking for any of the organizations hosting the atheist contingent in the Pride parade, or for any of the other participants in it. The thought processes and decisions I’m describing here are entirely my own.
Yeah. See, here’s the problem.
In the last several years, I’ve gotten into many, many conversations with progressive, tolerant, ecumenical religious believers about atheism. And in my experience, their tolerance for atheists dries up fast when we actually start discussing atheism. Once they find out that atheists don’t agree with any religion — even theirs? Once they find out that we are, in fact, familiar with the progressive and accepting versions of religion, that it really isn’t new to us… and that we still don’t believe? Once they find out that the reason we’re atheists isn’t because we think religion is hostile and ugly, but because we think it isn’t, you know, true? Once they find out that most atheists’ attitude towards progressive ecumenical religion is, “Yeah, it’s less bad than the hateful, bigoted right-wing bullshit, but it still lends credibility to the idea that it’s okay to believe whatever you feel like without any good evidence to support it — and most importantly, it’s still just flat-out wrong”?
Once they find that out — the pro-atheist Kumbaya hand-holding dries up in a hurry.
And it was very hard to see the smiles and the applauding and the thumbs-ups at the Pride Parade, and not remember all those conversations. It was very hard to see the smiles and the applauding and the thumbs-ups, and not think, “I know how this conversation ends up.” It was very hard to see the smiles and the applauding and the thumbs-ups, and not think that ultimately, it was bullshit.
I didn’t want to get into an argument. Or rather… I did want to get into an argument. Very much so. When the woman who was trying to make nice with us said that the homophobic religious right had gotten God’s message all wrong, I absolutely wanted to ask her, “Okay, so you think the homophobic religious right is getting Christ’s message wrong. How do you know that you’re getting it right? What reason do you have to think that you, personally, know what Jesus really meant, and that all these other jackasses are getting it wrong? They cherry-pick scripture to support their position; you cherry-pick scripture to support yours — how do you know that your cherries are the ones Jesus would approve of? Oh, and while we’re on the subject: What evidence do you have to believe that Jesus is the divine son of God in the first place? Are you aware of how laughably unreliable the New Testament is as a historical document? Are you familiar with the arguments that the historical Jesus probably didn’t even exist, and that the case for him being the divine son of God is a total joke?” I was kind of dying to get into it, if you want to know the truth. I was chomping at the bit.
Which still made me feel churlish. When people are extending a “We’re all brothers and sisters” hand, it feels churlish to shrug and reply, “Yeah, not so much.”
The same thing happened when the religious contingents and floats went by us and applauded. I felt like they were saying to us, “Sure, we believe in God — but we’re not like those other bad religions! We think atheists are great! Don’t you think we’re great, too?” I felt like they were asking us for the Atheist Seal of Approval. I felt like they were expecting us to applaud them back. And I felt churlish for not doing so.
And in a culture — like progressive LGBT culture — where uncritical acceptance of different religious beliefs is part of the standard etiquette, I don’t know how to maintain that integrity without coming across as pissy, intolerant, and churlish.
Atheists talk a lot about the parallels between the LGBT movement and the atheist movement. I talk a lot about it myself. But I think we need to remember that, for all the parallels between the two movements, there are some important differences. And one of the biggest differences is this:
There is nothing about saying, “I am queer,” that implies, “You are mistaken to be straight.” But there is something about saying, “I am an atheist,” that implies, “You are mistaken to believe in God.” Coming out as queer is a subjective statement about what is true for you personally. Coming out as atheist is an assertion about what you think is objectively true about the external world. When we come out as atheists, we’re not just saying what’s true for us. We’re saying what we think is true in the world. And by implication, we’re saying that people who disagree with us are wrong. Even if we’re not actively trying to persuade people out of religion — heck, even if we don’t care whether people believe in religion — we’re still saying that we think religion is wrong.
We need to cop to that.
I think we need to accept that. And I think we need to take responsibility for it.
But I think we need to accept that this is always going to be a difficult topic. I think we need to accept that being honest about who we are and what we think is always going to ruffle some feathers. I think we need to accept that ruffling feathers is not the worst thing human beings can do to one another. It’s not even in the Top Ten. And I think we need to accept that being out as atheists, and maintaining our integrity as out atheists, may always be seen — and feel — a little bit churlish.
Because it is.
That’s just going to have to be okay with us.