Where to start…
I’ve got a lot more to say about the National Conference on Apologetics. Most of it is critical. But I made a lot of new friends, and I hope that some of them will become regular readers and even contributors.
For many months now, I’ve been contemplating the “on the ground” realities of living as an atheist in a society dominated by theism. I wrote this back in March:
…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.
This weekend, I practiced what I preached and jumped in with both feet. I spent a lot of time listening to theists and reading their material. I had dinner with them and hugged them and laughed with them. And it was all genuine. I don’t expect to change many (if any) minds. Most of the people at this conference are in deep. They are True Believers. They hear and see their god in the smallest flutter of a falling leaf as well as the movements of civilizations. They live in a world of magic and omens. It’s a very different world than the one I live in, but I hope I’ve given a few people on both sides of the aisle some hope that we can move towards accepting each other’s humanity even if we can’t convince each other of the rightness of our worldview.
Last night, I was able to speak candidly with a table full of Christians about my atheism. There were some moments that would feel frustrating and cliché to a lot of atheists. Many of them wanted to know how I was hurt by religion. They wanted to find a traumatic moment that “hardened” me against religion. I don’t think most of them believed me when I said there wasn’t such a moment. I saw open disbelief when I told them that most of the atheists I know aren’t “damaged goods.” In fact, this was a common theme all weekend. They simply can’t believe that I’m just a regular dude who doesn’t believe in their god, and that’s all there is to it.
I’ll write more on this in another post, but we need to find language to put this canard behind us. We’re all human. We’ve all been hurt in some way by someone. Seventy percent of people in America are religious to some degree or another. There’s a very good chance that someone who’s hurt us was religious. That goes for everybody, both theists and non-theists. If someone wants to dig deep enough into my life, they can find somewhere that I felt hurt by religion. I’ve written candidly about it on this blog. Let’s just learn to accept the fact that some people turn to religion when they feel hurt. Others turn to their own inner strength, or friends and family. Some people — like me — try to prevent other people from being hurt. (For those of you looking for something to ease your conscience and call me a wounded pup, just read the whole article I took the quoted paragraphs from.)
I sincerely thank everyone who apologized to me on behalf of other Christians. (I got that a lot.) Many people were shocked to learn that we atheists are regularly and routinely harassed, maligned, and discriminated against by Christians. It was difficult for me to accept these reactions as genuine, but I think it’s important to do so. People who live the kinds of insular lives encouraged by evangelical Christianity often don’t recognize the effects their beliefs cause. (Be in the world without being of the world.) Many of them have never sat at a table as equals with an open atheist and talked about atheism.
And that’s why I think it’s important. I understand that it’s easier for us atheists to keep to ourselves. It was hard enough leaving religion, and harder still to admit it to our friends and families. But if it’s ever going to get easier for anyone else, this needs to be a culture where we can sit at the same table. We’re not going to do anyone any favors by becoming as insular in our atheist world as they have become in their Christian world. We certainly don’t have to pretend to be anything we’re not. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t be the first one to extend a hand of friendship. If the offer is declined, it is a loss for both sides. It’s very hard to hate a friend. It’s difficult to tolerate discrimination when it happens to someone we care about.
There was one really promising moment. After chatting for a while at the conference, I went to a restaurant with a dozen Christians. The pastor who assumed the role of host and I were chatting away when he noticed that everyone had their food. He looked at me and genuinely asked me if I minded if they said a prayer before they ate. I said, “Please, go ahead.” They prayed, and I didn’t. And then we kept talking and started eating. And it was comfortable. In retrospect, it’s shocking to me how… shocking … it was that it was comfortable. I’ve certainly had my share of uncomfortable moments at very similar tables. But we’d accepted each other as persons. It would be nice if there was more of that sort of thing.
I’m going home today. Home to my science journals and my wine with dinner and my openly gay friends. Tomorrow, the world will be governed by unthinking cause and effect, and I will be in charge of my own destiny (for good or ill) and I’ll still be living life without a net. I remembered something valuable this weekend. We can all make the conscious decision to be human first, and a theist or an atheist second. I’m hopeful that some of my new friends will be able to know me in all my open atheism and stay friends.