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All of us atheists have heard this question. Why do you proselytize your point of view in the same way that Christians (or some other religions) do? If you want to deny the existence of god, if you want to live a selfish life and eventually go to hell then that’s fine, but just keep it to yourself.
My initial, and admittedly somewhat immature, answer to this is that if Christians kept their beliefs to themselves then I would do the same. But I don’t mean that in a petty, tit for tat way. What I mean is that our Western, democratic, secular, capitalist society is in a constant struggle for survival against dogmatic, superstitious irrational beliefs. Our society was born out of struggle to free ourselves from government based on tyranny, oppression, and fear, and religion has been a very significant tool in the past to maintain that status quo for centuries. We don’t want to go back to that again. When the 14 terrorist flew airplanes into buildings in New York and Washington in 2001, most Americans felt that their way of life, their very society, was under attack from religious fundamentalism. And so it was. Those evil men who committed suicide by violently and deliberately taking thousands of people with them died very much hoping that their actions would help bring about the fall of the United States. They underestimated, of course, not only the resolve but the incredible power and strength of the American economy, military, government, and people. This was not like dealing with the crumbling, bankrupt, and demoralized Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s. In any case, Americans themselves had no trouble rallying around the flag in defense of their incredible country against religious fanaticism. Yet, for some reason, when their great country is threatened by religious fanaticism from within, they have no problem with it. When the fanaticism stems from their own religion, they welcome it and often state that it represents a “return” to how the country should be.
For me, as a Canadian, there is little danger that my country will fall into religious extremism anytime in the immediate future, though there are some frightening recent signs of a regression towards organized and deliberate ignorance (I think of the case of the Prime Minister’s appointment of a man, Gary Goodyear, who does not accept evolution to the position of Minister of State for Science and Technology, for example). But for my friends south of the border in the United States, one could argue that this is already happening. Certainly the danger of it is very real. Just listen to some of the rhetoric that came out of George Bush’s mouth for 8 years. Just listen to some of the things that Sarah Palin says. Or even Barack Obama, with his references to God and prayer, even though I personally think it’s clear he is not truly religious and does so only to be politically savvy. These people operate on the assumption that they live in a Christian country that should be based on Christian values (shudder the thought). Their ideal scenario is probably a country in which Christianity is the basis for governance, and if some people want to live as atheists then that is their right so long as they keep quiet about it and don’t try to introduce their atheistic ideas into government and law. How wrong is that notion in a country based on freedom of religion? Freedom of religion does not mean the freedom to privately believe whatever you want within a Christian country, it means that everyone has the freedom to believe whatever religion they want and it also means that everyone hast he right to be free from other people’s religions. By definition for that to happen, the country itself must be secular. That is why the United States was founded as a secular country. (I have had numerous arguments with people about this, some of whom insist the U.S. was founded as a Christian country. My only response is that they must not have read the constitution).
But I digress. I am not intending to rant about the ongoing battle between Christians and secularists in the U.S. It provides a good example of what I’m talking about, but I’m interested in the issue in a more general sense.
Why do I not just keep my atheism to myself? Why do I feel the need to discuss it, to challenge Christian’s beliefs? Part of the reason I am engaged in discussions of religion and atheism is that I am a formerly religious person myself. I find religion interesting, and, if I’m completely honest, yes there is probably some unfinished cathartic business related to my past. But if I lived in a world that was truly secular and in which freedom of religion was truly respected, and in which rhetoric was limited to reality-based knowledge, then I suspect I would feel no such need. I don’t mean by this that I would only shut up once religion was eradicated. What I mean is that I would shut up about atheism if religious people would shut up about their religion. (This is the bit that appears immature at first). Atheists need to be vocal about atheism, rationalism, and secularism because the underlying assumption amongst religious people (and Christians in particular) is that they want everyone to become Christians, and they want society in general to “return” to Christian values (often disguised, of course, as “family” values). In addition, rational thought is often tossed aside instantly when discussions of religion are involved. It is only through centuries of struggle involving revolution, education, scientific discovery, and enlightenment that we have finally overthrown the antiquated system of living in a country based on religious values. The last thing we want is to go back to those dark ages again.
Christians operate on the assumption that everyone should become a Christian. They are told to spread their good news. Atheists should not stand by quietly and allow Christianity to spread through irrational, illogical, and ill thought-out proselytizing. Especially towards children. If an adult has a discussion with a Christian and decides they want to join up and commit their life to Jesus, by all means do so. But there should at least be a rational voice to point out what it is they are doing. How many of us would shut up and keep our atheistic views to ourselves if we saw a large portion of the adult population being persuaded that the Santa Claus actually exists and that they should act accordingly? And, when it comes to teaching irrational falsehoods to children, there is no need to beat around the bush. It is abusive and wrong.
But, perhaps my most important point on this topic is that atheists do not generally proselytize as the religious do. As an atheist I am not out to convert people to atheism. I am simply interested in making sure that issues are discussed rationally, logically, and with a good grounding in fact-based reality. My comment above about my country’s appointment of a creationist to the top political position on science is not, as many Christians would see it, a rant against religion, but rather a revolt against deliberate ignorance. I have often drawn the comparison that if my Prime Minister appointed a Minister of Health who thought that HIV was transmitted by eye contact, then I would have as much of a problem with that. Ultimately, atheists do not speak out because we are proselytizing, but because we are facing organized and deliberate ignorance. Our society, our scientific knowledge, our freedoms, are all threatened by people who would deliberately choose dogma and superstition over facts and knowledge. If you doubt this, consider the ongoing battle involving the attempted removal of established scientific knowledge from high school science classes simply because that established science threatens some people’s religious beliefs. If that is not the darker side of a democracy, then I don’t know what is: if enough people vote for it, you can decide not to teach science in science class.
In short, believe whatever religion you want. But expect to be able to justify your beliefs and listen to rational, logical explanations for why your beliefs make no sense whatsoever if you want to be taken seriously with those beliefs. Doubly so if you want to introduce those beliefs into governance and law. Triply so if you come anywhere near a child with your dogma.
I’ve had a number of interesting dialogues with Christians on this matter. I’ve had some respectful discussions and some that have degenerated and broken down. One of the more respectful conversations I’ve had was with an intelligent and well-meaning Christian who seems very open to reality in some ways and is also very openly critical of his own religion, particularly the fanaticism that it often invokes. I believe this person truly wants to live in a peaceful and loving world where people respect one another, and it is clear he puts his money where his mouth is and lives according to that wish. Yet, in recent dialogue he made this astonishing statement:
"The odd thing is that even though I could go on all day about these sorts of things, I don't actually really care that much about them. For me, it's sort of a mind-game, and it doesn't matter very much at all what someone says they believe - it matters whether they love, and act lovingly towards others."
[This person did ask me not to share this with anyone, and I sincerely hope that he wouldn’t mind me simply quoting it anonymously here.]
As much as I respect this person’s attitude (and I think the world would in fact be a much better place with more people like them), I also find the underlying reason for it very worrisome. How could someone say that they don’t actually care [about whether God is real or not]? I think it very much matters, given the horrific nature of God. No matter how loving and respectful someone is, if they still believe that we are all by nature sinful, that an omnipotent and omniscient deity is overseeing it all, and that we are all eternal beings who will either suffer in hell or go to heaven (I’m paraphrasing here, I’m not suggesting this particular person believes all this), then I think there’s a real problem.
Ultimately, to answer the question in the title of this post, I think the question itself makes an assumption. If there are those who think atheists should keep their opinions to themselves, then I suspect the either misunderstand atheism, or they assume that their religious viewpoint is the norm. If your modus operandi is that your religion is the one true one, and that ultimately everyone who doesn’t believe it is wrong, then it is probably a bit hard to be open-minded towards people of completely different viewpoints being vocal. Now, some might claim that atheists make the same assumption. Maybe some do. I can only speak for myself when I say that I am not interested in converting people to atheism. I am, however, interested in rational, evidence-based thought and discussion. If I can’t back up my positions with evidence and logic then I shouldn’t hold onto them. Neither should you. When I was a teenager my father, a life-long Christian, once made the astounding statement that he was not interested in Jesus per se but in the truth. If he one day discovered that Jesus was not the truth he would immediately be through with him. (To date my father is still very much a follower of Jesus). But, I do respect that point of view and I think it was genuine. I hold the same point of view towards my atheism. Even though atheism is not a faith or a belief, I would discard it if evidence came to light that there are deities after all (for, by definition, that is what it would take to abandon atheism). I’m not so sure many Christians feel the same way. Would they be able to abandon their fear of death and hell and walk away if they thought that Jesus wasn’t for real?
In summary, as usual, a brighter (in both senses of the word) person than me can sum up my thoughts more eloquently than I can. I have repeated this quote elsewhere already, but I think it is particularly apt for this post:
"The enlightenment is under threat. So is reason. So is truth. So is science, especially in the schools of America. I am one of those scientists who feels that it is no longer enough just to get on and do science. We have to devote a significant proportion of our time and resources to defending it from deliberate attack from organized ignorance. We even have to go out on the attack ourselves, for the sake of reason and sanity. But it must be a positive attack, for science and reason have so much to give. They are not just useful, they enrich our lives in the same kind of way as the arts do. Promoting science as poetry was one of the things that Carl Sagan did so well, and I aspire to continue his tradition."
- Richard Dawkins