Today’s entry is a follow up to yesterday’s, in which I discussed a month long experiment in tolerance between a Christian family and an atheist. I want to follow up with a more in depth discussion of what I believe is a potential roadblock for atheists in America. It starts with this observation:
Atheists are the minority, but it’s the Christians who feel threatened.
In many ways, Christianity is fear. Here are just a few ways that the typical Christian doctrines and beliefs cultivate, strengthen, and encourage fear:
- Fear of death. This is where the whole thing starts, of course. When a Christian tells you how much peace they get from their beliefs, what they’re really telling you is how much they’re afraid of dying. But where Christianity (and Islam) stir up a hornets nest is in exacerbating existing fears. “Jump through the correct magic hoops, or BURN IN UNSPEAKABLE AGONY FOREVER!!!!” For the true believer, there are huge negative sanctions — emotionally, morally, and politically — for not toeing the party line.
- Fear of life. If Christianity was just about believing in a savior zombie, it might not have much political impact in the universe, but as we all know, there’s a lot more to it than that. From the silly to the dysfunctional, Christians believe in all sorts of actions that are also required to get to eternal bliss. Don’t curse. Don’t drink. Don’t have sex. Don’t be gay. Don’t have an abortion. Do give 10% of your income to the church. Do submit completely to your husband. Do everything you can to make everyone around you as Christian as you are… In the end, much of the Christian lifestyle boils down to living in fear of all the things being done or not done by the heathens.
- Fear of others. If you watched the episode of 30 Days that started me on this line of thought, you saw how much fear Michael, the Christian dad, experienced when he was confronted with Brenda’s non-belief. Even standing in his own kitchen, he looked like a cornered animal, unable to attack out of social conformity and unable to flee for fear of letting his god and family down. This is typical of the type and degree of xenophobia that often accompanies American Christianity. I’ve lived this and seen it in those around me since I was a small child.
If you didn’t read my entry, Us and Them, I bared some of my own demons from growing up to show how xenophobia is a psychological defense for fear. Here’s the salient excerpt:
[First,] 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?
This paragraph is a great example of how all three fears work together to create a self righteous, fearful xenophobe. More importantly, it should serve as a warning for when we atheist activists begin engaging political battles with Christians.
The Balance of Power
The church is in a position of power in America today. In some ways, its power is nearly complete. Beginning with an enormous tax exempt money pool, and extending to the de-facto ban on open atheism in government, it’s good to be a Christian in politics. There are openly Christian lobbyists at nearly every level, openly throwing gobs of money at lawmakers in an effort to legislate Christianity. And to a large degree, the efforts have been successful.
But the Christians have one very serious problem — what they’ve done is unconstitutional. I’m not a constitutional scholar, but I know religion when I see it, and I know that Congress is specifically prohibited from making laws based on religion. And we have lots of religious laws in America. Politically active Christians are right to fear atheists with political power, if for no other reason than the tax exempt status of churches. Given political power, it’s almost certain that we would end that nonsense with near unanimous support from the atheist community.
Even if there are constitutional hairs to be split, they are right to fear us. Supreme Court justices are instruments of interpretation, and if an atheist-friendly administration stacked the court with atheists, it would mean several decades of atheist friendly interpretations. The ugly truth for Christians is that it’s easier to rationalize secular decisions than religious decisions based on the Constitution. And I think most of the savvy Christian legislators know this.
The Politics of Tolerance
Tolerance is a tricky word. In politics, it’s even trickier. For Christians, it’s a minefield. The problem is that the American model of government disagrees with their theology. And this is no small problem. Christians have several beliefs — most notably regarding pregnancy and sexual orientation — that tie directly into the freedom of choice and free expression. So the pious Christian has a choice. Either be a good American and tolerate intolerable sins, be a good Christian and run roughshod over the American ideal, or be politically savvy and change the American ideal.
It’s safe to say that since the rise of McCarthyism, and especially since the emergence of the Christian Right in the 1970s, the goal of the Christian Party in America has been to move towards a more Christian version of the Constitution and to actively vilify and marginalize anyone who doesn’t toe the moral and political line. Atheists have been very effectively reduced to them status. We are not “us.” We are “them.” We are not as fully human as they are. We are less moral. Less spiritual. We have holes in our souls. We are longing for them to show us the light and bring us up to their status as humans.
And as long as things stay that way, tolerance is easy. We atheists have no political power to speak of. We are bound by Christian morality laws. We are socially punished for being open about our nonbelief. We are rewarded when we are submissive and don’t rock the boat. As long as we’re very, very quiet about our beliefs, we’re tolerated.
But we’re not being quiet anymore. The president has acknowledged our existence. The courts are hearing our anti-discrimination cases, our separation of church and state cases, our science vs. religion in schools cases. We’re buying billboards and having conferences and meetups. There are atheist dating sites.
One of the uncomfortable truths about humans is that we have an almost limitless ability to rationalize our actions as good. Looking back at the history of oppression in the U.S., we see impassioned speeches about how the oppression was really for the good of the oppressed. Blacks were not fully human, and whites were doing them a favor by letting them work in civilized society. After all, they were savages when they lived in Africa, right? A slave in civilization is better than a free barbarian.
Women are frail creatures, incapable of the kind of dog eat dog mentality necessary for the workplace. They’re best suited for housework. That’s what makes them happy — being mothers and housekeepers. If they start working or voting, they’ll just make themselves unhappy. Best for them that we keep the baser activities of work and politics in the hands of men. They’ll be happier for it.
Atheists are immoral degenerates. They’re actively rebelling against God. And they know that God exists. They’re just denying it because they want to live their lives of sin, communism, and hatred of the American Way. They can’t be trusted. If they come to power, the terrorists win. If we let them have abortions or gay marriage, everything that’s great about America will crumble and we’ll be like all those horrible countries in the other parts of the world. It will be awful. For their own good, we need to keep legislating good moral behavior. (If this sounds over the top, then you haven’t listened to Rush or Laura recently. Seriously, I’m paraphrasing what I’ve heard both of them say.)
The key to this kind of oppression working is the belief that there are two classes of people, and the one in power is superior — either morally or intellectually or both. In the case of both blacks and women, the evidence eventually built up to the point that the truth could not be denied. Women, whites, and blacks are all equally human, and though there may be real differences, especially between the sexes, they are not differences of value. They’re just differences. Most importantly, there are no moral differences between white men, black men, or women of either color.
And that’s where the real danger lies for Christians in the battle for political power in America.
As I mentioned yesterday, the high point of the episode of 30 Days was when the Christian wife’s emotions kicked in and she began to empathize with the Atheist mom. When that happened, she could no longer view her as some kind of godless monster. Most importantly, she volunteered the opinion that being Christian or atheist doesn’t mean that someone is more or less moral. And she said this during a Bible Study! With other Christians around.
Like blacks and women, atheists have one very powerful weapon — the truth. We aren’t monsters. We are moral, and we do love life, our families, and our children. We do want the best for others. We do value freedom. We do respect and even demand the freedom to believe whatever makes the most sense. We’re just as human as they are. In every way.
The biggest threat to oppression is human empathy. Most humans cannot oppress other humans in good conscience when they can honestly and openly see things from the point of view of the oppressed. This fact is powerful, and should not be overlooked when we are formulating political strategies.
Here’s where things get difficult. In every movement for political equality, there is pain and suffering when the oppressed begin to demand their rights. The last fifty years of Christian political dominance in America have created severe social sanctions against being openly atheist. And it’s worked. Until just a few years ago, atheists were the silent unseen minority. Now, they’re a very vocal minority, but there’s something that’s still missing. Generally speaking, most atheists are vocal in limited ways. We write blogs and books. We petition Congress. We buy ads.
What’s missing is the human element. The building of empathy. Out of fear, practicality, or politeness, we keep our atheism in the realm of politics and virtual reality. We are not actively integrating ourselves into open society, and I believe this is a grave error. It has been powerfully demonstrated that the human psyche cannot maintain impersonal, judgmental attitudes about “them” when “they” are integrated into our lives. In other words, when humans develop emotional attachments to other humans, they lose prejudice. This is our most powerful weapon as atheists.
And what we’re doing is not wrong on any level. We are just as moral as any other group in America. We are loving, caring, and empathetic. We are capable of being fair and open-minded as legislators, and we do want equality for all Americans. We don’t want to legislate atheism. We don’t want to restrict the rights of Christians to practice their moral beliefs. If they don’t want abortions, they don’t have to get them. If they don’t want to permit gay unions, they don’t have to. And we’d be fine with all of that if they’d just practice it within their own churches and leave the legislation alone.
What I’m suggesting is not “In Your Face Atheism.” I don’t expect everybody to start debating theists on the street or trash talking religion in bars. That’s not what this is about at all. This is about visibility. It’s about people knowing that there are lots of atheists around. That’s all. Just knowing that we’re everywhere. Most theists don’t know it, but they know lots of atheists. Many of the people theists are quite attached to are atheists. And that’s the key to ending the oppression of atheism in America. At least, that’s the way it seems to me.
I want every theist in America to have to look at atheism if they go out their door. They need to see that their friends, their coworkers, their neighbors all have perfectly normal, reasonably happy, functional lives. I want them to have to face their own prejudices. They need to ask the question — “If atheists are so evil, why are all the atheists I know so normal?”
Think of it this way: Blacks account for about 12% of the U.S. population. That’s less than the atheist/agnostic population. I’m willing to guess that pretty much every white person who reads this blog has at least one black friend. Or at the very least, lives or works in close proximity to a black person or family. And the most important thing is this — once a white person has had a close black friend, racism becomes very, very difficult to maintain.
So if we atheists are more populous than blacks, why are there so many people who say they don’t even know an atheist? We’re doing a bad job of creating human empathy.