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?
Last 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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.