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.

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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".

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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.

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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.

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