The very first thing I wrote on the internet that ever got any kind of traffic – I remember being thrilled to see it hit 100 views and floored after it cleared 1000 – was a piece I wrote about being an atheist of a certain kind. These pieces are pretty common now, but at the time it was rare enough to make noise: I was an atheist (not an agnostic or questioning or “spiritual but not religious” but an atheist) who was not angry, did not see my role as undermining other people’s religious beliefs, and who felt comprehensively alienated from what I perceived to be the atheist mainstream. Over the next several years I wrote often about these themes, and again got a lot of attention for them, or as much as a guy with a Blogger account was likely to expect.
I haven’t written about atheism a lot for several years, though, and I’m not sure I would write that original piece today. This isn’t really because my beliefs have changed, but because the discussion around atheism has changed. I would have expected to like those developments, but I haven’t.
To be clear, I still think the sensible attitude towards religion, for an atheist, is one of passive non-belief more than active anti-belief. That is, I’m not much interested in getting others to drop their religious beliefs, and I’m not at all interested in having atheism as an identity. Atheism is not something you do, for me. Atheists who base an entire identity around non-belief, who get up in the morning and go do atheism, seem to me to be replicating one of the most pernicious parts of religion: that it compels you to do certain things that have neither any clear moral purpose absent God (eat this bread, kneel here for awhile, give this money to that priest) nor provide any particular personal gratification. The best part of atheism is that you don’t have to get up on Sunday morning. Atheists who want to start atheist temples or whatever baffle me. Nor could I ever get up the energy to go out and spread the good word of atheism, which again replicates much of that which we have rightfully critiqued. A- is not Anti-.
People have an obligation to not try and answer political questions with references to inherently a-rational evidence, or to try and insert religious belief into scientific discussions. “You can’t get an abortion because God says so” is unhelpful as a political argument even if you believe in God; the world is not 6000 years old and science cannot proceed usefully if we are forced to entertain the notion that it is. But these obligations are not contingent on dropping religious belief. They are only contingent on maintaining a sense of what is the religious sphere and what’s the broader social sphere. Many, many people succeed at that. I still maintain many friendships with religious people and always will.
But still, I no longer find it useful to publicly be an atheist of a certain type. I suppose I’m being a hipster in saying that attitudes like my own became too popular. But I’m more and more frustrated with a common canard now often voiced by both mainstream liberals with religious beliefs and reform atheists alike, which is the notion that angry atheists are “just as bad” as evangelical Christians. I’ve head that exact formulation – “just as bad” – more times than I can count. That notion simply isn’t true, and it’s destructive. To begin with, not only do the aggressively religious outnumber the aggressively atheistic by huge margins, they are also far more politically organized and influential. For however much the Christian right’s political power has attenuated, they remain a potent force, particularly in state elections, and particularly when it comes to certain issues, such as abortion. If we expand this critique simply to ask whether the influence of atheism has been as high as that of religion, I find the comparison simply absurd. The Catholic Church alone is a vast entity with enormous resources that it uses strategically to alter the world. And many of its goals are contrary to my conception of the public good. Bill Maher is a jerk with a television show. Christianity is an army with many soldiers, and Christianity is just one religion.
I suspect a lot of this has to do with living in Indiana for a half-decade. Neither Indiana writ large nor Tippecanoe County specifically are the heart of darkness of conservatism that many of my urban-dwelling friends assume, but it is the case that religious conservatism is a major presence there in a way it never was in Connecticut, Rhode Island, Chicago, or the other places I’ve lived. And in that environment, the notion that angry atheism is “just as bad” as Christian evangelism seems even more wrongheaded. At Purdue, when the weather is nice, you simply will be shouted at by zealous Christians. On campus in the spring they become literally unavoidable, shouting, speaking into microphones, pressing literature into your hands, roaming around looking for international students to accost, and generally being aggressive. That’s to say nothing of the constant, hideously ugly anti-abortion protests, which display huge and graphic images of dismembered fetuses, appropriate the language of racial justice, and explicitly compare abortion to the Holocaust. The members of the secular students club, in contrast, sit at a table and if you go up to them, they’ll talk to you. Those things are not the same. This dynamic has been my experience again and again: despite the insistence that every atheist is like Richard Dawkins, I’m much more likely to meet secular people who mostly mind their own business unless they are forced to challenge attempts to push religion into schools or government.
And as a writing teacher, you meet so many kids who are clearly so fucked up from their parents with intense religious convictions. You give freshman space to write about their emotional lives, to explore what’s made them who they are, and a remarkable number of them will discuss being scarred by the intolerance of their parent’s Christianity. Years of young gay or questioning or just oddball teenagers, telling you about how they were taught to hate themselves and others in the name of religion, the palpable pain they’d struggle to put on the page…. That has affected me. No question.
I’m just trying to be real with you: I think far too many people who live in progressive urban enclaves and live online have developed this fantasy that angry atheists are as prevalent, powerful, and toxic as the worst elements of religion. And I just don’t think that’s an accurate portrayal of reality. If you live in the West Village and live a groovy boho lifestyle (which is nice, I’m not knocking it), you could easily look at Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris saying ugly, ignorant, Islamophobic things on Twitter and say to yourself “these guys are just as bad.” But live in rural Kansas for awhile. Try Mississippi. Try growing up gay in fundamentalist parts of Utah. You will quickly be disabused of that notion.
Perhaps the bigger problem is this: I find that the conversation about religion and atheism has become so wrapped up in a meta-discussion about how to act and why that the basic question of whether or not there’s a god gets elided. And that’s not a healthy development. I have had the curious experience of religious people, after praising my critiques of aggressive atheism, then pressing me to question the atheism itself – “Come on. Aren’t you just a little bit doubtful? Don’t you have some belief in God?” They seem to think that because I am reasonable in one way that I most likely am reasonable, to them, in that other way. But this is to trample on my basic self-definition of an atheist, in precisely the way I wouldn’t do to them. I want my very genuine, and very strong, lack of belief to be respected in the same way I try to respect the space for others to believe whatever.
But too many well-meaning atheists have created the environment that prompts these exchanges. They’ve done so by focusing so intently on the bad behavior of the Dawkins and Harris types that the miss the essential question: is there a supernatural entity that created the universe, has absolute dominion over the universe, dictates the meaning of good and evil, and sorts people into one pile or the other? When asked directly, secular people going on about the problems with aggressive atheism will say, “Well, no, but….” I get the impulse. But if God exists, that is the most important fact in existence. Religious belief doesn’t have to divide us in a way that prevents friendship or understanding, but it can’t be consigned to a “no, but.” I am not 100% certain that there is no god – it’s still not possible to prove a negative – but I find the question no less settled than the existence of vampires or fairies. I believe, in common with Marxism’s traditional, black-letter atheism, that religion exists for the few to exercise power over the many. I don’t say these things to be inflammatory, and I’m sorry if my religious friends find them offensive, but as religious people sometimes say, that’s my beliefs. There almost certainly is no god, and while I have no interest in berating people for thinking differently I do find religious belief irrational because there is no evidence to support that belief. That’s atheism.
The question, I guess, comes down once again to my definition of respect. Too many atheists I interact with, whether online in the political sphere or in real life in the academic sphere, intend to respect (or “honor”) other people’s religious beliefs but do so in a way that I would describe as humoring, in the pejorative sense. Reform atheists are often pleasant and good-hearted people, but they are also often patronizing. When people talk about the “value of spirituality,” or the “power of tradition,” or just generally get annoyed by atheism, while assuming away the existence of a deity, they are not engaged in respect; they’re engaged in subtle condescension. “I respect your journey” is a way to say “the core of your belief is immaterial to me and thus does not threaten me.” Treating Pope Francis as a groovy old guy with some sweet beliefs and a few wacky ideas about water into wine insults him and the world’s billion Catholics.
My definition of political respect has always been to take other people’s beliefs seriously, as serious as cancer. To be an atheist of a certain kind becomes, too often, a way to hollow out the core of someone else’s conviction in order to make it palatable. So I’ve found it’s better to say nothing.