4.25.2009

an atheist defends theists: part two: do unto others

Part one here.

I never had any trouble accepting my own atheism. I was never part of a religious community - my childhood synagogue was not my community - and I was never rejected or even criticized for being atheist. As I got more involved with progressive activism, being an atheist was the norm, or at least not at all unusual. But even in very mainstream settings - at work, for example - I never hesitated to say I was an atheist, if it came up in an appropriate context. It's raised a few eyebrows, but nothing more than that.

Reconciling atheism with my Jewish identity was a little more challenging. Once I left home, I stopped going to synagogue completely, feeling it was hypocritical. My family no longer had religious holidays together, so that wasn't an issue. But for some time, I wasn't sure how much Jewish identity I could claim. But I've since made total peace with that. I have absolutely no conflict over it anymore.

Many people are made to suffer when they leave their religion. My own partner, as you may know, was shunned by his family - disowned - when he left the church. (And the circumstances surrounding that decidedly un-Christian rejection make it even worse: he was a teenager, and it was not long after his father's suicide.) So believe me, I'm sensitive to what the consequences of leaving a religion can be.

But much of the angst I've seen on this subject seems more about the pressure to conform, and the fear of independence. I've read many blog posts about coming out as an atheist, how it's "not done" where the person lives, the fear of rejection, the fear of "what people will think".

But part of becoming a healthy adult is learning to stop caring what others think of you, learning to accept yourself and be comfortable in your own skin. For some people, this means exchanging the fishbowl of small-town life for the anonymity of a big city, where it's easier to be yourself. That's not only about freedom of religion and non-religion. It's about the personal freedom to be yourself.

* * * *

Lately I've been disappointed to see much of the behaviour I dislike in believers among my fellow non-believers.

As you know, I hate proselytizing no matter who is doing it. Religion is a very personal matter. One either feels faith or one does not. The idea of talking someone into adopting a religion strikes me as absurd. It's also arrogant and intrusive. It is simply not your business!

I feel the same way about trying to talk someone out of belief in god. I would no more try to talk someone out of their religion than I would try to convince someone not to have children, or to change their sexual orientation. Whether the trait is innate or chosen is irrelevant here. My point is it's deeply personal, and not subject to debate.

I love my childfree life, and I wouldn't trade it for anything in the world, but if a person wants to have children, then they do, and I have no business trying to convince him or her otherwise. Likewise, because I didn't want children, nothing anyone could say about the joys of parenting or what a good mother I would supposedly make made me stop taking my birth control pills. For me, religion is like that.

I don't understand people trying to prove or disprove the existence of god. Neither can be proven. Belief in god isn't an intellectual exercise or a theorem that can be reasoned out on a chalkboard. None of us know - not the most pious believer nor the most adamant atheist.

I find the concept of god a ridiculous fiction, to me it seems quite clearly an invention of humans. But I am not so arrogant as to pretend I know there is no god. People who claim they know god exists are arrogantly assuming that their own beliefs can be generalized to us all. But so are people who claim they know god does not exist. There's a world of difference between "I believe" and "I know".

* * * *

Another anti-religion theme that atheists throw around is "religion is a crutch" and "religious people are weak".

"Crutch" is a pejorative way of saying "support". We all need supports. Some of us find support through family and friends, through art, through sports, through a philosophy or worldview. For some people, religion is part of their support, perhaps the most important one. So? It's a tough world out there, full of disappointment and pain. If religion helps someone get through life without hurting themselves or others, why is that wrong? It's better than many other crutches people use: heroin, alcohol, violence, power trips, what have you.

If you see yourself as without need of crutch or support, then good for you. But one, I doubt it's true. And two, we're not all the same. We cope as we can.

If religious people are weak, was Martin Luther King, Jr. weak?

Which brings me to another reason atheists should be tolerant of theists. As part of the community of people who work for social justice, I've had the pleasure and privilege to work alongside many religious people. Catholics, Jews, Quakers, Muslims, Mennonites, Unitarians, Episcopalians, Anglicans - all engaged in the same struggles, working alongside atheists for the same goals. Often the religious activists have been the most committed activists I have known, models for us all.

Progressive social movements are often inextricable from faith movements. The US civil rights movement is perhaps the most obvious example, but there are many. Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement. Oscar Romero and many others practicing Liberation Theology. Sister Helen Prejean, a hero of the death penalty abolition movement. Tommy Douglas was a minister. That's a short list of thousands. And of course, every peace movement the world has ever known has been supported by people of faith.

I've heard it said that this still doesn't mean religion can be a force for positive change, because all those people could have done their work without the religious component. But that misses the point. These people felt compelled to work for social change because of their religion. Their activism was inextricable from their religion. That was as true for Martin Luther King, Jr. as it is for all the ordinary people whose names we don't know, who carry on the work of social justice, and who also pray.

* * * *

I think we have to draw a distinction between organized religion and people's spirituality. The institutions of organized religion have caused tremendous pain and suffering in the world. They have perpetuated racism, sexism, homophobia and anti-Semitism. They have justified and financed slavery, slaughter and genocide. They have provided cover for serial child sexual abuse. They have oppressed women. They have robbed people of their children and robbed children of their cultures.

These institutions are rich, powerful, thoroughly corrupt and hypocritical beyond measure. But the institutions are not the same as individual peoples' belief.

Most people who believe in some sort of faith aren't harming anyone with their beliefs. Many are, of course. Fundamentalists attempting to refashion governments and countries in their image are an obvious destructive force, and demand our steadfast resistance. But the average, mainstream person who believes in god - who is she hurting? If she takes comfort from religion, if her faith guides her and soothes her, if it helps her make sense of an insane world, if it makes her feel part of something larger than herself, who is she hurting? And more importantly, who are we to judge?

Those of us who fight against bigotry in all its forms - sexism, homophobia, racism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism - ought to know better. Bigotry against people who believe in god is bigotry. If we atheists look down on theists, aren't we just as bad as the holier-than-thou religious people who look down on us?

I think we should avoid sweeping generalizations and stereotypes of any people. And we should stop trying to prove we're right.

57 comments:

Amy said...

Great piece, Laura. Having stood on both sides of the fence, atheist and believer and now questioning doubter, I agree whole-heartedly. Whatever helps people find their way is a personal choice deserving respect. Imposing that choice on others---whether through violence, political power, or otherwise---is wrong and does not deserve respect.

On a personal note, ironically in my family when I started to adopt and embrace more of Judaism, my parents were very skeptical and judgmental (although certainly they did not reject me or Harvey or try and convince us that we were crazy or wrong). Over time they have become very accepting, even curious about learning more.

L-girl said...

Thank you, Amy.

"On a personal note, ironically in my family when I started to adopt and embrace more of Judaism, my parents were very skeptical and judgmental (although certainly they did not reject me or Harvey or try and convince us that we were crazy or wrong). Over time they have become very accepting, even curious about learning more."

I don't know that there's anything ironic about it - it seems to be fairly common. Families often (usually?) feel threatened when a member of the family adopts a new belief system, or rejects the old one. Perhaps they view it as a rejection of them, personally. Whether more religion, less religion or a different religion, the reaction is often the same.

deang said...

I too don't think we should try to dissuade people from their beliefs if that's what seems to motivate them to do good. Because of their upbringing or whatever, they may seriously think that all morality comes from religion, and if that's the case, why talk them out of it? Especially if you're encountering these people in the course of working on some important issue or other.

I don't have a problem with atheists trying to point out in other settings problems they see with irrational beliefs, but I don't like it when they show up at demonstrations or meetings or other focused events and proselytize about only the issue of their atheism. That's as bad as if religious groups came to demonstrations and meetings and set up recruitment tables with no reference to the event at hand. Better analogy: the pro-fetus, anti-abortion protestors that try to make every issue about fetuses when they show up with their signs.

And I say all that as someone who is an atheist and thinks it's okay to point out that there is absolutely no evidence at all for any deity and that we therefore do know that there are none. Just don't do that at important events that have nothing to do with that.

Amy said...

Good point, Laura, regarding the fact that parents tend to be disturbed by any rejection of their beliefs (or lack thereof, in my case). I have seen Orthodox parents upset when their kids marry someone Reform, and vice versa. Sadly, there is hatred and disrespect even among those of the same religion.

L-girl said...

"I have seen Orthodox parents upset when their kids marry someone Reform, and vice versa. Sadly, there is hatred and disrespect even among those of the same religion."

It's not even the same religion, as far as the Orthodox are concerned. I grew up near a Hasidic community, also a standard Orthodox one, and we were considered "goyim". There was *tremendous* prejudice against the Hasidic community, from non-Jews and reform Jews alike. It went in every conceivable direction.

L-girl said...

"I too don't think we should try to dissuade people from their beliefs if that's what seems to motivate them to do good. Because of their upbringing or whatever, they may seriously think that all morality comes from religion, and if that's the case, why talk them out of it? Especially if you're encountering these people in the course of working on some important issue or other."

Many of the people I'm thinking of know that that isn't where all morality comes from, and are completely tolerant of other religions and atheists. They themselves feel called to work for peace (or what have you) by their beliefs.

Maybe one of those people will show up to chat about it. There was a guy named Ryan who used to come by occasionally. I think he was put off during the discussion around my co-worker giving me that religious holiday card. But maybe he'll come back for this.

"I don't have a problem with atheists trying to point out in other settings problems they see with irrational beliefs,"

I don't either - when the context is appropriate. I would hate it if a religious person took every opportunity to tell me about god. I've worked with people like that, and it's horrible. So I think we shouldn't be the atheist version of that. That's just me, my personal preference.

Cornelia said...

But part of becoming a healthy adult is learning to stop caring what others think of you, learning to accept yourself and be comfortable in your own skin. For some people, this means exchanging the fishbowl of small-town life for the anonymity of a big city, where it's easier to be yourself. That's not only about freedom of religion and non-religion. It's about the personal freedom to be yourself.

Absolutely. I agree 100 %.

Cornelia said...

love my childfree life, and I wouldn't trade it for anything in the world, but if a person wants to have children, then they do, and I have no business trying to convince him or her otherwise.

Thanks, likewise, same with me!

Cornelia said...

Thanks for that great text, Laura!

impudent strumpet said...

It's a tricky place to get to, especially if you originally were religious and become atheist as a teenager. Because when you're a teenager and still living with your parents you can't just quietly stop being religious - you essentially need their permission to stop going to church and stop staying grace etc., and they inevitably insist that you justify your atheism and try to talk you out of it and try to force you to be or act religious anyway.

So for the first little while, literally your entire atheist life has been spent having to justify your atheism and having people trying to talk you out of it (and if everyone's reaction is to try to talk you out of atheism and into religion, it seems reasonable to conclude that it's equally acceptable to try to talk someone out of religion and into atheism.)

So then when you suddenly find yourself in a situation where you have the opportunity to just be quietly atheist, you have to break what is likely years of habit. Someone asks you where you go to church, you have to ignore the years of empirical evidence that at tiresome lecture is coming, hide all evidence of the many chips on your shoulder, and in a split second come up with a cheerful "I don't go to church, do you?"

Another anti-religion theme that atheists throw around is "religion is a crutch" and "religious people are weak".The problem here is really the general societal tendency to see being weak as some kind of moral failing. It's no more a moral failing than being physically weak - it just is what it is, and while it's possible to work on it in the long term, we still need to accept and work around the weaknesses in the short term.

If I can't move the TV, I can't move the TV. Someone has to help me, or the TV isn't going to get moved. I could start working out and maybe I'll be able to move the TV next year, but that doesn't solve the immediate problem. If you refuse to help me, that isn't going to get the TV moved. Similarly, if I can't hanlde a difficult situation without my coping mechanisms, I can't handle it. Taking away my coping mechanisms or scolding/mocking/guilting me for using them isn't going to make me able to handle it.

L-girl said...

Great stuff, Imp Strump.

"So for the first little while, literally your entire atheist life has been spent having to justify your atheism and having people trying to talk you out of it (and if everyone's reaction is to try to talk you out of atheism and into religion, it seems reasonable to conclude that it's equally acceptable to try to talk someone out of religion and into atheism.)"

Excellent point, one I hadn't thought of. I was thinking more of full-fledged adults, on their own for many years, even decades, who are still in that justifying, trying-to-talk-people-out-of-it mode. They appear to be doing so out of their belief in their own correct way of thinking, and wanting to impose it on others.

But the scenario you're presenting has got to be very common. I should be sensitive to it.

"and in a split second come up with a cheerful "I don't go to church, do you?" "

And then, hopefully, you begin to see it can just be an exchange of information.

"The problem here is really the general societal tendency to see being weak as some kind of moral failing."

Yes. And also, that being human - admitting to needing nonphysical help and support - means weakness. I don't think it does. I think I am a strong person, but I still need and want the support of my partner, friends, family. I don't think that makes me weak. So I think religion must be that kind of support for some people.

"Similarly, if I can't hanlde a difficult situation without my coping mechanisms, I can't handle it. Taking away my coping mechanisms or scolding/mocking/guilting me for using them isn't going to make me able to handle it."

Boy is this ever true. I wish more people would realize that.

Cornelia said...

Similarly, if I can't hanlde a difficult situation without my coping mechanisms, I can't handle it. Taking away my coping mechanisms or scolding/mocking/guilting me for using them isn't going to make me able to handle it."

O yeah. Great point in general. As long as coping mechanisms are not abusive it's no one's business and people should get it!

Cornelia said...

Of course I would strongly advise against self-destructive coping strategies, too, haha...

Cornelia said...

Yes. And also, that being human - admitting to needing nonphysical help and support - means weakness. I don't think it does. I think I am a strong person, but I still need and want the support of my partner, friends, family. I don't think that makes me weak. So I think religion must be that kind of support for some people.

People have a right to seek support and need not let anybody keep them from getting it. Very often, such attempts are extremely patriarchal (if some domestic violence offender doesn't want the survivor get the help of the court and stuff or if an exploitative boss doesn't want his employees the assistance they need, what does that come down to after all, hey?!) And very often, I have seen that people who thought - most erringly - that they need no help made very bad mistakes due to that attitude!

Cornelia said...

and in a split second come up with a cheerful "I don't go to church, do you?" "

And then, hopefully, you begin to see it can just be an exchange of information.

Yes!!! After all, we are no longer at school and not helpless kids and teens any more, hey!

ErinOrtlund said...

I like this post, L-girl. I think whatever a person believes, it is good to read and understand people who believe otherwise. I appreciate you pointing out religious people who really helped society (ie, MLK). As a Christian, I really want to understand the atheist view as well. I read "The God Delusion" last year, for example, though Dawkins does come across aggressively. That's OK--it's still good that I read it, as well as the Christian responses to it. In my opinion, people of all beliefs demonize those who are "other" way too much and retreat into their own camps among like-minded people. Jesus himself was not like that at all.

L-girl said...

Thanks Erin, I really appreciate that.

"In my opinion, people of all beliefs demonize those who are "other" way too much and retreat into their own camps among like-minded people."

Yes indeed. It's understandable that we all want to be around like-minded people. It's much easier to be truly ourselves when we're surrounded by people of similar outlook. But building walls to keep out "the other" - whether physical or attitudinal walls - is so destructive.

ErinOrtlund said...

Absolutely, I agree with you. It can be more comfortable to be around like-minded people, but ultimately, it is so beneficial and rewarding to befriend and understand people who think differently. If it challenges our own worldview, that can be good--either we will end up seeing something in a different way, or if not, hold our original beliefs in a stronger and less fragile way. I think friendships with people who are different are good, too, because we can no longer just generalize about "atheists" or "homosexuals" or "that ethnic group"--when someone we hold dear is part of that group.

L-girl said...

I agree completely. In fact, I love knowing and being friends with a big diversity of people - it's so enriching and interesting.

I guess my only bottom-line requirement is that people are open-minded and not bigoted. Close-minded bigots are the only people I can't be friends with.

Ryan said...

Hi Laura,

Thanks for the invitation. And I certainly appreciate the sentiment here. Anyone can believe something--it's what we do that really counts. As such, it's always seemed silly to me to judge someone on beliefs or affiliations, rather than their actions. Unfortunately, if people wish to think that their way of being in the world has greater moral legitimacy (whether Christian, atheist or whichever) then they probably should act like it by not mimicking the same attitude of those who wish to fence off the "other."

While it is true that the institutional church has been responsible for many heinous things (though, if you think about it, more people have been killed by the secular nation-state in the twentieth century), Canadians seem to have a short memory. Churches have in many instances in our history been on the frontlines of social change from medicare, to the abolition of the death penalty, and in the case of my church, same-sex marriage and GLBT rights. Hell, before the early twentieth century you'd be more likely to see an American evangelical march with a socialist than corporate thugs.

However, I think part of this debate is somewhat misleading. I'd still take issue with the debate being "atheists versus theists" because many religious people I know aren't theists--if we wanted to be technical, one could say that I'm an atheist because I don't believe in a theistic God. Nor do I think that the notion that the churches are rich, powerful and corrupt holds up in all cases considering the shrinking attendance and finances of the Canadian (and American) mainline churches.

Then again, I also think that the humanism that self-identifying atheists subscribe to is another tradition that functions like a religion in the way that it derives its authority authority and values from enlightenment liberalism. But hey, that's a debate for another day, and one that I can easily live without having :)

Peace,
Ryan

Cornelia said...

Enlightenment liberalism is not at odds with freedom of religion, but rather upholds it either way: It's up to each and every person to decide whether they want to be religious or not, whether they want to change their religious orientation, whether they want to be purely worldly humanistic or combine it with some religious views or not. Another important point is that the problem with bigotry and fundamentalism is when they want to force their views on other people who would have none of it and try to control their minds and actions and abridge their rights and subject them to duress, intimidation, bullying and abuse.

Cornelia said...

And of course, people can figure out for themselves what makes sense to them, what they feel comfortable with and what they find abusive and oppressive. So, enlightenment liberalism is really rather about upholding human rights and providing people with options.

L-girl said...

Hi Ryan, thank you for your thoughts.

"Unfortunately, if people wish to think that their way of being in the world has greater moral legitimacy (whether Christian, atheist or whichever)"

This is the key, I think.

"(though, if you think about it, more people have been killed by the secular nation-state in the twentieth century),"

I've seen this argument around the internet many times, usually in defense of capitalism vs what the person believes is socialism. It doesn't work for me. Focusing on the specific ideology that's behind a war or genocide, classifying the power as secular or religious, is - I think - beside the point. Nazism, Stalinism, nationalism, Catholicism, imperialism, colonialism - different excuses for the same outcome at different points in history.

Also, I'm obviously not only talking about massacres of millions. I'm talking about individual people's lives on a small scale as well.

"Canadians seem to have a short memory. Churches have in many instances in our history been on the frontlines of social change from medicare, to the abolition of the death penalty, and in the case of my church, same-sex marriage and GLBT rights."

I do see that here. Obviously my view is going to be more coloured by US history than Canadian, and the US is a much more religious country than Canada.

"However, I think part of this debate is somewhat misleading. I'd still take issue with the debate being "atheists versus theists" because many religious people I know aren't theists"

To be honest, I only used that word because I couldn't think of another single word that meant "people who have faith" or "people who practice a religion". I saw "atheists vs theists" on another blog and lifted it. I readily confess I don't really know the subtleties of the word as you do.

"Nor do I think that the notion that the churches are rich, powerful and corrupt holds up in all cases"

Of course not! Nothing holds up in all cases. That's one of the central points of the post.

"considering the shrinking attendance and finances of the Canadian (and American) mainline churches."

I don't know anything about that. I know plenty of mainstream and evangelical churches in the US are rolling in dough. But if there are shrinking attendances, that can only be a good thing. :)

"Then again, I also think that the humanism that self-identifying atheists subscribe to is another tradition that functions like a religion in the way that it derives its authority authority and values from enlightenment liberalism. But hey, that's a debate for another day, and one that I can easily live without having :)"

In many ways my political worlview absolutely functions as my religion. I've said it many times in this blog, and I don't find it contradictory in any way.

There's no deity involved, nothing supernatural, no after life or destiny. But yes, it takes one of the functions of religions in that it gives us guiding principles to live by. Why would that be a matter of debate?

impudent strumpet said...

@Ryan (or anyone else who can explain it) can you give a better idea of the nuance here?:

many religious people I know aren't theists--if we wanted to be technical, one could say that I'm an atheist because I don't believe in a theistic God.In my concept system religious = theist = believe in god. I always thought they were perfect synonyms. What's the nuance that I'm missing?

Amy said...

This is from Wikipedia and is consistent with my understanding of theism:

"Theism in the broadest sense is the belief in at least one deity.[1][2] In a specific sense in current usage, theism generally refers to a particular doctrine concerning the nature of God and his relationship to the universe.[3] Theism, in this specific sense, conceives of God as personal and active in the governance and organization of the world and the universe."

That's why I was using the term believer in my comments. I have never conceived of God as personal and active in the governance of the universe, but rather as a shared force or energy that permeates all of us and the universe. So I would never have described myself as a theist, though I did (and still do but with less certainty) believe in that more abstract, less personal view of God.

L-girl said...

From Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary:

Theism: 1. belief in the existence of a god or gods

There are some other specifics, but according to this dictionary, this is the accepted definition. That works for me.

If people who have faith or religion choose not to consider themselves theists, that's completely up to them, of course. But I think theism works as the opposite of atheism.

Jere said...

But don't you get mad when people are watching the game and they do superstitious things, thinking they can control it from their living room? You tell them that magic and curses don't exist. Isn't that you trying to convince them that what they believe isn't real?

So why is it not okay for me to tell religious people that their whole system is just as ridiculous and completely made up?

From what you say here, shouldn't you say to those superstitious people, Hey, that's your belief system, I won't try to make you change?

Or do you think "not moving from your spot on the couch to make your team win" is sillier than "a being we can't see created a universe and everything in it with the snap of it's giant, invisible fingers"? I feel I have a better chance of making A-Rod strike out with my mind than I do of creating a universe even with an instruction manual and tools.

And I admit I do all the silly superstitions watching the game--it is my only religion:)

redsock said...

I'd be very surprised if a sports fan's belief in his lucky hat or which pen he uses to keep score is as strong as the religious faith of people who spend hours and hours every week going door-to-door talking about religion.

Ask that guy whether he thinks drinking his beer from a different shaped glass caused his team to lose in extra innings -- I'd be shocked if he said yes, in the deepest depths of his heart, he KNOWS that was the sole reason for the loss. And that his belief in the "correct" glass is strong and true enough to base his life around.

This isn't apples and oranges, it's apples and whales.

L-girl said...

"But don't you get mad when people are watching the game and they do superstitious things, thinking they can control it from their living room?"

No. I never get mad when people do that. I think it's just a silly bit of fun. I do stuff like that myself.

If I knew people who took those things very seriously, who truly believed they could effect what happens on the field, I wouldn't want to be around them. But try to change them or get mad at them? No, I don't.

"You tell them that magic and curses don't exist. Isn't that you trying to convince them that what they believe isn't real?"

I don't like the whole Red Sox "curse" thing for many reasons, mostly because it's historically inaccurate, and lazy thinking. But the condition of the Red Sox is fact-based and a matter of record. Whether or not god(s) exists is internal and a matter of belief.

In my opinion, trying to draw an analogy between how sports media portrayed the Red Sox franchise, and my reaction to that, and tolerance to people who have religion stretches the bounds of rational discussion.

"So why is it not okay for me to tell religious people that their whole system is just as ridiculous and completely made up?"

People's belief systems are an integral and essential part of who they are. Telling people their belief system is made up is as rude and intolerant as telling someone she is weak because she is female, or disgusting because he is gay, or dangerous because he is Muslim.

If you don't see that by now, I think you have a major blind spot in your sense of tolerance.

L-girl said...

Also:

"So why is it not okay for me to tell religious people that their whole system is just as ridiculous and completely made up?

From what you say here, shouldn't you say to those superstitious people, Hey, that's your belief system, I won't try to make you change?"

If that is true, if I should say to those people, that's your belief, and I want to try change you, then I've erred.

I don't think the two are remotely similar, but if I am wrong, then I'm wrong. That certainly doesn't excuse your intolernace.

Honestly, if you can type that question with all seriousness --

"So why is it not okay for me to tell religious people that their whole system is just as ridiculous and completely made up?"

-- if you have to ask, you have a real problem: an inner bigot you have not even acknowledged.

Ryan said...

Theism is the term for God as a being, outside of the reality of this earth that inserts itself into this reality to monkey around with things at some sort of arbitrary will. That doesn't really describe my beliefs, nor the majority of the people I go to church with. Usually when Richard Dawkins and the like describe faith, this is the description they use--which, in many cases, is a misinterpretation and derived almost exclusively from the American evangelical movement. Atheism as we know it has become to mean "a-religious," or skeptical "secular humanist." Perhaps atheists are comfortable with that label. However, the label of "theist" is simply incorrect in describing many people of faith.

Church attendance is on the decline in Canada an continues outside of conservative evangelicalism, the Mormons, and similar movements. Some individual church entities inside the mainline traditions (Catholic, United, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Anglican etc.) continue to grow, but are by and large on the decline, and have been for several decades. Outside of the Catholic church, which is top down, theologically strict and world-wide, the mainline churches could hardly be accused of major corruption. Most, in fact, have financial trouble, with--as in the case of the United Church--many smaller congregations being supported by funds from other congregations or closing up shop entirely. My church, for example, barely skirted a deficit last year, and is becoming increasingly dependent on rental revenue. Perhaps the incredibly corrupt, capitalistic American evangelical churches (which are usually congregationalist and loosely connected, if at all, to national churches) have brought on this reputation, along with the Catholic church. Yet, it doesn't apply to most, if not the majority of churches in Canada.

The fact is, if we are to criticize eachother, we should be honest in doing so, even if we aren't doing so intentionally. The fact is that many religious people/people of faith/"believers" have been mischaracterized in popular discourse. While I welcome any and all criticisms of belief systems, religious discourse and individual actions of religious people, I think it's entirely understandable that I do not welcome stereotypes or inaccuracies in description used in such criticism.

I'm not just on an unrelated rant, really. It is is part of, what seems to me, a general trend in "progressive" circles. As you've stated, many seem to "other" religious people in the same fashion that an atheist would be "othered" by a fervent believer. An assumption of beliefs, opinions or personal character due to someone's identification with a particular social group in many cases results in such treatment. Especially when the original assumptions are not entirely accurate. All sides must recognize this.

Peace,
Ryan

L-girl said...

Thanks for the perspective, Ryan.

Please remember I am not criticizing people of faith - I am saying exactly the opposite. I am not Richard Dawkins, nor have I ever read a word he's written. Nor is this blog "progressive circles".

So you may have a very valid point about what some people somwhere do or think, but I don't think it's happening here.

But if I'm missing the point, please do clue me in.

L-girl said...

Or is your point only that I shouldn't use the word "theist"? Even though the dictionary definition says it means belief in god or gods?

L-girl said...

Also - sorry, I keep posting, then thinking of more questions - why are you emphasizing dwindling church budgets and attendance? I don't understand the relevance.

Jere said...

"Honestly, if you can type that question with all seriousness --

"So why is it not okay for me to tell religious people that their whole system is just as ridiculous and completely made up?"

-- if you have to ask, you have a real problem: an inner bigot you have not even acknowledged."


So you don't agree that religion is all made up by humans? I"m a bigot for telling someone their religion is made up? Wouldn't most religious people say that all the other religions besides their own are made up anyway? Are they bigots?

And to redsock's point: I don't think it matters how popular the belief is. What you guys are saying is, If I start a "church" that has to do with little things like which pen to use, that's somehow different than a church that says a man walked on water, you'll burn in hell after you die, etc. It's all stuff just invented by people. The fact that a lot of people do the same made up thing shouldn't make it any different. That's my point--the people who dedicate their lives to a belief system are believing something just as silly as the guy who says "I have to sleep facing north this one time" and then forgets about it forever.

redsock said...

Why would you (or anyone else) go out of your way to tell someone that his or her beliefs are "ridiculous", even though those beliefs have no absolutely no effect on your life?

You might not be a bigot in that case, but you'd absolutely be an insensitive asshole.

redsock said...

***
And to redsock's point: I don't think it matters how popular the belief is.
***

Popularity has absolutely nothing to do with what I'm saying.

I was referring to the depth of someone's faith. The religious person's faith in her beliefs is likely much stronger than the baseball fan's belief that what he eat before he watches the game can effect the outcome.

That enormous difference is the reason why your example doesn't make sense.

L-girl said...

"So you don't agree that religion is all made up by humans?"

My own beliefs are set out in part one of this two-part post, and partly reiterated here.

"I"m a bigot for telling someone their religion is made up?"

No, just a jerk.

You're a bigot if you think you are better than someone else because of your beliefs, or that your belief system is the One True Way and all others are false, silly, etc.

"Wouldn't most religious people say that all the other religions besides their own are made up anyway? Are they bigots?"

Many religious people have bigotry against people from other religions, yes. Many do not. I know many, many religious people who are very open to people of all faiths and atheists. They say, as I do, that this is right *for me*, not that This Is Right.

That there is prejudice between and among religious people is without question. However, this post was about atheists being prejudiced against believers.

You're very clear on what bigotry is in other circumstances. But you appear to be unable to see it here. Oh well.

redsock said...

Also, in your daily conversations, do you tell people what they are saying to you is stupid or ridiculous? Or that they are ugly or fat or have bad breath?

I have a feeling that you do not. So why do you think making an exception for religious beliefs is alright?

L-girl said...

Ryan, I just got what you meant about progressive circles. Just now, while I was cooking dinner. So please ignore my earlier comment about that! (A little slow on the uptake today, but I did eventually get your point.)

Thanks again for your thoughts. They're interesting and I appreciate your input.

annelibrary said...

Interesting comment...I found myself nodding when I resd your posts on this subject.

I have a very good friend who I feel sometimes pushes on the whole atheism question. She and her husband are former Christian fundamentalists and sometimes I feel they are trying to convert me to their atheism.

I'm a nontheistic Unitarian/ Universalist who was raised in a liberal Christian church (Anglican). Although I feel I don't fit into that church anymore, I still have a lot of affection for that church. Unlike my friend and her husband, the majority of my experiences were positive.

I don't mind reading the issues of Free Inquirer and Skeptic that they pass along to us and my DH (a very low key atheist) and I went to see Religiculus (Bill Mayer's movie).

However, I at times it all becomes too much. I don't see religion as this terrible evil. At times, I find myself defending liberal believers of various faiths. (I was shocked when she described fanatics at "at least they're honest" - implying that moderate/liberal believers are dishonest and has said they enable fundamentalists by tolerating them. (I don't recall liking fundamentalists when I was a moderate believer myself). They become annoyed if I mention that some religious people have done great good in the social justice movements. (Maybe it isn't "necessary" for friends but it is for these people). They look down on people who found their faith motivating.

I've told her that I'm very happy when my current state of beliefs/nonbeliefs and have no desire to join the Humanist Association (although I prefer that particular brand of atheism to others) as I don't consider myself an atheist. As well, when she told me she was reading yet another book criticizing Christianity and I told her I had read *enough* of those books (all that they had lent me)for the time being. (sigh)

I respect their atheism, I just wish they would do the same for my Unitarianism and please let other people decide their own lives.

L-girl said...

Thanks, Anne. I can understand your friends' POV as former fundies. But it sounds like they've become fundamentalists of a different stripe.

I've had many friends who are UUs. They're a great bunch.

In comments on this thread, you can read my thoughts on Bill Maher's movie Religulous. I disliked it very much.

Cornelia said...

O absolutely, Annelibrary. You have a right to your boundaries and she should respect that and I like very much what you have written, personally. Sure she can find somebody else who enjoys these books! And why not focusing on discussing issues you both have more common ground so that it's more fun? I mean, by agreeing to disagree.

impudent strumpet said...

@Ryan: That's helpful, thanks. I think I've almost got it...I'm just stuck on one thing:

Theism is the term for God as a being, outside of the reality of this earth that inserts itself into this reality to monkey around with things at some sort of arbitrary will.I understand this part, but the concept I'm missing is: as opposed to what? What are the other possibilities that fall outside of theism but still within god/religion?

Jere said...

I wasn't saying I go up to people and say their beliefs are wrong. I'm saying the writer of this piece DOES tell people their beliefs are silly all the time, but in this post says how we shouldn't do that. Maybe the guy who believes in magic one time really does believe it stronger than the person who believes in a standard religion and dedicates her whole life to it. You can't know that, and it shouldn't matter.

I don't claim to know why we're here, but I can definitely rule out stories of invisible beings invented by humans. It's like how I can say I "know" there isn't a polar bear in my backyard. Technically, it could be there. But I know it's not, and I can prove it over and over and over.

I just think the debate comes from a make-believe premise so how can it even be a debate? I could try to get a hundred people to gather around and discuss whether my invisible dog is male or female--but no one would waste their time on something like that. No matter how much I claim I "need" this fake dog to get through the day, or how much I claim it makes me do good, even though a person can do good without it.

I feel like I'd agree with you if you replaced "religion" with "spirituality." We're living creatures with minds and memories and I think we're connected to other living things, whether they are trees or mice or whatever. I don't think we're robots. And we obviously have curiosity, and that's what makes us tell stories, and that's where religion came from. It doesn't make the stories real, though.

L-girl said...

"I wasn't saying I go up to people and say their beliefs are wrong. I'm saying the writer of this piece DOES tell people their beliefs are silly all the time, but in this post says how we shouldn't do that."

If you find me hypocritical, so be it. It doesn't make your or anyone else's mocking, vocal disapproval of other people's religions right.

However, I question whether "the writer of this piece DOES tell people their beliefs are silly all the time". I'm not saying I have never done that, but (a) if I have, it's wrong and (b) I disagree that this is something I do "all the time". Assuming you are referring to JoS game threads, you should be able to find ample evidence of my doing so. I look forward to reading it.

And again, I repeat for emphasis, I do not think "there's no such thing as a curse", referring to media-driven perception of the Red Sox, is in the same category as people's religions. As Allan put it earlier, apples and whales.

Jere, you are changing the topic of this discussion to suit your own argument. I don't appreciate it. I'm tolerating it for now, but will soon stop.

L-girl said...

"I don't claim to know why we're here, but I can definitely rule out stories of invisible beings invented by humans."

As do I. I go one step further. I don't think there is even a "why" to why we're here.

However, this thread is a not a forum for debate on atheism vs religion and/or spirituality.

redsock said...

I'm saying the writer of this piece DOES tell people their beliefs are silly all the time, but in this post says how we shouldn't do that.

"The writer of this piece" has a name. Why not use it?

redsock said...

Jere: "I wasn't saying I go up to people and say their beliefs are wrong."
***

I only know your words from comments here (and your own blog), so I cannot claim you approach people on the street, but knowing that there are people of faith reading JoS game threads, you did say, on September 5, 2008:

"I worry about society when what people need is some completely made-up bullshit."

Also: "... there are plenty of god guys on every team including ours. Gotta take the good with the god. But that doesn't make god-talk any less dumb."

redsock said...

Jere: The claim that you don't go up to people and say their beliefs are wrong does not withstand scrutiny.

One month after the quote I posted above -- as the Red Sox were about to clinch the 2008 ALDS -- there was this exchange (which I have edited slightly):

redsock said...
FIVE OUTS TO GO
Mon Oct 06, 10:46:00 PM

L-girl said...
FIVE
Mon Oct 06, 10:46:00 PM

L-girl said...
FOUR
Mon Oct 06, 10:48:00 PM

redsock said...
FOUR OUTS TO GO!
Mon Oct 06, 10:48:00 PM

tim said...
FOUR
Mon Oct 06, 10:48:00 PM

Jere said...
And you guys, with the out-counting, please? They came up with that egg saying for a reason.
Mon Oct 06, 11:03:00 PM

L-girl said...
What, out-counting is jinxing? We are going to win. We can't jinx that.
Mon Oct 06, 11:04:00 PM

redsock said...
i wanted to count at 27, but i restrained myself. thinking out counting = laaaa runs = CHB shit.
Mon Oct 06, 11:04:00 PM

Jere said...
It's just that if you count, and then it's tied or you lose the lead, the count becomes meaningless.
Mon Oct 06, 11:06:00 PM

L-girl said...
So?
Mon Oct 06, 11:06:00 PM

Jere said...
I'm just sayin, those outs hadn't hatched yet
Mon Oct 06, 11:07:00 PM

redsock said...
are you saying you didn't mean we jinxed the sox? hmmmmm
Mon Oct 06, 11:08:00 PM

L-girl said...
Big deal. Just enjoying ourselves.
Mon Oct 06, 11:08:00 PM

Jere said...
hey, is it any sillier than missing a game because my religion doesn't let me? This is my religion!
Mon Oct 06, 11:09:00 PM

L-girl said...
I didn't say it was silly. I said there's no such thing as a jinx, and this is how I enjoy the game, and you are welcome to not enjoy it that way, but not to tell me that I caused something to happen or not happen because of something I typed, hundreds of miles from where the game is taking place.
Mon Oct 06, 11:10:00 PM

Amy said...
Uh, Jere, that was sort of offensive. I don't know your religion as silly, don't call mine silly.
Mon Oct 06, 11:11:00 PM

Jere said...
religion is silly. all of 'em. not backin' down on that one.
Mon Oct 06, 11:12:00 PM

L-girl said...
You don't have to back down, but you could keep your opinions to yourself. I'm an atheist and I find your comments offensive.
Mon Oct 06, 11:13:00 PM

Jere said...
well why are jinxes silly but not religion? I don't get it.
Mon Oct 06, 11:14:00 PM

L-girl said...
I didn't say anything was silly. Go back and read my comments and show me where I said anything was silly. As you know, I personally have no religion. But I think it's wrong to act like my beliefs are right and other people's are wrong. We're not all the same. Everyone gets through the day differently. Whatever works is not silly.
Mon Oct 06, 11:16:00 PM

Amy said...
Jere, I don't have the energy now to try and even respond to that remark. I would rather focus on the game.
Mon Oct 06, 11:18:00 PM

redsock said...
could we PLEASE treat religion the way we (usually) treat politics i.e., not fucking mention it.
Mon Oct 06, 11:19:00 PM

L-girl said...
ps saying "i can't watch a game on yom kippur" is not bringing up religion. it's stating a fact of a fan's life.
Mon Oct 06, 11:20:00 PM

****

How is your search for incidents of "the writer of this blog" making similar comments (you said she does it "all the time") coming?

Jere said...

Right, I don't go up to people, but when it comes up I'm happy to speak my mind.

When Laura (or you, or me) say to people in threads that they're superstitions are silly, that's what I'm talking about when I say she tells people their beliefs are silly.

Anyway, I came here to say more about this, and I'm glad you found the thing where I made fun of Amy's religious beliefs. At the time I emailed her, said how I didn't want to be a dick, etc., but I specified that I STILL think her beliefs (and all other religious beliefs) are silly, and that it doesn't mean that I don't love her just the same.

You say it's insensitive to tell people their beliefs are silly--but this is what that Religulous movie was about--how we non-religious people shouldn't be afraid to tell people what we think about this stuff. Is it insensitive to tell my 16-year old kid Santa Claus doesn't exist? If a person is still believing in the Tooth Fairy at age 21 they go to the mental institution. Meanwhile their parents are praying to god that they'll get better! WE are the ones who are right here, we shouldn't be afraid to tell people they are full of shit, because they are! The more I think about this, the more I WANT to tell people they're wrong. Smart people can do stupid things, and a lot of them do. People have the right to believe in Santa, smoke crack, overeat, believe in god, but I have the right to tell them how I feel about it, especially if it's someone I care about. And they of course have the right to tell me to shut up.

And I'm not a bigot because I believe anybody who believes in anything should be allowed to go about their business or whatever. However, the "opinion" that there is a god is the same thing to me as the "opinion" that two plus two is five. I tolerate those people too, but I still know they're wrong.

Jere said...

This is from a few weeks ago. This is what I mean--a person says they feel "magic" happened and redsock and Laura say they're full of shit. Note: I fully agree with both of you. But I'm just saying, this is someone stating their belief, and you guys letting them know they're wrong. Again, you might say that it's apples and whales, but I just don't agree with that. It's making things up to explain what we don't know. And I understand Patrick doesn't sit at home with one of those Mick Jagger crescent moon caps doing magic spells. And if you don't consider this to be telling someone what they believe is silly, and you really don't think you've done that in threads, I apologize.

....


"Patrick said...

Papi's a professional. He's not going to be unable to hit because his buddy is on a different team.I'd love for him to prove me wrong. Big Papi has only existed with Manny. There was magic.

Amy said...

He may be a professional, but he sure has not hit as well post-Manny. I was willing to chalk it up to his injury last season, but not now.


L-girl said...

He has not hit as well post-Manny, of course we know that. But don't we also know that two events happening near each other does not imply causality?

Amy said...

Yes, two events do not necessarily mean causality, but it doesn't mean there isn't some connection either. There are so many factors---age, injury, bad luck---but Manny's absence could be one as well. Who really knows? Not even Papi.

redsock said...

magic? sounds like mystique and aura and ghosts in the ball park to me.

L-girl said...

None of us know, so people make shit up to explain it. If Ortiz isn't hitting because Manny's not around, he's not much of a baseball player in the first place.

Amy said...

Making stuff up is part of the fun, no? It's sure not all science.

L-girl said...

It's not all science, but I'll reject magic every time."

L-girl said...

"At the time I emailed her, said how I didn't want to be a dick, etc., but I specified that I STILL think her beliefs (and all other religious beliefs) are silly, and that it doesn't mean that I don't love her just the same."

In my opinion, and in the opinion of many pepole, if you do that but still specify that her beliefs are silly - after you've already said that in the thread - you are still being a dick.

I don't mean that I discussed this incident with anyone. I didn't know you emailed Amy and didn't discuss it with her or anyone else. I mean that in general, when someone gives a Larry David-style explanation - a semi-apology that includes a reiteration that they are right - they are not apologizing at all. They are continuing to assert their correctness.

"You say it's insensitive to tell people their beliefs are silly--but this is what that Religulous movie was about"

I saw the movie. I don't think that's what it was about.

"And I'm not a bigot because I believe anybody who believes in anything should be allowed to go about their business or whatever."

But you believe you're better than they are, that they are stupid, that your opinions are The Truth and theirs are bullshit. I think that's bigotry.

2 + 2 = 4 can be proven. Whether or not there is a god cannot be proven. You don't seem to understand the difference between faith/belief and opinion.

"And if you don't consider this to be telling someone what they believe is silly, and you really don't think you've done that in threads, I apologize."

Let's review.

You said I tell people their beliefs are silly *all the time*. Factoring in exaggeration, that should mean I do it at least frequently.

The example you came up with is someone's opinion on why David Ortiz is not hitting home runs. Patrick didn't evoke curses or superstitions. He gave an emotional reason.

I state my opinion that I don't think the emotional reason makes sense, that it's made up. Patrick isn't denying he made it up - it's not like he read it somewhere or has special knowledge. It's his opinion.

You apparently don't see the difference between that and telling someone their religion is silly - both in terms of the importance to the person [Amy's religion vs Patrick's opinion of why Ortiz isn't hitting HRs] and in terms of how it is stated [opinion vs fact].

When you say --

"However, the "opinion" that there is a god is the same thing to me as the "opinion" that two plus two is five. I tolerate those people too, but I still know they're wrong."

-- you apprarently don't see that "I still know they're wrong" is as arrogant as those peoples' claims that they are right and know The Truth.

Neither side - religion nor atheism - is proveable. Your answer is only right *for you*.

My point was, and remains, that I think many atheists need to be more tolerant. I think it's a more productive way of dealing with the world - more generous, less arrogant, more humble, less prejudiced, more open-minded, more embracing, more accepting. All the things we want the world to be.

And "they do it too!" (i.e. some religious people are intolerant) is an immature and flimsy excuse. Religious people can be intolerant so areligious people should be the same? No, thanks.

Thanks for taking the time to explain further.

redsock said...

Jere: The sticking point in this entire discussion is your inability to see the difference or, if you do see the difference, which I think you do, to admit a difference exists between:

someone's religious faith/belief

and

someone's exasperation that his mistake-prone, poor-playing baseball team must be cursed or thinking his team can win a game if he wears a certain piece of clothing or if he does not move from his current spot on the couch.

Repeating this argument means one or a combination of the following:

(a) you do not understand what religious faith is

(b) you do not understand that fans who insist on not saying "no-hitter" know it's silly, but do it because it has been a traditional superstition for decades and is as much a part of the game as hot dogs and beer

(c) you are acting as devil's advocate just for fun, which is a waste of everyone's time.

L-girl said...

"My point was, and remains, that I think many atheists need to be more tolerant. I think it's a more productive way of dealing with the world - more generous, less arrogant, more humble, less prejudiced, more open-minded, more embracing, more accepting. All the things we want the world to be."

I just wanted to reiterate, in case it got lost in the thread, that I don't claim to always be all of these things. That would be rather self-delusional on my part. So if I ever do tell people their beliefs are stupid, whether or not I use those words, then I'm in error. We all have things we have to continue to work on.

I'm putting forth the ideal, what I think is right - not claiming I am perfect.

That's the other reason I found "but you tell people their beliefs are stupid all the time" a lame rationalization.

Amy said...

I think Allan and Laura have stated clearly and convincingly what needs to be said in response to Jere's insensitive and ignorant remarks. But since my name keeps coming into the discussion, I feel a need to say something. Jere, you are entitled to believe or not believe whatever you want. I don't mock your views nor do I insist mine are "right." Although I have my own doubts about the existence of any god and am far from a fundamentalist, I think it is incredibly arrogant for you to say that you 'know" there is no God just like there is no Santa Claus. People define God in all kinds of ways. And there are lots of things we believe in that we cannot actually prove. There is more to life that what you can see, feel, touch, taste or hear. I know that I do not know or understand everything in the universe. It amazes me that you actually believe that you do. And I wish that you would give me and others who are less willing to assume such omniscience a little respect.

L-girl said...

Sorry to seem like I'm piling on. I was about to post this when I saw Amy's comment in moderation.

"It's like how I can say I "know" there isn't a polar bear in my backyard. Technically, it could be there. But I know it's not, and I can prove it over and over and over."

You can prove there is no polar bear in your backyard, because a polar bear is a something that can be seen and touched.

You can prove that Santa Claus does not deliver Xmas gifts by showing how Xmas gifts are bought, wrapped and placed under a tree.

You can prove there is no tooth fairy by showing how the coins get under the pillow.

Now, to me, god exists as much as Santa Claus and the tooth fairy. But I cannot prove that is actually the case, as opposed to my own belief. (I have no wish or need to prove it, either, but that's a separate issue.)

Many people believe in a deity that cannot be seen or touched, and many people believe in a spirituality that cannot be defined by any of the known human senses.

My point is that knowing and proving there is no polar bear in your backyard is possible. Proving that there is or is not a god or gods in the universe is not possible.