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Atheists in the Pride Parade: Some Thoughts on Churlishness and Integrity

How can atheists be civil and friendly with religious believers — particularly believers who are actively representing their beliefs — while maintaining our integrity about our atheism?

Pride 2 crowdLast Sunday, I marched with the atheist contingent in the San Francisco LGBT Pride Parade (hosted by San Francisco Atheists, East Bay Atheists, and Atheist Advocates of San Francisco). It was an awesomely fun day (even with the “hanging around for over three hours waiting our turn to get into the parade” part). We had a good 50 people in the contingent: it was a totally fun and marvelously motley crew, and hanging out and marching with them was a blast. And we got LOTS of love and support from the crowds watching the parade: from generic “Woo-hoo!”-ing to intense emotional outpourings. (We also got a certain amount of blank, deer- in- the- headlights stares, and the occasional bit of pushback — but mostly, we got love and support.) It was very gratifying, and more fun than a barrel of narwhals. Causing a commotion, ’cause we are so awesome!

Rainbow-cross But because contingents in the Pride Parade are organized by theme, we wound up marching close behind the assorted gay religious groups: the Metropolitan Community Church, Dignity (the gay Catholic organization), the gay evangelical group whose name I don’t remember, the ones who had the float with the giant rainbow cross on it. (I so wish I’d thought to get a photo.)

Which meant that the three-plus hours hanging around waiting our turn to get into the parade was spent in fairly close quarters with these religious groups.

Which posed an etiquette/ ethics conundrum: How can I be civil and friendly with religious believers — particularly believers who are actively representing their beliefs — while maintaining my integrity about my atheism? The basic principle — respecting people and treating them with courtesy and dignity, while retaining the right to criticize and even disrespect ideas — is a straightforward one in theory… but how does it play out in practice?

I’m going to be very clear right now: I’m speaking here only for myself. I am not speaking for any of the organizations hosting the atheist contingent in the Pride parade, or for any of the other participants in it. The thought processes and decisions I’m describing here are entirely my own.

Pride 7 David So here was the situation. Many of the people in the religious contingents wanted to be friendly and make nice with the atheists. Many folks smiled and gave us the thumbs-up; when their contingents were moving past us on their way to filing into the parade, many of them cheered and applauded us. Some even made more overt gestures: one woman from the gay evangelical group came over to talk with us about David Byers’ “Leviticus Says… Crazy Shit,” sign, and how much she agreed with it, and how those bad homophobic right-wing evangelicals were getting God’s true message totally bolloxed up, and how in the end it was really all about love.

Nice, right?

Yeah. See, here’s the problem.

In the last several years, I’ve gotten into many, many conversations with progressive, tolerant, ecumenical religious believers about atheism. And in my experience, their tolerance for atheists dries up fast when we actually start discussing atheism. Once they find out that atheists don’t agree with any religion — even theirs? Once they find out that we are, in fact, familiar with the progressive and accepting versions of religion, that it really isn’t new to us… and that we still don’t believe? Once they find out that the reason we’re atheists isn’t because we think religion is hostile and ugly, but because we think it isn’t, you know, true? Once they find out that most atheists’ attitude towards progressive ecumenical religion is, “Yeah, it’s less bad than the hateful, bigoted right-wing bullshit, but it still lends credibility to the idea that it’s okay to believe whatever you feel like without any good evidence to support it — and most importantly, it’s still just flat-out wrong”?

Once they find that out — the pro-atheist Kumbaya hand-holding dries up in a hurry.

Seal of approval It’s not a facade or a fake, exactly. I think the believers are sincere about it. It’s just not very closely examined. In many cases, they’ve never really talked with atheists about our atheism. So they make assumptions about what we think of them… assumptions that are generally not true. They assume that we’re as uncritically accepting of progressive ecumenical religions as progressive ecumenical religions are of each other. They assume that our opposition to religion is simply opposition to the bigotry and hatred of the more conservative versions of it… and not opposition to the whole idea of belief in invisible supernatural entities. They assume that their particular beliefs get the Atheist Seal of Approval. And when they find out that they’re wrong… then the “Thumbs-Up For Atheism” attitude tends to disappear into the mist.

And it was very hard to see the smiles and the applauding and the thumbs-ups at the Pride Parade, and not remember all those conversations. It was very hard to see the smiles and the applauding and the thumbs-ups, and not think, “I know how this conversation ends up.” It was very hard to see the smiles and the applauding and the thumbs-ups, and not think that ultimately, it was bullshit.

I didn’t want to get into an argument. Or rather… I did want to get into an argument. Very much so. When the woman who was trying to make nice with us said that the homophobic religious right had gotten God’s message all wrong, I absolutely wanted to ask her, “Okay, so you think the homophobic religious right is getting Christ’s message wrong. How do you know that you’re getting it right? What reason do you have to think that you, personally, know what Jesus really meant, and that all these other jackasses are getting it wrong? They cherry-pick scripture to support their position; you cherry-pick scripture to support yours — how do you know that your cherries are the ones Jesus would approve of? Oh, and while we’re on the subject: What evidence do you have to believe that Jesus is the divine son of God in the first place? Are you aware of how laughably unreliable the New Testament is as a historical document? Are you familiar with the arguments that the historical Jesus probably didn’t even exist, and that the case for him being the divine son of God is a total joke?” I was kind of dying to get into it, if you want to know the truth. I was chomping at the bit.

Pride 3 Greta But I also felt like it would be inappropriate. This wasn’t the time or the place. This wasn’t a debate, or an editorial, or an atheist blog comment thread. This was the Pride Parade. A time for celebration — not a time for divisiveness. And besides, the reason I was there to put forth a positive representation of happy, joyful, queer-positive atheism into the LGBT community… not to get into a pissing match. So I smiled weakly, and mouthed non-committal vaguenesses, and escaped from the conversation as gracefully as I could.

Which still made me feel churlish. When people are extending a “We’re all brothers and sisters” hand, it feels churlish to shrug and reply, “Yeah, not so much.”

The same thing happened when the religious contingents and floats went by us and applauded. I felt like they were saying to us, “Sure, we believe in God — but we’re not like those other bad religions! We think atheists are great! Don’t you think we’re great, too?” I felt like they were asking us for the Atheist Seal of Approval. I felt like they were expecting us to applaud them back. And I felt churlish for not doing so.

No_Religion.svg But you know what? I can’t applaud religion. I just can’t. I think religion is a flatly mistaken idea about the world. I think it’s an idea that, on the whole, does significantly more harm than good. I’m devoting my writing career to persuading people out of it. I can be friendly and respectful with the believers… but I’m not going to express my approval for the beliefs.

And in a culture — like progressive LGBT culture — where uncritical acceptance of different religious beliefs is part of the standard etiquette, I don’t know how to maintain that integrity without coming across as pissy, intolerant, and churlish.

Atheists talk a lot about the parallels between the LGBT movement and the atheist movement. I talk a lot about it myself. But I think we need to remember that, for all the parallels between the two movements, there are some important differences. And one of the biggest differences is this:

There is nothing about saying, “I am queer,” that implies, “You are mistaken to be straight.” But there is something about saying, “I am an atheist,” that implies, “You are mistaken to believe in God.” Coming out as queer is a subjective statement about what is true for you personally. Coming out as atheist is an assertion about what you think is objectively true about the external world. When we come out as atheists, we’re not just saying what’s true for us. We’re saying what we think is true in the world. And by implication, we’re saying that people who disagree with us are wrong. Even if we’re not actively trying to persuade people out of religion — heck, even if we don’t care whether people believe in religion — we’re still saying that we think religion is wrong.

We need to cop to that.

Don't believe in god billboard We need to acknowledge that, for atheists, coming out is different than it is for queers. We need to acknowledge that, for atheists, even the gentlest, least- confrontational, “Don’t believe in God? You are not alone” forms of coming out are, in fact, still confrontational. Not just because people don’t want to hear it; not just because the conventional etiquette demands that we not say it. Because it is. Because we’re telling people that they’re wrong.

I think we need to accept that. And I think we need to take responsibility for it.

There's probably no god There are a lot of different ways for us to say it. We can say it in gentle, diplomatic, “You can be good without God” ways. We can say it in snarky, in-your-face, “You know it’s a myth” ways. We can say it in bald, statement-of-fact, “There’s probably no God” ways. There is room for both confrontationalism and diplomacy in this movement, and in fact the movement is stronger with both methods than it would be with just one or the other.

But I think we need to accept that this is always going to be a difficult topic. I think we need to accept that being honest about who we are and what we think is always going to ruffle some feathers. I think we need to accept that ruffling feathers is not the worst thing human beings can do to one another. It’s not even in the Top Ten. And I think we need to accept that being out as atheists, and maintaining our integrity as out atheists, may always be seen — and feel — a little bit churlish.

Because it is.

That’s just going to have to be okay with us.

Comments

  1. Hamstur says

    I’ve read a ton of your stuff here and love your work. I’ve squirrelled away several links to your articles in my personal stash to forward to others or just go back and read again and again.
    But every once in a while, you write something that stands out as particularly awesome and whacks me right in the head.
    “They cherry-pick scripture to support their position; you cherry-pick scripture to support yours — how do you know that your cherries are the ones Jesus would approve of?”
    Now there’s a starburst for every Christian author’s book: “My cherries are Jesus approved!”

  2. The Great Cloud of Unknowing says

    Unfortunately you do come off as intolerant, because you are. And you seem to think that anyone who beleives in “god” is a member of a religion, which isn’t always the case. And if you feel so strongly about atheism, why, when marching in a parade, don’t you work to make a better sign?

  3. sphex says

    Wow. Once again, you say things that I had swimming around in my head but had never thought through clearly. The distinction between coming out as LGBT and coming out as atheist- the fact that the latter has the implication of “you’re wrong” whereas the former doesn’t, literally made my jaw drop.
    Thank you for writing this.

  4. DSimon says

    We need to acknowledge that, for atheists, even the gentlest, least- confrontational, “Don’t believe in God? You are not alone” forms of coming out are, in fact, still confrontational.

    Greta, I don’t think I agree with this specific point. As I see there are two purposes to atheist activism: A) to promote the idea of atheism, and B) to promote tolerance of atheists. The “not alone” poster and similar works seems to me to fall squarely in the B camp.
    To put it another way, you often bring up the idea that atheism and religion are both members of the marketplace of ideas, and that up until now religion has been given a special status that exempts it from the criticisms that all hypotheses ought to be subject to. All of that is stuff that a religious person could agree with and still be religious.
    Activism along those lines, which discusses the nature and tone of interactions between believers and atheists without getting into the content of the core disagreement, is not necessarily confrontational, or at least no more so than activism for fair treatment of queer people is confrontational to straight people.

  5. SexPot says

    I enjoyed the repetition. It made the passage flow smoothly.
    I agree that atheism is ipso facto about taking a stand against religion. I think atheists should feel morally obligated to free individuals from religious delusion which causes so much damage.

  6. says

    As I see there are two purposes to atheist activism: A) to promote the idea of atheism, and B) to promote tolerance of atheists. The “not alone” poster and similar works seems to me to fall squarely in the B camp.

    That is certainly the intended, conscious purpose of it, yes. But my point is that, any time an atheist says, “I am an atheist,” and any time an atheist organization says, “We are atheists,” implicit in that statement is the statement, “We think atheism is correct — and we therefore think belief in God is mistaken.” Even if that’s not the primary focus of that particular form of activism/ visibility, it’s still implicit in it. And telling religious believers that belief in God is mistaken is inherently confrontational. It’s a relatively small degree of confrontational compared to some others… but it’s still there.

  7. says

    Very well said. I am battling with this conundrum everyday. It explains well why even the statement,”I am an atheist” is a threat to many believers. I try to get around this by emphasising in discussions with theists that my view is not necessarily truth, but I think it’s justified and then give reasons why.
    That way it comes across more as defending my position rather than attacking theirs. I find that works to some degree but I agree it is a very fine line to traverse.

  8. Miles McCullough says

    I disagree about the difference between being an out atheist and an out LGBTQ. If you believe a god exists, he dislikes homosexuals, and he is the objective arbiter of right and wrong, then “I am gay” is equivalent to “You are wrong.”
    Same-sex equality may be a narrow attack compared to atheist advocacy’s broad attack on religion, though, so in that sense it’s a difference of scale in how much of a person’s world view is WRONG maybe.

  9. yb says

    If I were religious, I would be convinced Atheists had no morals because you insist on continuing to get that narwhal song stuck in my head. Here I am, reading an interesting, insightful post about Atheism and then BAM! NARWHALS!
    HOW DO YOU SLEEP AT NIGHT?!

  10. says

    I disagree about the difference between being an out atheist and an out LGBTQ. If you believe a god exists, he dislikes homosexuals, and he is the objective arbiter of right and wrong, then “I am gay” is equivalent to “You are wrong.”

    It’s certainly true that coming out as queer CAN be the equivalent of telling a straight person, “You are mistaken.” If that straight person is homophobic, it certainly is. But there’s nothing about coming out as queer that inherently tells all straight people, “You are mistaken.” There is for coming out as an atheist.

    Here I am, reading an interesting, insightful post about Atheism and then BAM! NARWHALS!

    Heh heh heh heh heh. It’s all part of my master plan.

  11. says

    “But my point is that, any time an atheist says, “I am an atheist,” and any time an atheist organization says, “We are atheists,” implicit in that statement is the statement, “We think atheism is correct — and we therefore think belief in God is mistaken.”
    Even if that’s not the primary focus of that particular form of activism/ visibility, it’s still implicit in it. And telling religious believers that belief in God is mistaken is inherently confrontational.”
    That may be true, but it’s also true of those of us who adhere to a specific religious belief. By saying I am x, for example, I could also be saying “religions y, z, and q are mistaken.”
    However, I’ve learned over the years just because I believe something doesn’t necessarily make it a fact. When you recognize it’s possible you’re mistaken it’s a lot easier to have those conversations without taking disagreements as an attack on my personal identity.
    I imagine one of the other things that makes it difficult is that you are actively trying to promote atheism as right and religions as wrong. I’m forutnate that my religion discourages proselytizing so I don’t have to deal with the issue so much, but folks in other religious traditions I know of are expected to convert people and some of them have told me the struggle they face between feeling obligated to share what they believe and feeling tacky or rude bringing it up, especially in a social situation. I like my religion and I love religious (and anti-religious) discussions, but I’ve never felt comfortable trying to change someone’s mind, especially at a party or other place where people didn’t come to get engage in such discussions.

  12. says

    I disagree about the difference between being an out atheist and an out LGBTQ. If you believe a god exists, he dislikes homosexuals, and he is the objective arbiter of right and wrong, then “I am gay” is equivalent to “You are wrong.

    Wiccans believe in a god, but that god doesn’t dislike homosexuals.
    Greta, you don’t really say, but have you actually found a way to talk nicely to the religious without them getting completely pissy about it? Because when it comes to the existence of a god, I still haven’t figured that out: how to tell the truth while minimizing the probability of having them walk off in anger.

  13. says

    I think the point needs to be made that publicly stating one’s religious beliefs of any kind is confrontational in the sense you describe. Your gay Catholics, evangelicals and certainly the folks with the big rainbow cross on their float are being no less confrontational than you are; that rainbow cross is in effect telling every non-Christian in the world–muslim, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, atheist, (neo-)pagan/Wiccan, animist, whatever–“your religion (or lack thereof) is wrong.”
    And “acceptance of others’ beliefs” in an ecumenical context does not mean actually accepting that the other person’s beliefs are correct; ecumenicalism is essentially no more a mutual agreement not to scream “heretic” at each other.

  14. Miles McCullough says

    On the etiquette question, I find myself in similar straits, Greta. I grew up UU and still find myself on the same side of political issues and activism as my ex-churchmates a lot, so if they ever imply a shared sense of spirituality or unity or anything that makes me uncomfortable I have to tell them I’m happy to consider them allies, and I’m glad to support X cause with them, but I disagree with faith fundamentally, even their religion.
    I tend to think most people associate intolerance with rudeness, which makes it seem like going out of your way to be godless with a smile and a self-deprecating laugh helps.
    The Great Cloud of Unknowing must think questioning gods is rude in your situation, Greta. I wonder what it was that made TGCoU so uncomfortable with your conclusion that atheists should be outspoken :(

  15. says

    I admit that whenever I see gay Christian groups, my emotional reaction is mostly positive. I just can’t help but think of all the queer Christians who are positively affected by such a community. I feel that attacking a person’s religion by pitting it against their sexual identity is like hitting a person where they’ve been hit a hundred times before. It causes a lot of pain on a sore spot, and doesn’t actually produce any new results. I’m sure there is a better way to argue that the Bible is orthogonal to morality.
    All the same, I stay far away from gay Christian groups. I just don’t care what any god says. It’s distracting from more pressing and interesting issues within the queer community.
    (PS: I was one of the people who talked to you at the parade briefly. Hi again!)

  16. Mattir says

    I’m perfectly fine with my religious friends who will admit that their definition of god is a sort of “unity of all things” naturalistic pantheism that is (at least according to Dawkins) just a sexed-up version of atheism. These people tend to be the ones who think god exists only in their “hearts,” doesn’t sit around answering prayers, and in fact doesn’t cause good or bad things to happen. They’re fine with the metaphor and community part and generally admit that their particular church cherry picks from religious tradition, that their liberal religions provide cover for some very ugly fundamentalist stuff, and that this is a serious problem. These religious people are actually quite rare, unfortunately.
    I’d take the tolerance question in a different direction: do these church people recognize and support your freedom of conscience and defend your right to speak about your beliefs? If yes, then I’d say I’d give them the Seal of Approval because they’re willing to respect and defend your beliefs. That’s pretty rare too, unfortunately.
    Also, since atheists are such a fractious lot, there is no Seal of Approval. Being a member of a religion, they probably don’t realize this.

  17. Mattir says

    The other thing is to recognize that stepping away from religion is a process – fundamentalist orthodoxy –> liberal reinterpreted cherry picking –> spiritual but not religious –> secular humanist/atheist.
    I’m willing to support people whom I see as being on the path away from religion. It takes years to generations, but it’s pretty inexorable once it starts. This might be condescending, but the religious have never had a problem with condescension. I just try not to let it show too much, to cooperate with people who are basically tolerant and polite, so that I’m not providing a distraction on the road out of religion. I have a husband who was an outspoken and semi-obnoxious atheist for years while I was “spiritual but not religious” – if he’d stopped arguing and complaining, I would probably have noticed that I didn’t believe in god and that I had very little in common with the god-believers I dealt with in real life.

  18. Elle says

    Trying to be a curteous and friendly person is always slightly marred when I talk to religious people, because yes, fundementally I disagree with their beliefs and am actively bothered by them. I was fine with a good friend I had who was mildly religious, except when religion was brought up, and while she didn’t seem bothered by me, I was always slightly bothered by her- and I felt like a tool for it. I ended our friendship because she disagreed with gay marriage (yes, I think denying people basic rights is a big enough deal to end a friendship over), but while I can say that and get understanding nods from people, if I said I ended it because of her reliigious beliefs- which is what she based her opinion on gay marriage on, I look like an intolerant asshole.
    At the end of the day, I find belief in religion, in a deity of any kind, stupid and damaging. I do. I find anyone who calls themselves a religious believer who doesn’t follow their religious text word for word a liar and a pretender, and I do it because I base my actions and beliefs on logic and science and hold everyone else to the same standards I hold myself. I’m tired of feeling bad about feeling strongly about something.

  19. says

    Taking any kind of stance regarding most religions (or “non-religious” spiritual belief systems) is inherently confrontational. A religious person asserting that their religion is true implies that anyone who doesn’t believe in it is wrong; a spiritual person asserting that a spiritual entity exists implies that anyone who doesn’t believe in it is wrong. People of different liberal religious/spiritual belief systems can “tolerate” each others’ beliefs because they believe that their gods or what have you want them to be accepting of others who believe in something even if they get the theological details wrong.
    Atheists have a unique dark-clouds-during-a-picnic effect on such discourse; our worldview implies that we’re alone on a speck of dust careening through the cold, uncaring void that is the universe. Most people don’t like to think about the concept that there aren’t any gods or spirits or faeries to guide us, and would rather live in a happy fantasy.

  20. says

    While I agree with the majority of this post, I don’t think that all atheism necessarily means believers are wrong. It’s possible to think that, for example, atheism and theism are both beliefs about the unknowable and thus subjective choices. It’s possible to be a theist entirely on faith: to agree with atheists on where the evidence lies and nevertheless believe in a god (like Kierkegaard).
    I’m not necessarily defending these viewpoints, just pointing out that some – perhaps very few – atheists wouldn’t have the problem you’re talking about.

  21. Robert B says

    I do think that presenting yourself as an adherent of any religion or philosophy is an implied criticism of those who don’t… but there’s criticism and then there’s criticism. Many ecumenical religious believers see the believers in other ecumenical religions as fellow-travelers, trying to get to the same place in a different way. From this perspective, differences between these denominations are relatively minor details, where it’s not worth getting upset if someone has it wrong, or says that you do.
    On the other hand, to say that there is no God or other supernatural phenomena, that religious belief qua religious belief is mistaken and you have good reasons to avoid it entirely, is a bigger deal. Now the challenge, the criticism, is more fundamental. You’re challenging not just the details of their methods but their basic goal, and their reaction to you is going to be more profound.
    I can imagine atheists whose statements might not be so challenging, and I can imagine believers who might not object to atheist statements as described. But I can completely understand how the problem Greta describes could exist, and be at least somewhat particular to atheism.
    (By the way, Greta, great article! The ethics and courtesy of self-identification is something I’ve thought a lot about, and this piece says some really smart things about it.)

  22. Allen Dexter says

    In the last year, I joined the local Lions Club. So far, no one knows I am atheist and discussing religion or politics is forbidden, so it hasn’t been a problem.
    When the pledge of allegiance is given, I recite it as I learned it in school back in the 1940s and never repeat “under god.” I stand respectfully when the opening prayer is made and just don’t say “amen.”
    I suppose something will come up eventually that will reveal my stance, but I’m hoping it will not be a problem to anyone. I did receive the “rookie of the year” award two weeks ago for my efforts in the club’s behalf. I am currently assistant to the membership chairman and developing ways to advertise and promote the club locally, regionally, and I hope nationally. It’s a good organization.

  23. says

    Unfortunately you do come off as intolerant, because you are. And you seem to think that anyone who believes in “god” is a member of a religion, which isn’t always the case.

    why precisely do you think it’s relevant whether believers in the supernatural are part of a religion or not? the result is the same: their beliefs are empirically wrong or unfalsifiable, and their belief normalizes the belief in wrong and unfalsifiable things.

  24. warped-ellipsis says

    Agree with Jurjen. To merely state that one is of a different religion is to state that “you are wrong because you don’t believe in the correct religion”, both for different religions as well as different sects/denominations within the same religion.
    I think the reaction to an atheist differs from the reaction to an other-believer simply because, with the other-believers, they still can connect in their belief, whereas that is gone with the atheists. For some reason people are okay with not acknowledging that each must necessarily believe the other is wrong and a delusional crackpot in that situation; that point is simply more salient when confronted with an atheist than with another believer.
    As for how to get around that snag….it’s an issue that is tied to strong emotion on both sides. If people could debate with emotion and realize that no harm is meant, that it is not a personal attack–saying that “you believe this on no evidence, which is a silly premise to operate on” versus “you’re a crackpot for believing this with no evidence”–this would not be a problem. However, people do not realize this, and thus we have people taking personal affronts when it’s an intellectual argument, which is completely understandable because it’s questioning part of their identity. Anyhow, perhaps in order to forestall these debates and “keep the peace”, a good line would be, “So….atheist means I lack belief in a god, any god, including your god. I respect your right to believe in one, however I do not agree with belief, the same kind of disagreement as a person of any religion other than yours does not agree with your belief. The difference is that, instead of me believing in some other god and disagreeing with yours, I do not put another in your god’s place.” This is the long version of Dawkins’s quote, “We are all atheists of most gods, some of us just go one god further.” I’m not sure if just the quote would be sufficient without the further explanation; if it was, then surely we’d not be having this problem when running into believers–they’d all recognize it as explained above.

  25. says

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who feels this way! I’ve always felt a bit guilty when someone is telling me that they’re totally on my side about how bad most religions are, but that theirs is different and loving and wonderful. Yes, it’s great that you’re not bigoted. But that doesn’t mean you’re any less wrong. It’s so hard to resist pointing out what I really think, but at the same time I don’t want to start arguing with people when it’s not quite the right place.
    And on the “coming out as an atheist tells them they’re wrong” point: I agree. Both views can’t be right. But it’s also true in the reverse. Someone saying they’re Christian or Muslim or Jewish or anything else means that they think we’re wrong. It just frustrates me that Christians can say they exist and it’s not offensive, but saying atheists exists is offensive. Everyone drives by dozens of churches every day, all proclaiming that God does exist. But when atheists just say that we exist (not even that we’re right, just that we EXIST), it’s now offensive. Yes, we think they’re wrong. But they also think we’re wrong. And I’ve never met an atheist who took it personally.

  26. Brian says

    “And telling religious believers that belief in God is mistaken is inherently confrontational. It’s a relatively small degree of confrontational compared to some others… but it’s still there.”
    While I certainly agree with this “inherent” difference between the two statements, atheists must also understand that telling a Catholic that you are Jewish or telling a Baptist you are Muslim is as “inherently” aggressive (or should be) to the receiver of that message. Telling some one that their Prophet or God is false seems to be, on some level more confrontational, as history will attest to. There are multiple and dynamic levels of connotation associated with the label “atheist” that separates it from “Catholic” or “Jew”. One important difference is that the word “atheist” can have a unifying effect on different religious group as they band together to confront the “non-believers”. We as atheists may want, for pragmatic reasons, to strengthen this same form of unity with other religious, yet tolerant, progressive groups that share our political and social messages rather than focusing on “inherent” divisions that separate us.

  27. Brian says

    “There is nothing about saying, “I am queer,” that implies, “You are mistaken to be straight.” But there is something about saying, “I am an atheist,” that implies, “You are mistaken to believe in God.” Coming out as queer is a subjective statement about what is true for you personally. Coming out as atheist is an assertion about what you think is objectively true about the external world.”
    This is a good distinction you are making here between the two statements. Examined objectively, as you have done so well, certain shows the distinctions; however, when we add the human component (i.e. the subjective interpretants of the message) it seems clear to me that many religious fundamentalists are as threatened by the statement “I am gay” as they are by “I am atheist”. My point is that for this religious faction there is a conspiratorial aspect to the LGBT movement that is attempting to promote what is “objectively true about the external world” (i.e. “everyone should be gay). While this notion is absurd, we must acknowledge its subjective existence within our objective analysis of the two statements. Part of the meaning of a statement relies upon the subjective mindset of the receiver of that message regardless of its intent. In addition, the LGBT may have an ally in the atheist community simply by serving as the new “whipping boy” of fundamentalism. “Well they may be gay, but at least they believe in God”. This is an imposed division that we (atheists and gays) need to resist while actively promoting division among religious groups. Courting and supporting religious LGBT groups is one important way of accomplishing this.

  28. says

    “There is nothing about saying, “I am queer,” that implies, “You are mistaken to be straight.” But there is something about saying, “I am an atheist,” that implies, “You are mistaken to believe in God.” Coming out as queer is a subjective statement about what is true for you personally. Coming out as atheist is an assertion about what you think is objectively true about the external world.”
    Wow, I never thought of that difference before! I certainly recognized that being an atheist means that one thinks theists are wrong (and that theists are cognoscente of that), but I never thought about it in the context of similarities and differences in the LGBT movement. Once again, your excellent critical thinking skills and writing prowess shows.
    I wonder: could this be one of the reasons that the LGBT movement (subjectively) seems to be much more widely accepted by the mainstream public than the atheist movement?

  29. Brian says

    “From this perspective, differences between these denominations are relatively minor details, where it’s not worth getting upset if someone has it wrong, or says that you do”.
    While I agree that contemporary “minor details” between denominations (in American) tend to result in little confrontation, it is worth remembering that hundreds of years of Protestant/Catholic, Sunni/Shite, etc. “differences” and “minor details” have had devastating consequences. The resulting Holy Wars suggest that for even minor theological arguments can be a “big deal”.

  30. Robert B says

    That’s a good point, Brian. I was talking about modern progressive believers, but it is worth remembering that ecumenism (ecumenicism? ecumenicalness?) is a relatively modern thing. That said, I wonder what would have happened if some group had stood up in the middle of the Thirty Years War and said “we’re the atheists, and you’re both wrong, so stop burning down our stuff.”

  31. George says

    You know, it’s funny that you mention a connection between the LGBT movement and the Atheist movement.
    I feel that so many in your movement are being just as uncompromisingly rude and evangelical towards religious folk as the Religious right acts towards the LGBT community.
    “I’m willing to support people whom I see as being on the path away from religion.” or “I agree that atheism is ipso facto about taking a stand against religion. I think atheists should feel morally obligated to free individuals from religious delusion which causes so much damage.”
    Morally obligated? Some of you sound just as hateful as the most fervent of conservative Christians. I suppose the answer to that is “We love you too much to let you keep walking down the wrong path. It’s not hate, we’re looking out for your best interests.” Where have I heard that before?
    Your apparent goal of guiding people away from a spiritual life is just as abhorrent to me as the nutjobs who try to force me into being straight.
    Seriously. The answer to your question about how to interact with the queer religious? Chill out and relax. Learn to enjoy people for what they are. If they’re not hurting you then why the hell does anything need to change about them?
    If your goal as an atheist is to ask people to stop being themselves or to change something as fundamental to themselves as spirituality, if that effort is what it means to maintain your integrity as an atheist, then maybe you should reconsider what the Pride Parade means to you.
    I’ve no desire to be an ass. But really, people. Chill out. Militant atheism doesn’t sit with people any better than militant religion does.

  32. says

    Your apparent goal of guiding people away from a spiritual life is just as abhorrent to me as the nutjobs who try to force me into being straight.

    really? you were born believing in nonexistent things?
    sorry, but no. Religion/spirituality and sexuality are not both inborn qualities, and as such your comparison is an insultingly false equivalence.

    Militant atheism doesn’t sit with people any better than militant religion does.

    another insultingly false equivalence.

  33. says

    If they’re not hurting you then why the hell does anything need to change about them?

    I conclude from this that truth and reality have no inherent value for you.

  34. Margo K. says

    I agree with all of the comments that statements such as “I am a Christian” or “I worship Mazu, goddess of the sea” is just as much of a statement of “you’re wrong” as saying “I’m an atheist”. Within a specific belief system, such as progressive ecumenicalism or in parts of East Asia where many deities are attached to a certain place, so the village down the river has a different patron deity than your village does not imply that you are wrong to worship your local deity (likewise, many early Christians in East Asia continued to worship their previous deities because they considered Christianity a supplement, not a replacement, to their prior religious beliefs), a statement such as “I believe in [deity of x village]” does not imply that I would be wrong to worship the deity of my own village. However, the statement “I believe in [deity of x village]” does imply that Christians, Muslims, Atheists, etc. are wrong.
    I think we only feel churlish in these situations because religion is still privileged in our society. However, it’s really the believers in these situations who are putting us in this position, so if anyone should feel churlish, it should be them. However, however unfair the situation is, I don’t always want the drama, and in this situation it seems like you didn’t want the drama either. I don’t think you should regret giving vague responses to these believers; had you instead expressed your honest opinion, I don’t think you should have regretted that either.

  35. says

    Thanks for posting as I thought I was the only one who could sense the blindness of the progressive religious who think THEY have the fax line open to “god”. As an openly gay man and atheist it drives me crazy when religious gays/lesbians fall for the snake oil that is keeping them from the full enjoyment of their civil rights. It’s very similar to black Americans, many of whom are very fond of religion even as it was used to justify slavery and miscegenation. The truth is always better than fantasy.

  36. Daniel Walter says

    Greta,
    I appreciate that you hold to worldview that objective truth exists. The truth you seek is not an idea, that God exists or does not exist, but the Truth is a person, Jesus Christ. The Truth is a subjective reality that does not submit to tests placed upon Him by his own creation. But you do not deny the existence of God because of any rational argument; rather, you deny the existence of God for fear that he would condemn your life style. Hear the good news: God condemns the sin, but loves the sinner. God does not reveal himself to humankind to put a damper on the party, making them live by rules and oppressed by guilt. God has revealed himself in the person of Jesus Christ to liberate us from our bondage to sin and death, to bring us new life, and conform us to the image of his Son. We are created in his image and we belong to him. I have devoted myself to the study of the Bible, and in every case, I have found it utterly reliable in leading me deeper into wholeness and love with the Creator. I encourage you, don’t pick at other people’s cherries. Go straight for the tree. Jesus Christ is the Vine, through whom flows renewed life. Please, pick up a copy of the Bible and read through the gospels, and meet the One who longs to call you beloved daughter. “Yet the LORD longs to be gracious to you. He rises to show you compassion.” Love,
    Your friend.

  37. Maria says

    Anyone else ever get the feeling that the kind of preachy comments that you see above is really a bot? A godbot? :-)

  38. Robert B says

    Certainly they’re not thinking through what they’re saying. I mean… “Our friend” up there does know we can read the Bible, right? Like, all of it? There’s not some myth that passages like Exodus 21:20-21 or Matthew 16:28 are invisible to unbelievers or written in a secret language or something?

  39. says

    George, there is a basic problem with your position. And that’s that you’re seeing religion as an identity, equivalent to being LGBT. Atheists see religion as an idea, a hypothesis about how the world works and why it is the way it is.
    You ask why atheist feel a need to try to persuade religious believers not to believe. Not all of us do. But some of us do. I’m one of them. And my question for you is: Why shouldn’t we? In the marketplace of ideas, we try to persuade people that we’re right and that people who disagree with us are wrong all the time. We do it about science, politics, philosophy, medicine, art… I could go on. Why should religion be the exception? Why should religion, alone among all other ideas about how the world works and why it is the way it is, be exempt from criticism and debate in the public sphere? Why should religion get a free ride?
    I did not, in fact, say anywhere in this piece that I have to try to persuade others to become atheists in order to maintain my integrity. What I said was that, in order to maintain my integrity as an atheist, I cannot applaud religion, or pretend that I think it’s great. Not even progressive, gay-positive religion. I said that, in order to maintain my integrity as an atheist, I can’t pretend that all those conversations with progressive believers, who said they thought atheism was great until they actually found out what we thought, had never happened. And I said that inherent in the act of coming out as an atheist is the implicit statement that we think religion is mistaken… even if we’re not actively involved in trying to persuade people out of it.
    But if and when I do want to try to persuade people that religion is mistaken… then why shouldn’t I? Again — why should religion, alone among all other ideas, be off-limits?

  40. Rieux says

    Okay, so Greta is now following up on her usual writes-better-blog-posts-than-other-atheists practice with a writes-better-comments-on-her-own-blog-than-other-atheists one. Discouraging.

  41. Rieux says

    In related news, my “Greta Christina” folder in my bookmarks bar (created so that I can go back to read, and often quote in online discussions, particularly well-spoken and -argued GC posts) now has twenty-five bookmarks in it, including this newest one. Twenty freaking five.
    You’re making the rest of us look bad, Greta.

  42. says

    “Atheists see religion as an idea, a hypothesis about how the world works and why it is the way it is.”
    While I appreciate that this is certainly how you and the vast majority of atheists view religion, and I don’t necessarily think you need a caveat here, I’m going to say again that not all atheists see all religion like that (including me).

  43. DiscoveredJoys says

    A very interesting debate following a thought provoking article.
    I wonder if personal relationships could be improved (assuming that is a worthwhile goal in itself) if instead of saying ‘There is no god’ we said something like ‘I cannot find it in my heart to believe.’
    It’s a bit faux-subjective and wishy-washy and you’ll get swamped with well meaning believers trying to ‘rescue’ you, but it is not so confrontational. It may even encourage believers who ‘cannot find it in their hearts’ to come out.

  44. says

    I can’t applaud religion. I just can’t…. I can be friendly and respectful with the believers… but I’m not going to express my approval for the beliefs.
    I agree. Most of my friends, family and acquaintances are believers – evangelical Christian believers, at that – so I usually discuss anything but religion with them.

  45. Stonyground says

    I haven’t read the whole thread so I apologise if this point has already been made. My question to the gay Christians would be, ‘Why do you want to be a member of a club that hates you?’
    The cherry picking of scripture does not get past the fact that the Bible says that gays should be killed in a very unpleasant way. Why are you associating with these people rather than opposing them in any way that you can?

  46. says

    “But if and when I do want to try to persuade people that religion is mistaken… then why shouldn’t I? Again — why should religion, alone among all other ideas, be off-limits?”
    I don’t see any reason why you shouldn’t and I don’t think ideas are off limits.
    However, if you’re feeling like such a discussion might not be appropriate given the social situation or are uneasy about it for any reason I think you also have the right to choose not to engage without feeling guilty or like you’re a ‘bad atheist’ that is letting the movement down.

  47. Robert B says

    @Stonyground:
    I think you’re painting with too broad a brush here. Remember, we know the book is just a book, and a flawed one. No one really believes everything in it – they can’t. It’s logically inconsistent with itself and with some really obvious facts, like that the second coming hasn’t happened yet. To believe in the Bible you have to cherry pick and misinterpret and so on, according to some external standard of goodness or what a particular religious leader says or pure caprice or whatever.
    That means it’s not valid to take a statement in the Bible as conclusive evidence of what Christians in general or any specific Christian believe. Maybe a given Christian cherry-picked that part, and maybe she didn’t. By observation, some Christian individuals and congregations are hateful toward queers, some try to condemn queerness or queer behaviors without being hateful, and some are perfectly accepting and positive. Based on that evidence, being queer is not a good reason not to be Christian, just a reason not to believe with some Christian groups.
    Now, the fact that Christian beliefs can vary so widely without any accepted common standard is troubling, and the Bible’s condemnation of homosexuality kicks a big hole in its crediblity, and so on. But in the real world, some Christians get this one completely right. It’s not fair to blindly blame them for their book or their coreligionists when they don’t actually agree with either.

  48. says

    Quick thoughts… Bullet pointed.
    1) We had our 4th of July parade in Northside, Cincinnati yesterday , and I felt almost exactly the same way when the Interfaith Peace and Justice float went by.
    2) There’s an angle from the Skeptical community as well. Like how is a skeptic in good standing meant to treat a parade float of dedicated 9-11 Truthers? (I very visibly turned my back on them…hate those fuckers with a passion)
    3) FUCKING NARWALS ARE AWESOME!

  49. says

    First, to Allen Dexter, hello from a fellow Lion! Thank you for being quietly respectful of the rest of your club. It may be worth it to you to find someone in the club that you feel comfortable discussing possible issues with. Your comment shows the true spirit of Lionism, and your club has shown that they’re proud that you’re part of the club. I know my club would probably adore having you.
    To Sexpot, who said “I think atheists should feel morally obligated to free individuals from religious delusion which causes so much damage.”
    Christians feel morally obligated to free individuals from the delusion of a lack of personal Savior, which they feel causes deep spiritual damage.
    Exactly how is you pushing your lack of religion on them any different than them pushing their religion on you?
    To Jadehawk, who said many things, including that “‘Militant atheism doesn’t sit with people any better than militant religion does.’
    [is] another insultingly false equivalence.”
    Again, exactly how is your insistence on pushing your lack of religion on people any different than them pushing their religion on you?
    Basically, my philosophy is this:
    My religion and/or spirituality may very well be a deluded mistake.
    It’s my mistake to make.
    Your lack of belief may end up being a deluded mistake, however unlikely it seems. That’s your mistake to make.
    Treat me as an individual who holds certain beliefs that you think are wrong, and I’ll treat you as an individual who thinks I’m wrong. If you use hurtful means to persuade me to your point of view, I probably will find a way to not be around you. Please prove to me that you can be good without any god and treat me the way you ideally wish I would treat you.
    ———————————————-
    I don’t see how my personal belief in something that’s “empirically wrong or unfalsifiable” normalizes beliefs in things that are empirically wrong or unfalsifiable. Because it actually is an accepted part of today’s society, it is “normal” but my personal beliefs certainly don’t make it so.
    I personally don’t proselytize, mainly because I feel very uncomfortable doing so.
    I certainly don’t feel comfortable with an atheist who proselytizes their lack of belief to me, especially someone who calls me or my beliefs “stupid and damaging” as Elle does.

  50. pipenta says

    I’m adding a comment ages after the conversation here. But I’ve been reading a number of your old posts and very much enjoying them.

    Certainly we have been taught that just announcing ourselves as atheists is confrontation and rude and even unkind. If we were nice people, we’d shut up. Right? Growing up baby boomer, isolated from other atheists, and in a catholic family, this was certainly the message I got. Well, in the family when I was younger, I got slapped around for questioning the faith. The slaps got harder as my questions became more and more impossible to answer.

    But socially, outside of the family, I got the feeling I was being rude if I mentioned atheism in front of other people. It was claustrophobic. It always felt wrong that I didn’t dare so much as mention it, when the religious people could wear crosses and such around their necks and it was perfectly socially acceptable. I wished there was a recognizable symbol for atheism that I could wear to stand up for myself.

    While I understand how being an out atheist will make believers uncomfortable because we question the validity of the nightlight they keep on because they find the universe a dark and scary place, I don’t think we are more challenging to them than they are to others.

    What we are saying is: There is no god. There is no afterlife. You are in the same boat as everybody else. Make the most of it. Play nice.

    What the religious say, along a continuum, includes: There is a god. He is our version of god. He is jealous and angry and punishing. If you do not believe and worship and follow this set of rules, you will be tortured for all eternity. We will do what we can to compel you to follow our rules, here on earth. We are not accountable for proving the validity of any of this. Obey or suffer, here or after death.

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