I’ve encountered a lot of atheists in the past few years. A random way to start a blog post, I know, but it has been on my mind for a while.
You see, I’ve lived my entire life in one conservative religious area or another. Raised in Catholic Louisiana, moved to Phoenix, Arizona, where the Mormons are, and finally settled in the heart of Southern Baptist Central in Kentucky. While I may not agree with them 90% of the time, and while my “lifestyle” (whatever that means) is enough to send many of them into fits of holy despair, flailing and blessing themselves and speaking in tongues at the horror of me, it still feels normal to be surrounded by folks who take their religion seriously, and who aren’t afraid to let you know it. (You may not agree with Christians, but at least you’re pretty sure of where you can find them on Sunday morning.)
It’s possible this background has ill-prepared me for a life among the secular crowd (you know, the ones who didn’t have priests over to their house for Sunday dinner and who didn’t spend Monday night at catechism class instead of at home, watching Logan’s Run like they really wanted…). People who sleep in on Sundays, who never bless their food when it drops to the floor (a quick Sign of the Cross plus the Two Second Rule is usually enough to stop most germ-related disasters), and who simply do not believe in religion.
No, where I come from, atheists are like ghosts, phantoms used to scare little children, more fantasy than fact. I was almost thirty when I met my first “out” atheist. At forty-five, I’m still a little shocked when I hear someone tell me they don’t believe in god, religion, or any such thing.
So why am I suddenly seeing atheists everywhere?
Out of the Secular Closet
Perhaps one of the reasons I’m seeing more atheists these days in online communities is that it’s simply no longer such a social taboo to identify as a non-believer. Not only does the online world offer access to all types of people with all types of beliefs, it also provides a space where people can express ideas and reveal personal information with far less fear of judgement and shame than ever before. These days nobody bats an eye when you tell them you are gay, in an interracial relationship, on antidepressants, or any number of things that were once really, really, really taboo.
People just take things more in stride today. And without the risk of utter ostracizing looming on the horizon atheists and agnostics are becoming not only more vocal, but more assertive. Famous atheists like Bill Maher and Richard Dawkins have made reputations for themselves (not always positive) as aggressive, unabashed non- believers who have little time or patience for the “fantasy” of religion.
Drawing the Lines in the Sand (and Elsewhere)
It is also no surprise that the steady rise in power of the Far Christian Right in America and abroad has engendered a backlash. More and more people, in an attempt to distance themselves from the profound intolerance and narrowness this movement generally displays, have become more openly accepting of “fringe” religions such as Wicca, and of no religion at all. The phrase “I’m not religious; I’m spiritual” has tripped from the tongue of many liberals over the past twenty years.
My own faith, which is an unruly mash-up of Buddhism, pantheism, goddess worship, and the occasional Catholic dogma, can hardly be classified as religious. And while I have definitely drawn my line in the sand, both with family and friends, as far as my faith goes, I still don’t feel the extreme antipathy many non-Christians have for our Christian neighbors. No, my philosophy is Live and Let Live, but don’t try to tell me how to live or pray.
A Disturbing Trend
But back to atheists…. Recently I’ve noticed a trend among bloggers who identify as atheists to be dismissive and often downright insulting when discussing religion and the people who practice those religions. In movies like Religulous and on more and more public forums, there is often a confrontational tone taken by atheists asserting their right to believe (or not believe) whatever they choose. It seems more often than not, when I see a person or a group who pronounce they are atheist, there is a general attitude of hostility in the air, especially towards people who follow some sort of spiritual or religious path.
Back in the Day, when I used to regularly attend science fiction conventions, there was a phrase we used to describe obnoxious fans who delighted in tormenting so-called “normal” people with outrageous and often inappropriate behavior. We called it “Playing Shock the Mundane.” You see, for so long these folks were the butt of every joke in the “real world.” Once they were safely in the majority, they reveled in turning the tables on people who just looked like they were normal. It was juvenile, embarrassing, and hardly did our group any favors in the community.
I think a lot of atheists are engaged in a massive game of Shock the Mundane with people of faith. For years, they have had religion shoved down their throat, were preached to, pummeled with reasons and rationales that were downright offensive to their skeptical minds. With the rise of the Internet, however, more and more people are “coming out” as nonbelievers. And this heady new group mentality can be tempting….
Okay, before you get all crazy, no I’m not criticizing people for being atheists. When my dear friend and mentor told me he was an atheist (and had been for as long as I’d known him), I was surprised but not offended. This man spent the bulk of his adult life surrounded by pagans and witches and people of all faiths and sizes, yet he is the least judgmental person I have ever known. He respects my beliefs and asks that I respect his. Our friendship is based on mutual trust and shared interests, and is too strong to be shaken by the fact that one of us is a believer and the other is not.
Transcending the Awful
As our world grows steadily smaller, we are going to have to find a way to live together on this planet. People of differing faiths have to work out a strategy for dialogue that promotes civil and respectful cohabitation. This dialogue must also include (and welcome) atheists, agnostics, and the undecided.
There is nothing to be gained on either side by name-calling, baiting, or harassment. People of faith are not stupid, and contrary to a bumper sticker I once saw, April 1 is not National Atheist Day (“because only a fool wouldn’t believe in God.”)
We are all just humans, trying to make sense of the universe around us using whatever tools work best for us. Whether our tool of choice is faith, science, philosophy, or some other esoteric discipline, we are all still heading towards the same goal of basic understanding.
In the end, it doesn’t matter if you’re Catholic or Mormon or Dianic or Druid or Church of the Sub-Genius, nor does it matter if you don’t have an ounce of spiritual/religious faith in your body. What matters is cooperation, mutual respect, and civility between all people.
And whether you’re a follower of Christ, Buddha or Stephen Hawking, you have to admit those are pretty good goals to pursue.