Egregores blog has a post about atheism as the new bigotry. I think a lot of atheists, especially those who consider themselves progressives, will find this take either very surprising or as just another attack from the aggressively religious to force them to assimilate. I have no interest in assimilating anyone, and given some of the treatment I’ve received and observed from atheists and the traditionally religious, I have to say this: as in all things where it’s not just a difference of opinion but a difference of taproot-level attitude, the words that express the attitudes must be taken on a case by case basis.
I am not a person of absolutes (contrary to popular opinion), and there are a lot of conversations I’ve had with atheists where comments made to me might sound bigoted to casual passerby that were perfectly acceptable and even appropriate within the context of the conversation. That said, some conversations have simply revealed to me that yes, the occasional atheist is simply a religious bigot of a newer and trendier variety. This is always the loudmouth that makes the humanists, agnostics and civilized/meditation-based atheists look bad.
I met my first atheist in high school. Actually, I think I met my first atheist at church. My parents had this mediocre lawyer who was part of the congregation who one day decided to do a tour of churches to see who could sell him on their approach. At the end of his tour, he concluded no church suited him and therefore there was no God. I’ve met people like him since, and there’s always been this ineffable entitlement that I can’t quite grasp the cause of, but it always seems so very familiar when I see it. On some level, I like these people even while on a deeper level I hate them. That’s because of the atheist I went to church with. He was my parents friend and since they liked him I liked him too, but I do recall wondering why they didn’t notice that the guy was a complete asshole.
My second atheist was in my advanced English classes. ((He, along with many of my peers, were mystified as to why I only got admitted to advanced humanities classes. None of them could grasp simply not being good at math and science and still being good at other things. This led to a peculiar situation where half my peers thought me a genius and the other half considered me barely functional. In the end it turned into a sort of idiot savant status based solely on collective averages.)) Sam was socially dysfunctional: as far as I know, he was not autistic, he was just an extremely smart guy whose self-proclaimed superior intellect caused him to behave like a complete jackass. For whatever reason, he was usually pretty nice to me and I even felt comfortable referring to him as a friend every once in awhile. He wasn’t a friend I would talk to about boys, and there’s a whole incident with a metal plate and a model of Yoda that we never quite got past, but when it came down to choices, he always opted towards the civil with me. I remember asking him about his atheism, and his answer was that he read the entire Bible one afternoon and decided it was bullshit. Nowadays I would ask him why on earth he assumed the Bible would have any kind of final answer. That he did pursue the Bible as some answer was its own fallacy: he was looking into a book that has to be accepted as fact on faith. Even then, I found the idea of putting faith in man-made material iffy, especially since even my mild mannered Protestant church sometimes implied being human meant being too dirty for God and that book was most definitely put together and handled by a whole bunch of humans. Also, it was pretty well known information was missing, moved around or even removed for political reasons because Martin Luther decided he knew what was and wasn’t divine better than anyone else. So Sam was operating on at-best partial information because a spoiled rich boy thought he knew the voice of God better than anyone else. To me, it’s all highly suspect. In fact, any “I can have direct experience with God but you have to take my word for it and the word of this book that I altered for your benefit is highly suspect. If you’re never allowed to talk to the person in charge, it’s usually wise to assume shenanigans are afoot. ((I wasn’t a Bible believer even when I was Christian. The pastor that read this caught onto this and made me recite the verse about “thy words are a light unto my path” thing. They weren’t. I really preferred a flashlight.)) This Bible-reading approach to seeking God also spoke to how much Sam was deeply anchored in US culture: a)he read the entire Bible, not thinking to look in any other holy book, be it the Q’ran, the Talmud or the Kama Sutra and b)he went looking for God in a book, and then when he finished the book he concluded there was no God without looking anywhere besides a book.
He did one day ask me why I believed in God, so I told him my reasoning. When I thought about every aspect of civilization, and kept stepping backwards with it in my mind – birth, death, evolution((this took place before intelligent design was a well known concept)) (evolution is and was very important to my spirituality as I think a competent deity designs for evolution, which is NOT the same as intelligent design), this planet and the gigantic universe, it felt like, when the universe was at its beginning and it was not even a dust mote in blackness, something was there… thinking. It had to be God – and maybe even God evolved in the process of creation.
Sam of course did not accept my theory, but he did acknowledge it was one of the more original answers he ever received, and that it was much better than the usual “the Bible says so!” proclamation. We never really discussed his atheism again, except when he gradually persuaded another classmate to skip church.
In fact, the last conversation we ever had about it was when another friend of ours stayed home sick. I’d been fighting with that other person and that boy’s relentless negativity was just exhausting me.
Sam scampered up to me before class. “Aaron’s home sick!”
Only thinking of a break from the surliness, I said “There is a God!”
“No there’s not,” Sam said as he sailed on to his next class.
Ultimately, we were both happy that day.
While I’ve never wound up concluding that all atheists are jerks, I’ve met a few that are. Usually they’re not just jerks about religion or those of us who are religious. It’s just a favorite topic. A lot of them are really just anti-Christian bigots, but who are so poorly educated as to the depth and breadth of religious diversity in this world that they just assume having a religion means you operate according to Christian assumptions. Christian or not, it’s an obnoxious approach to quote the Bible as an argument against God when you practice a religion that finds the idea of using a holy book one way of distracting yourself from God instead of reaching that divine contact.
While the egregore post talks about the “how this is bigoted” it doesn’t talk about why atheists – and certain damaged Pagans even – need to direct so much negativity at Christianity or at religion in general. This is actually key to the bigotry conversation. Again, it comes from either willful or accidental ignorance about how many religions this world contains, and how many versions of one religion are out there. Certainly I’ve heard – many, many times, “Well my experience with a Christian church was abusive!”
Yes, and a guy of a certain race stole your purse once. Not all religions, non-religions, denominations and individuals are the same. It’s important to remember when talking with people of different beliefs that this world has everything, and it has it because on some level, this world wants everything.
I’m not going to go on any kind of anti-atheist rampage. But I have felt irritated with people who expect me to casually agree with their mockery of churches or of simply having beliefs. If you don’t need a belief in a higher power, good for you. But I liked my imaginary friends when I was a kid, and I like my sometimes visible sometimes not friend now, and I think it gives me coping skills that make me saner, not scarier. It’s a big world, and maybe some people don’t want to believe. I’m cool with that, but I’m not going to convert to the nihilist church of Nietzche just because disaffection is hip.