This piece was originally published in The Humanist magazine, in my Fierce Humanism column.
This time the woman behind the counter gave me a look. Irritated, offended. She looked like she wanted to tell me off, or start an argument. But instead she shrugged, and said (paraphrasing here), “Whatever floats your boat.”
I felt uncomfortable. Like most people, I don’t like upsetting others or making them mad at me. I’m fairly comfortable with confrontation online—heck, it’s my job, and it’s a job I enjoy—but when it’s in person, it makes me feel self-conscious and anxious. While the woman was getting my coffee, I had a brief argument with myself in my head. Was this bit of visibility for secularism worth the irritation and offense I had caused? Had I actually turned someone off to the ideas I was trying to convey? Was it obnoxious of me to do my little “secular government” visibility action in front of the barista, who is professionally required to be polite to me and doesn’t have the option of telling me to piss off? In doing my visibility shtick and trying to open some eyes to some new ideas and questions, had I instead just closed a door?
Here’s what happened next.
The woman came back with my coffee and said, “If you don’t mind my asking—why do you do that?”
I said (again, paraphrasing here), “Because it shouldn’t be on the money. Whether you believe in God or not, the government shouldn’t be taking sides on the issue. I don’t happen to believe in God—it’s okay with me if you do, you certainly have that right. But the government shouldn’t be telling me that I’m supposed to believe in God. It shouldn’t be telling any of us what to think about God. If we want religious freedom for everyone, the government should stay out of that question.”
And she thought about it for a moment, and nodded, and said, “Yeah, I guess I can see that.”
When activists in the humanist/atheist/godless community talk about confrontationalism versus diplomacy, we often assume that the two are mutually exclusive. Even those of us who think both methods of activism are useful tend to assume that you can’t do both at once; you can get in people’s faces or you can have a friendly conversation with them—just not at the same time.
But this ended up being a civil conversation. A friendly one, even. It was a conversation where I got my idea across: a somewhat important one, about secular government and separation of church and state. It was a conversation where I got someone to think differently, possibly even to change her mind.
And it started as a confrontation. In fact, I’ll go further than that. The friendly conversation wouldn’t have happened without the confrontation. I wouldn’t have gotten that idea across if I hadn’t been willing to start a confrontation.
Did you read about the bus ad campaign in Pennsylvania? The one where the local atheist group, the Northeastern Pennsylvania Freethought Society (NEPA), tried to run an ad featuring one word: “Atheists” with a period after it, along with names and urls of the group and their co-sponsor, American Atheists, in smaller type? Did you read about how the bus company rejected the ad because it was too controversial?
For humanists and atheists and other nonbelievers, the unfortunate reality is that our ideas are, in and of themselves, confrontational. Heck—our very existence is confrontational. Some of this is because, to a lot of people, our ideas are very new. Some of it is because these aren’t just new ideas—they’re ideas that challenge some very important, very basic assumptions that people build their lives and families and communities around, and re-thinking those ideas can take a lot of work and create a lot of upset, both emotionally and practically.
But some of this is because of a very basic reality that we don’t always like to admit: We are being confrontational. When we come out as godless, we’re telling believers that they’re wrong. This is a fundamental difference between coming out as an LGBT person, and coming out as godless. When you come out as queer, you’re not telling straight people they’re wrong to be straight. But there is no way to say, “I don’t believe in God” without implying, “If you do believe in God, you’re wrong.” No matter how gentle our words are, no matter how many pretty pictures of blue skies and clouds we put behind them—and don’t get me wrong, I love the billboards with the pretty blue skies and clouds—some people are going to feel confronted.
They’ll feel that way because it is that way.
So that’s the bad news. If we’re godless, and we don’t keep it a secret, we’re being confrontational. But the good news is that confrontation doesn’t have to be the end of a connection. Confrontation can be the beginning of one.
Yes, I know. One conversation in a café shouldn’t make up the basis for an entire movement strategy. But I’ve seen this before. At the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, the secular student group, Illini Secular Student Alliance (ISSA), participated in the controversial “Everybody Draw Muhammad” day—an action that angered and upset the Muslim student group. But rather than ending any possible relationship between the two groups, the event wound up beginning one. ISSA sent the Muslim group a letter explaining that they understood the action would be upsetting, and explaining why they felt they had to do it anyway. The Muslim group wrote back and explained their position. And although the action went on, and it didn’t make the Muslimshappy, the two student organizations now have a good relationship, and work together on service projects and other common interests. The confrontation didn’t close the door. It opened a door that stayed open.
Confrontation is often a spark to changing our minds. Ask any good-sized gathering of non-believers how many of them used to be believers. And then ask how many of them changed their minds, at least in part, because of arguments from atheists that they read, or heard, or saw on YouTube, or engaged in with their friends or family. I guarantee you the number will be very high indeed.
I’m not writing this to try to persuade anyone to cross “In God We Trust” off the money at coffee shops. We all pursue visibility and activism in our own way, and I’m more than fine with that. I’m saying this: If I hadn’t been willing to be a little confrontational with that barista, we would never have had the conversation about why having “In God We Trust” on the money is bad for everyone. Confrontation doesn’t have to mean a fight or a schism. Instead it can start a conversation worth having.