When atheists criticize religion, we alienate the religious. The more harshly we criticize it, the more we alienate.
Right? That’s one of the pervasive tropes, invisible in its ubiquity. It is one reason given by some people who really want to do interfaith work and extend hands to the religious for telling us to hush up and tone it down.
We seem mean. We appear to be attacking people. Our anger and disgust are unpleasant, unattractive emotions. We’re pushing away the moderates who could be our allies.
But is it true? Well, let me tell you a little story.
Two days ago, I wrote a post about death and abortion. It laid out, without flinching, the ideas that allow someone who identifies as “pro-life” to watch a woman die in pain. Some of those ideas are religious. I did not steer away from them. I did not treat them nicely. In fact, I felt compelled to include a warning at the top of the post.
Then I shared the post on Facebook. A friend of mine commented on it. She was badly upset–not by what I said but by what had happened. I gave her a picture of a baby hedgehog.
Then she shared my post. She noted to her friends, “Before you flame me, I am a practicing Christian.” She, however, didn’t have words to express her pain and her outrage. I did.
Neither did another friend of mine, who is Catholic, though not actively involved in the Church. She was also upset enough to earn a baby hedgehog picture. For her, my post was an opportunity to direct a few harsh words at a church leadership that she feels is betraying her and other Catholics. It was an opportunity to dissent.
There was also some discussion of the difficulty of getting proper miscarriage care in the current anti-abortion climate, in case any of you still thought this was confined to Ireland. But that should be another post.
The point is that my religious friends were free and able to voice their dismay and anger over this because of something I wrote. They could do this because of a harsh criticism of religion, a harsh critism of the behavior of religious people, written by an atheist.
I don’t think this should surprise anyone, though it probably does.
Churches and religions claim an authority that comes from a god or gods. Almost none of them, in practice, contain any mechanism for challenging this authority. They contain instead many, many practices for reconciling one’s self to that authority. What will most believers try to do when they are upset with their church’s teachings?
That’s not to say that no religious person ever challenges their church. Plenty do, though that usually results in that person leaving the church, alone or with as many others as they can persuade.
It is to say that most believers have not cultivated a habit of dissent. Many have cultivated habits of acquiescence. Both make dissent harder.
That’s where we come in, possibly far more usefully than we will ever know. We have cultivated habits of dissent. We are free to point to corruption in any church. We are free to rage at how churches harm their followers and their societies. And we do.
They’re listening, you know. Believers of all sorts who are not completely isolated hear what we have to say. They hear our dissent, our rage, and sometimes it resonates with theirs. Sometimes it motivates them to speak.
When it does, it can be extremely powerful. “I am a believer, but my church has gone so badly astray that I recognize the moral authority of this atheist over that of my church.” That is no small thing. Not for the believer. Not for the church. Certainly not for us.
It can’t really be ignored. In that situation, something will have to change, though not necessarily quickly. It won’t always be the church, of course. Sometimes the atheist in question will be sucessfully vilified or the believer shamed, though I believe these are less likely once this point has been reached. Sometimes the believer will break with the church. Sometimes they’ll stop believing.
This is not the first time something like this has happened with religious friends or relatives, just the most striking example. It will keep happening as more of us speak, as the religious people around us start to realize the sky won’t fall just because they listen. More churches and doctrines will be challenged, both by us and by believers.
Not only is that an outcome we want in terms of building alliances to fight the misuse of religious authority, it’s also helping believers do exactly what we tell them we want them to do. Taking strong stands like these, without regard for religious sentiment, helps the religious police religion. It helps them confront the most damaging parts of their own religions. The will is already there. We’re merely providing the means and the proof that it can be done.
So let us stop this characterization of criticism of the inhumanity of beliefs as something that puts us at odds with the believers who might otherwise be on our sides. It can happen that way, but it doesn’t have to. There’s nothing inherent in that strong criticism that makes it so. Even the harshest, least compromising criticism can actually bring us together on the issues that matter to us all.
Remember that the next time someone tells you to pretty it up or tone it down.