Let’s be honest. Atheists in America have an image crisis.
And by image crisis, I meant that we’re trusted less than rapists.
I’ve written about Christian blogger Benjamin Corey a couple of times in the past. His most recent article, a list of ten ways to be a Christian without being a total &$!# about it, is an attempt to remedy the rather obnoxious public image Christians have cultivated for themselves in America. In a couple of his comments he mentioned that he was hoping one of his atheist blogger friends would write a similar post.
And because I have nothing better to do on a Saturday morning than basket-weave as the sun rises….
Oh wait, I have plenty of things I should be doing. You owe me another beer, Mr. Corey.
To be fair, it’s a valid point. If Christians have a terrible public image in America, atheists aren’t much better. The atheist professor in ‘God’s Not Dead’ is somewhere between a straw man and an SNL caricature, but that stereotype of the elite and bitter atheist has to come from somewhere.
It does. It comes from us. Because we’re not always good examples of what it means to treat people who are different from us with respect and dignity. In fact, we’re bleeding terrible at it sometimes.
So here are ten ways to be an atheist without being a total dick about it. Ten ways I selected because I know that I’m consistently guilty of all of them. There are more. But these are the ten greatest failings of the Irish Atheist.
1. Let’s stop referring to religious people as mentally handicapped or incapacitated.
Because they’re not. The vast majority of theists are not in any way mentally challenged. For every raving lunatic who believes he’s Jesus Christ reborn in Kansas City, there are a hundred educated men and women who are kind, sane, and rational and also religious. Some are casually spiritual, others are deeply devout. Some are extremely educated, and others are eager to plaster their ignorance on Twitter. But they make up 85-90% of the world’s population at a rough guesstimate. So let’s use the minds that 4.5 billion years of evolution gave us and stop smearing all these individuals as mentally handicapped. It does us no favours and makes us look just as petty and vicious as theists are so eager to paint us.
And, more importantly, it’s just not true. Religion is not a mental handicap. It is a complex and extraordinarily varied cultural phenomenon that influences individuals from a young age through the power of social conditioning. Any type of person can be religious – handicapped, brilliant, and everything in between. And frankly, it’s insulting to people who do live with mental handicaps. So seriously, knock it off.
2. Stop inferring that LGBT people can’t be devoutly religious.
They can. I personally don’t know how they do it. I do believe that the LGBT community is currently religion’s favourite and easiest target. But let’s stop insinuating that writers like Ben Moberg, who is gay and Christian and brilliantly well-spoken about it, is somehow ‘sleeping with the enemy.’
I don’t know how Moberg or people like him balance their identity with their religion, but it’s his life, not mine. Challenge ideas, always challenge ideas, but respect that some people are going to have life experiences that you can not identify with and that it’s not always your place to condemn the choices they make based on their experiences.
3. Stop saying that all wars are a result of religion.
They aren’t. Here’s a brief list of things that can start wars: racism, language barriers, economics, greed, nationalism, poor communication skills, they-have-nice-things-and-I-want-them, oppression of rights, assassinating Archduke Ferdinand, cutting off the ear of a man named Jenkins, and a football match. Sometimes, religion is a factor. Sometimes it’s the main factor. Not always. So let’s stop with this whole ‘religion causes all wars’ speech. It’s neither accurate nor cute.
4. In fact, let’s not use historically inaccurate arguments at all.
Remember that meme that’s passed around pretty regularly about Jesus and Horus? The one that claims that Jesus of Nazareth is basically just a carbon copy of a more ancient Egyptian deity? It’s pretty much a load of bullshit, as any reputable Egyptologist could tell you. In fact, most of those memes comparing Jesus to other deities are rubbish.
We’re supposed to be the ones who care about facts and rational arguments. Silly memes that could be refuted by an ancient history undergrad at the University of Omaha don’t help us much.
5. Let’s stop wasting money on silly billboards that poke fun at religions.
We’re not proselytisers. Let’s spend that money on something worthwhile. Like those 10,000 kids that Christians abandoned a couple of weeks ago because gay people.
6. Let’s pick our battles with discretion.
When a young Buddhist boy in a public school is forced to partake in Christianity-affirming projects and is told that he should transfer to a school with more Asians if he doesn’t like it, that’s a battle worth fighting. When a child is put down for his religion in a federally funded place of education, we need to stand up on his behalf. When a girl is forced to leave her private school because she doesn’t look ‘feminine’ enough, we need to speak out and let her know that she has a place to go and people who love her just as she is.
But when a piece of religious art like the 9-11 cross is going to be placed in a museum, is this really something we should be up in arms about? Can you imagine if federally funded museums removed every work of art with a religious message? In the art world, religious artwork is a small niche commonly known as ‘Everything before 1750.’ I don’t think one more cross in a museum is going to threaten my First Amendment rights.
Do we really need to get involved when a grieving mother keeps a cross up for her son on public land? Yes, the land was owned by the public, yes, it was technically a driving hazard. Yes, I suppose it could technically breach the Establishment Clause. But is this really a fight that American Atheists should be involved in? Is this what we want the face of our community to be? Hairsplitting?
There are some battles that need to be fought, and others that could be fought but frankly aren’t worth our time. Let’s focus less on crosses and more on people.
7. Stop saying ‘Tax the churches.’
Separation of church and state goes both ways, and I sure don’t want any church paying into the government I help elect.
8. Let’s stop implying that we’re always right.
Theists constantly stigmatise atheists as ‘privileged elitists,’ and too often we do nothing to counter-act this claim. We’re wrong. A lot. About a lot of things. And we’re really, really bad about admitting that we’re wrong when we are. The conversation between skeptics and the faithful is too often laced with insinuations of intellectual superiority from both sides. Let’s knock it off. Respect each other. Recognise that each individual has a reason for taking the position they do. Find out that reason. Talk about it. Challenge it. Learn about it. Take the role of the searcher. Don’t set yourself up on the pedestal of Dawkins and insist that you’ve found the true answer and everyone below you is too stupid to figure it out.
Also, lay off the petty insults, even when you didn’t take the first shot. This shouldn’t have to be said, but type ‘atheist’ into a twitter search and let the fireworks fly. For myself, I recognise that it’s not necessary to refer to the Christian god as a Bronze Age goat herder’s idol, or to Islam as a paedophile’s misogynistic cult. No matter how satisfying it can be, such things are based in shock value and have no worth in a rational discussion beyond my own self-satisfaction.
We’re known for our doubt and our skepticism. Let’s start being known for our civility as well.
9. Stop assuming that every theist is out to get you.
This one is mainly for me. One of my biggest flaws as a writer and as a responder is that I tend to read everything a theist says in the worst possible light. I’ve had more than one person ask me how I could possibly have inferred such animosity into their statement when to me it seemed blindingly obvious. I had a reaction a few days ago when a writer on Patheos used the word ‘gypped,’ a racial slur against the Roma people (of whom my mother happens to be one). I was so disgusted by his use of this word that I never seriously entertained the thought that he had no idea what it meant. It lead to a very terse interaction between us that left nothing positive in it’s wake. And I’m sure I helped cement in his mind that atheists are often spiteful aggressors who are more interested in fights than dialogue.
10. Start looking past the religious differences.
Theists are the majority in this world, and that’s not going to change in any of our lifetimes. Atheists are often an insular tribe, isolating ourselves from the big bad religious powers-that-be in favour of congratulatory self-affirmations. Let’s break out of our bubbles a bit. Let’s start accepting invitations to attend church. Let’s insist on and enforce a level of civility in our interactions with theists. If we can stop insisting that our theological differences are the defining trait between us, the debate between skepticism and faith will start to matter less and less.
If there is one atheist commandment that we can all agree on, it’s this. Leave the world a better place than it was when you got here, because we only have one chance to visit this planet. Let’s start treating our theist neighbours like actual neighbours and copilots on this trip through the cosmos.
And stop being a %&#! about it.