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Atheism, philosophy, Religion

Us and Them

Open Salon has a neat little article by Michelle Motoyoshi explaining very politely that atheists are not ethically bankrupt monsters.   I appreciate the main thrust of the article very much:

Contrary to popular belief, one can believe in a greater good without subscribing to a greater being. And it is this greater good (the betterment of society, of the environment, of man himself) that motivates the atheist to behave unselfishly.  In a sense, the atheist subscribes to the fundamental tenet of most religions – to treat others with the same respect and compassion that you yourself want to be treated with – without seeking to please a divine creature in the process.  The reward is the action itself, is the good it propagates here and now, not some prize that awaits one in the after life. Likewise, the punishment for wrongdoing is the harm and horror it wreaks here on earth.

I don’t know who Michelle Motoyoshi is, but in a few minutes of browsing through her blog, my best guess is that she’s a dyed in the wool skeptic.  Whether or not she’s an atheist I can’t tell, but she certainly does seem to have the goal of giving a fair shake to every side of the story.  And that’s admirable.

She goes on to make a very interesting point:

Furthermore, the atheist doesn’t reserve his love and respect only for those of the same belief; he isn’t kind just to other atheists. Nor does he offer his good deeds with a sermon attached; no attempts at conversion accompany his compassion. The atheist doesn’t see saved and unsaved, believer and infidel….us and them. Instead, he sees only humans, some misguided perhaps, or even willfully blind.

At first, I wanted to disagree with this.  After all, I’m in the business of preaching my beliefs.  And I definitely see us and them when I look at the world.  But after reading it a little more carefully, I think I agree with her — with some caveats.

I want to be very careful about tooting my own horn or the horn of other atheists.  (That sounds oddly kinky… better not dwell on it…)  I’m as human as anyone else and I have my prejudices.  Some of them seem very justified to me and I don’t work very hard at undoing them.  So I don’t want to come off sounding like my lack of god belief has somehow turned me into a saint.  However, I think that the way I see us and them is significantly different from the way theists see it.

When I was a Christian, I was taught (and firmly believed) that non-Christians were bad people.  Actually, I was taught that all people were bad, but that if anyone could summon up the will-power to accept their own innate evil and turn their lives over to Jesus, he would make them good.  Not perfect, but good.  So for me, the us and them dichotomy was a strict division.  Christians were good.  Everyone else was evil.

When I was a teenager, I watched with genuine loathing when my classmates would brag about the various sins they were committing.  How horrible I thought they were!  I could just see the evil emanating from them as they nonchalantly brushed aside the commands of Almighty God.  How dare they live their lives with such reckless disregard for the obvious truths of morality and eternal salvation?!

In truth, my family still views the world that way.  They’re adult enough to hide their disdain in polite company, but they cannot hide their discomfort.  When they are with a group of drinkers, they feign tolerance, but for those of us who know them well, it’s impossible to miss the fact that they want nothing more than to be away from those people.  In their mind, drinking is wrong.  God has said it.  It is true.  And anyone who does it is defying the one, true, holy, and all powerful god.

“Witnessing” was always hard for me.  I knew that it was my responsibility to try to help the poor souls who couldn’t see the light of Jesus, but it was very difficult for me on several levels.  To begin with, I was painfully shy — primarily because there were precious few children as pious as me with whom I could play and not be tempted to break some holy commandment or another.   Yes, I’m saying I refused friendship with other children because I was afraid of their evil natures.  Second, when I got a little older, my fear of others turned into self-righteousness.  It was a neat trick of backwards rationalization.  My intellect couldn’t accept the fact that I felt alone and afraid, so it turned those emotions into righteous indignation and aloofness.  Instead of wishing I could be a part of the group, I despised the group.  If they weren’t good enough or smart enough to see that they should live like me, why should I help them?

And here’s the real kicker.  I didn’t know atheists existed.  Sure, they were all around me, but I didn’t accept them as atheists.  To me, they were willful deviants.  Horrible souls who knew there was a god and chose to openly defy him.  For those people, I had nothing but utter contempt.  They were already lost.  The flames of hell were just waiting for them to have one drink too many and die in a pool of their own vomit in a back alleyway.   (Yes, that’s really how I perceived things.  Religious indoctrination is a real son of a bitch.)

Admittedly, the brand of Christianity I was raised in was pretty harsh.  Fundamentalism can skew our perception of reality to the point of severe dysfunction — which is precisely what it did to me.  But fundamentalism is only different from liberalism in degree, not kind.  Each brand of Christianity espouses some set of wacky beliefs or another, and the only difference is how wacky they are — not whether or not they’re wacky.

Now, at the risk of using too broad a brush and painting the kettle black (hmmm… fun with mixed metaphors), let me say unequivocally that I don’t believe all theists are bigots.  There are some versions of Christianity Lite™ that allow for extreme differences of opinion, and even the possible correctness of other religions.  I’ve met liberal Muslims who were perfectly fine with my atheism.  Even though they can’t help believing I’m going to pay for it rather dearly, they accept me as an infidel and are perfectly happy to let me live my wretched and empty life.  In a nutshell, some theists’ innate human compassion makes it impossible for them to buy into bigotry.

And that’s a very good thing.

However, it’s worth noting how very differently I view other humans now that I’ve got my Secret Atheist Decoder Ring.  For one thing, I don’t believe in good and evil.  At least not as existing qualities, like “green” or “smelly.”  Good and evil are just ways of judging the actions of another human, and as far as I can tell, any human is capable of both, and most humans are overwhelmingly good.  Even theists.  (Please read that with as much sarcasm as possible, ok?  I’m mocking the misconception of atheists.  Get it?)

In all seriousness, this is the huge difference between me now and me twenty years ago.  Theism is a belief system — one that’s horribly flawed and often harmful.  But the people who believe it are no different from me.  I was very lucky.  I grew up when the spread of global information was just beginning, and I was lucky enough to live in a country where internet access was unrestricted, where atheists were allowed to talk to me without fear of legal penalties, and where every library has books on philosophy, logic, and (gasp!) atheism.  I had the resources available to me, and enough innate curiosity to use them.

I believe that people can only believe what their senses tell them.   Theists believe what they do because it makes the most sense to them.  Maybe that’s because of indoctrination, or lack of resources, or a simple lack of critical thinking skills, or maybe it’s because it’s just too scary to think of the universe without an invisible protector.    But none of those things are their fault.  I don’t blame theists for being theists.   They’re just people — like me — doing the best they can at life.

And I have compassion for them.  I want the world to be a better place for everybody, and I believe that science education and good critical thinking skills are two of the most effective ways to make the world a better place.  So I blog about it.  I sharply criticize beliefs I feel are wrong.  I present evidence supporting my views.  I actively try to acquire new readers and spread my message of natural humanity to as many people as will listen.  And I don’t apologize for that.

And you know what else?  I don’t blame theists for doing the same thing.  I vehemently disagree with the message preached in churches, but I will stand with theists and demand their right to preach it.  I believe in evidence and critical thinking, and there’s no way to promote critical thinking while simultaneously stifling dissent.  Only when there is open dialog can there be a real search for truth.

So in the end analysis, yes.  I see us and them.  There’s a real difference between theists and atheists, and I won’t try to lie and say I’d be as comfortable in a Church of Christ prayer meeting as I’d be at a wine tasting with a bunch of heathens.  I prefer the company of people who think like me.  Just like everyone else does.  But I recognize the humanity of all of us, and I don’t wish ill upon them.  I’d like them to agree with me, but I realize there’s only so much I can do to help that happen.  Once I’ve done what I can do, the only thing that makes any sense is to accept others for who they are and what they believe and ask them to please do the same for me.   If they want to join me for wine and cheese, so much the better.

My fundamentalist brain could never have thought this way.

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10 thoughts on “Us and Them

  1. I think one of the more interesting things in becoming an atheist is that absolutely nothing happens in terms of becoming a crazed evil doer.

    If anything I became kinder and more forgiving. Losing that endless fog around your brain trying to figure what God wanted for every situation just become a time and energy sink.

    Posted by Athol Kay: Married Man Sex Life | March 12, 2010, 5:36 pm
  2. Athol, I think that because I was raised in an especially judgmental and pious set of churches, there actually was something that happened to my morality when I became an atheist. I became much more ethical and moral. When I was a Christian, I would often do the morally wrong thing because I believed that God had commanded it, and regardless of my own misgivings, the ends never justified the means. These days, I look at morals in a more “organic” way. When I’m considering whether or not to do something, I judge it by its effect on others.

    What a novel concept, eh?

    Posted by hambydammit | March 12, 2010, 6:21 pm
  3. Nice twist on the Motoyoshi piece, Hamby! Wow, I had no idea you were raised in that fundamentalist a way. I am always startled when I encounter a fundamentalist or fanatic of any kind – it seems like the bulk of their energy is devoted to judging others. Fundamentalism seems like a fortress, and anyone the slightest bit different is most unwelcome. I can see why letting go of all the moral judging would have been an enormous relief, and make you enjoy your own life more.

    Posted by Susan Walsh | March 12, 2010, 9:47 pm
  4. I am a recent “out of the closet” atheist. Not really raised in a church, but did not know there was an option. I have questioned religion for as long as I can remember and made a few forays into faith that were dismal failures. When I was in the closet, I judged the christians (mostly xians, but others as well) harshly in my mind and for every action they took. My head called them uneducated and I knew a lot of them were not. I said they were in denial, but they seemed to really be happy (mostly). When I decided to just say, “I am an atheist and I want to seek and know other people like me.” I came out. I really felt a freedom from it all. In very short order my disdain for believers fell away and became tolerance. Tolerance suggested I was above them and that fell away to where I reside in my mind now. All that really matters is what I DO here & now. I am being good for the sake of being good. “The reward is the action itself” – and I am responsible for every blink of my eye. I cannot attribute my good or evil to any other entity. Therefore, I cannot attribute their actions any other way. I wish they would take credit for their own good deeds rather than attributing them to a god and I wish that they would take actions when they see a wrong rather than the action of prayer…but otherwise we are the same – I have to accept their humanness.

    Posted by PaigeB | March 12, 2010, 11:33 pm
  5. it is a most daunting task to impart … an-attached-to-a-god believer…. how sincerely good, how natural, how exilarating… it feels… to simply be human. to feel at ease, at one… where we are. as we are.

    Posted by aforcier | March 13, 2010, 3:00 pm
  6. Thank you so much for this post! Everything I read about atheists on the internet is that we’re so very angry! I cast no aspersions on anyone else’s beliefs – I just don’t share them. I do however love my family, I make an effort to help those less fortunate than me and not make any sort of problem for anyone else. Strange that I don’t need God to tell me to do those things.

    Posted by Meg at Demanding Joy | March 14, 2010, 12:43 pm
  7. Only a smiling visitor here to share the love (:, btw outstanding layout.

    Posted by Riley Creel | March 12, 2012, 12:55 pm


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