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Atheism

A Theist Talks About Anti-Atheist Bigotry

Like many others I thought that a belief in God was the foundation of morality, that Christians were superior to others and that atheists were a threat to believers. I didn’t, however, reach this conclusion consciously after weighing the facts and examining the issue independently. But rather it was something so ingrained within the culture that it permeated the social conscience.

Sound familiar?  I’ve been on a crusade against anti-atheist bigotry recently, and I’ve been taking a bit of flack.  Several reasonable, non-bigoted people just don’t think it’s real.  They think I’m exaggerating, or just making it up.  Well, here’s a tiny ray of light in the darkness. One theist is speaking up for atheists, and has written an article on Tikkun Daily.  Be Scofield (yes, I got that right.  “Be” is a first name.) makes a very important observation about the environment that cultivates the bias against not just atheists, but anyone who doesn’t follow the One True Religion:

Paul Kivel, a violence prevention educator, defines this hegemony “as the everyday, pervasive, and systematic set of Christian values and beliefs, individuals and institutions that dominate all aspects of our society through the social, political, economic, and cultural power they wield. Nothing is unaffected by Christian hegemony (whether we are Christian or not) including our personal beliefs and values, our relationships to other people and to the natural environment, and our economic, political, education, health care, criminal/legal, housing, and other social systems.”

This isn’t hyperbole.  We have become a Christian nation, and it’s a scary place.  We are very insular, authoritarian, conservative well beyond a fault, and xenophobic.  The rest of the world hates us.  Advertising yourself as an American while abroad is nearly the same as being seen riding the short bus to school.

For Christians and other religious people to have to deal with a bit of push back or challenge to their mostly unchallenged ideas and way of living is small compared to being viewed as less than human for much of our civilized history.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.  Now if we can convince another fifty million of your brethren, we’ll be getting somewhere.

One of the strongest pieces of evidence for the existence of an everyday prejudice against atheists is that atheists consistently poll the lowest–below women and African-Americans–when people are asked who they would vote for as president.

Yep.  But you forgot to mention that we also poll lower than MUSLIMS.  You know… the people we’re at war with?  Those guys?  The ones who blew up the Twin Towers?  We rank lower than them.  People trust atheists — who have never blown up anything in the name of atheism — less than the people who blew up millions of dollars worth of New York City and killed thousands of people.

But again the prejudice against atheists has yet to be challenged by the same progressive and/or religious forces which have been fighting for racial and gender equality for many years now.

In the spirit of honest discussion, I really have to ask:  Which religious forces have been fighting for racial and gender equality?  I don’t ask to be snarky.  I really don’t know of any significant religious groups fighting for the rights of anybody outside of their own religion.  Who are we talking about?

Atheists simply deny one more God than Christians do. And the progressive spiritual people that no longer believe in a theistic God who intervenes in human affairs but still use the word God aren’t describing anything supernatural. Thus, whether it’s liberation or process theology, pantheism or panentheism, these liberal ways of defining God as love, creative potential, the universe, everything or freedom are simply interesting methods of describing the natural laws of existence.

It’s a great observation.  There are a lot of people who have used cultural religious language to create “atheism lite,” which still sounds religious enough to pass muster with all but the religious extremists.  The crime I and my atheist comrades have committed is the profession of exactly the same love, creative potential, etc, without any theist overtones.

To be fair, I understand some of the reasons why “overt atheism” is seen as more threatening.  We are openly defying the cultural meme that religion makes people better.  In some cases, we’re saying that being non-religious makes people better.  We’re openly challenging religion.

I don’t want to get too far off track, but there’s something to be said for challenging cultural beliefs.  A lot of them really suck.  There’s still a lot of number crunching to be done before we can say definitively that we atheists are right about our cultural claims.  But it’s wrong to fault us for believing that less religion and more science would benefit society.  It’s wrong to vilify us for trying to live our beliefs in peace.

Another way that many religious people try to differentiate themselves from atheists is by suggesting morality has no basis without a foundation or belief in God. This is a dangerous and insulting myth that religious and spiritual alike have an ethical responsibility to challenge because we participate in the systems that perpetuate it. It leads people to believe that atheism is a social problem that needs to be confronted. But the real problems in society are poverty, violence, war, dehumanization and greed among others.

Yes.  It is very insulting.  And yes, it does lead to the belief that people like me are a problem.  And yes, the real problems are poverty, violence, etc.  Fixing those problems requires real world changes to the environment, not belief or non-belief in a deity.

The idea that Bible believing Christians would be ravenous murderers without a belief in God is not only disturbing but simply untrue.

Yes!  And yet… atheists are the most mistrusted group in America, and right wing extremist Christians are supposed to be a small minority.  Something doesn’t add up.

And as Christopher Hitchens frequently states, there are no moral actions that atheists can’t perform but there are plenty of wicked things that have been done by religious people.

Ahem…  actually, Hitchens (and quite a few other people) frequently state that there are actions theists can and do perform that atheists simply wouldn’t.  I try very hard to separate “atheism” from “scientific rationalism,” but I basically agree.  I don’t know of any progressive scientific rationalists who would advocate cutting off a woman’s clitoris or teaching that God hates anybody who has sex before marriage.

The point here is to say that there are religious people who are willing to stand up for atheists and agnostics, and that some atheists identify as religious themselves. In addition to UU’s many Buddhists are great examples of religious atheists. Yes it is a small percentage of the overall population just like the number of white people working to end racism is but these are crucial voices on the path to transformation.

Well, yeah.  Be is talking about Unitarian Universalists.  They account for 0.3% of the U.S. population.  It’s an incredibly small percentage.  I really do appreciate the support.  It’s exactly what I have been advocating.  But 0.3% of the population is not enough.  We atheists need the support of a lot more folks before acceptance becomes a cultural meme.  We need liberal Catholics, Lutherans, Episcopalians, and whoever else we can get.

And until religious people begin to stand up for this cause in earnest and thoughtful ways I don’t blame the new atheists for not trusting us and being skeptical of all things religious.

Thank you.  You’re right.  Western theist religion has a history of exactly zero cultures in which the average theist respected atheists.  Until we see it happen, we’re absolutely justified in believing it’s not possible.

Scofield goes on to ask the most important question:  What can religious people do if they sympathize with the plight of atheists?

First we can commit to listening to the lived experiences of atheists who are in a culture of Christian hegemony. What’s it like to be you? How is your life impacted by our culture? Secondly we can commit to being an ally. This includes listening but also implies a willingness to stand side-by-side with atheists when they need support. This means exercising power through writing, speaking, advocacy or otherwise and challenging the myths about atheism that dominate our culture.

Yes.  Yes.  Yes.

Atheists are completely alone culturally.  We don’t believe that we can coexist with the religious because the religious will not coexist with us.  If we had a few experiences with religion that didn’t include invitations to Sunday School, that would help.  We can’t help but notice that everybody thinks we’re bad people.  It’s obvious that even the most liberal Christians think we’d be better off if we got off of this whole “no God” thing.  Real change demands real actions.

Oh, and just in case you think I’m painting with too broad a brush:

Just like we hold unconscious racist, sexist and class based beliefs we do so about atheism. I have even found these biases to be present amongst the very most progressive and liberal spiritual people.

There it is, from the mouth of one of the most progressive and liberal theists out there.  Anti-atheist bigotry extends through our entire culture.  This will not change unless the most liberal and progressive theists get on board with their professed ideals.  Talking about coexistence is fine, but talk is cheap and mostly useless.

As a religious leader in training and as someone who still uses the word God I am committed to working to end the culture of prejudice against atheists.

Thank you.  From the bottom of my heart, thank you.  I hope another few million people get up the courage to do what you’ve done.

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Discussion

5 thoughts on “A Theist Talks About Anti-Atheist Bigotry

  1. Hello,

    This is Be Scofield, the author of “We’re all Born Atheists.” Thanks for blogging about my post. Just one correction. I am not a theist by any means. A theist believes in a God that can intervene in the world, answer prayer…etc. Check out my latest post to see my reasoning:

    God Doesn’t Play Favorites: A Religious Person Rethinks Prayer
    http://blogs.alternet.org/speakeasy/2010/06/23/god-doesnt-play-favorites-a-religious-person-rethinks-prayer/

    Posted by Be Scofield | June 23, 2010, 7:03 pm
  2. Thanks, Be. I’ll check out your post!

    Posted by hambydammit | June 23, 2010, 9:48 pm
  3. Thought you might like this story from Australia.

    http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2010/06/29/2939879.htm

    Posted by Alex Hardman | June 29, 2010, 3:02 pm
  4. Yes. I do like the story. I wish I knew more about Australian politics, but I don’t. I’d like to know what her chances were before this story, and how they’ll change as a result of it.

    Posted by hambydammit | June 29, 2010, 6:26 pm
  5. Here is my latest post:

    “What Christopher Hitchens and the New Atheists Can Learn From Malcolm X”

    http://www.tikkun.org/tikkundaily/2010/07/06/what-christopher-hitchens-and-the-new-atheists-can-learn-from-malcolm-x/

    Posted by Be Scofield | July 7, 2010, 12:06 pm

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