Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Dear Atheists: Be Cool

I spend a good bit of time on this blog arguing against religious fundamentalism; gnashing my teeth about creationism, school-sponsored prayer, and religiously-based discrimination. I think of myself as an agnostic humanist, and I follow groups like Americans United, the ACLU, and the American Humanist Association on Facebook. I even follow more radically anti-religious organizations like the Richard Dawkins Foundation and the Freedom from Religion Foundation. It's a good way to keep up with what the religious right is doing, and to keep tabs on how Jefferson's "wall of separation" between church and state is holding up. But I don't always agree with those more radical groups. In fact, sometimes I find them completely offensive.

For example, a while back one of those organizations posted a picture from their office breakroom. They had a refrigerator magnet of Jesus on the cross, with various magnetic garments you could put on him, like a dress-up Barbie. I thought that was offensive and unnecessary, and I told them so, as did several other people who didn't think "openly non-religious" is the same thing as "tasteless and insensitive." After a while, they took the picture down and apologized. That's when it got really disturbing. More people complained about them taking it down than putting it up. They saw it as a sign of weakness; as a capitulation to religious sensibilities. There was a lot of trollish talk about how religious people are idiots, and offending them should be a point of pride. One guy remarked, "Isn't offending religious people what we're all about?"

No, it's not. At least, it's not what I'm all about. That guy seems to have confused the words "atheist" and "jackass." They aren't synonyms, though I suspect he is both. What's the point of being offensive for its own sake? Yes, it's true that religions can cause a lot of harm--honor killings among some Muslims, the Inquisition, the Westboro Baptist Church--these are bad things.That's why it's vital that religious ideas be as open to criticism as any others--there's no reason they should get special treatment.  But there's also no reason to be nasty about it.

I admit that I like to challenge people's ideas; to make them question what they take for granted. And I want them to challenge me right back. Life is too short not to think about what we're doing here. I'm OK with causing slight discomfort, but I never want to truly offend people. And I certainly don't want to outlaw religion or "kick God out of the schools." I just want to keep religious fundamentalism from creeping further into our schools and government, and to remind religious people that the non-religious in this country are Americans, too. I do have a bit of a missionary goal--I want to try to convince people to reconsider fundamentalism, creationism, religiously-based discrimination, and so on. But I actually don't want to convert Christians to my views. I don't want to be responsible for that kind of spiritual upheaval.

Still, I do want to convert conservative, fundamentalist Christians to a more moderate, modern, and inclusive variety of their faith. And if you want to try to convince people of anything, the last thing you want to do is offend them. Being offensive for no reason isn't just ugly--it's also counterproductive. Of course, I've been known to forget that in the heat of an argument, but in my cooler-headed and less-stupid moments, I'm convinced that if you want to change someone's mind, you need to be as friendly as you possibly can. Friendlier, probably, than you think is necessary. It's actually really hard, and I fail miserably at it sometimes.

Just as some people seem to have confused the terms "atheist" and "trolling jackass", others have confused atheism with "science" or "reason." Several times I've noticed people talking about atheism, science, and reason as though they formed a natural trinity. But one of those things is not like the others. Science and reason are not beliefs, but intellectual methods, based on a commitment to evidence and logic. Atheism is a belief, and not one based on compelling evidence. I can point to all kinds of evidence that the big bang or evolution happened, but I don't know of similar bodies of evidence showing that God doesn't exist. Of course, I don't know of bodies of evidence that he does exist, either. As usual, I'm with Carl Sagan on this question:
An atheist is someone who is certain that God does not exist, someone who has compelling evidence against the existence of God. I know of no such compelling evidence. Because God can be relegated to remote times and places and to ultimate causes, we would have to know a great deal more about the universe than we do now to be sure that no such God exists. To be certain of the existence of God and to be certain of the nonexistence of God seem to me to be the confident extremes in a subject so riddled with doubt and uncertainty as to inspire very little confidence indeed.
Atheism and science, then, aren't necessarily a package deal, and if people keep acting like they are, it's going to drive religious people away from science. Is that what we want? In the same interview, Sagan also said:
When people ask me after one of my lectures, “Do you believe in God?” I frequently reply by asking what the questioner means by “God.” The term means a lot of different things in a lot of different religions. For some, it’s an outsized, light-skinned male with a long white beard, sitting on a throne somewhere up there in the sky, busily tallying the fall of every sparrow. To others — for example, Baruch Spinoza, and Albert Einstein — God is essentially the sum total of the physical laws which describe the universe. I can’t imagine anyone denying the existence of the laws of nature, but I don’t know of any compelling evidence for the old man in the sky.
I'm with him again here. If by "God" you mean the violent and jealous deity of the Old Testament, who drowned the world in a flood and enjoyed the smell of burnt offerings, then yes, I'm an atheist. I actively believe he does not exist (and I don't say that to be offensive--it's just what I think is true.) But if "God" means a bigger, more transcendent entity that might have set the universe in motion; "breathed fire into the equations" as Stephen Hawking put it, then I don't know. Maybe there is such a grand cosmic being. As Sagan says, I don't think there's compelling evidence one way or the other. And since that's the case, neither theism or atheism should be put in the same category as science or reason. Both seem to me to require a leap of faith, and I've never had much faith in faith.

What I'm trying to say here is that atheists in the mold of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and even Ricky Gervais need to take it down a notch. Atheism isn't as self-evidently true as they think it is, and even if it is true, there's no reason to be rude. A lot of religious people assume that atheists and other secular types are all rude, arrogant, and immoral; and the more strident kind of atheist rhetoric does nothing but perpetuate that notion. You can't be nasty to someone and then be surprised when they decide you're a nasty person. All of us--atheists and agnostics; Christians, Muslims, and Jews--are only human. It's a big universe. None of us have it all figured out, and none of us have any business acting like jerks.