"I came here to drink milk and kick ass. And I've just finished my milk." - Moss, The IT Crowd

Saturday, April 30, 2011

In other news, atheists STILL not destroying our nation

As an agnostic, I was really happy to read this opinion piece from the Washington Post. I don't want to dissuade anyone from their personal religious beliefs, if they get strength and comfort from them; I just want respect for my right not to worship God and not to be pressured to participate in public expression of belief in God. I'm not uncomfortable being around people who are praying, or holding hands with others while they say grace, or listening to other people talk about how important religious faith is in their lives. In return for respecting their religious observance, I want respect for my choice not to bow my head and close my eyes in an indication of obeisance to a God whom I do not worship; for my choice not to attend church services which profess beliefs contrary to my own; for my refusal to invoke a God whom I do not worship for my wedding ceremony; for my repudiation of the notion that strictures based primarily on religion (e.g., against homosexual behavior and abortion) should be codified in secular law; and for my willingness to talk about my personal beliefs.

When you are a non-believer, it feels like a slap in the face every time you are expected to invoke God as proof of your serious and true intent. It infuriates me that the oaths (e.g., the Pledge of Allegiance, the Oath of Allegiance, and the various oaths of office) used in ceremonies by the institutions of my government, which most certainly collects taxes from all citizens regardless of whether they believe in God, routinely appeal to a deity whom I and other agnostics and atheists do not worship. Including "So help me God" and similar references in the standard language of these oaths posits religious belief as the societal norm, and acts to privilege religious belief over non-belief in a way that is inappropriate for a secular government which espouses equal rights for all its citizens, believers and non-believers alike. Removing religious references from the language of our government's processes in no way infringes the right of theists to exercise their respective religions freely -- they are at liberty in their own lives to appeal to their deity or deities of choice however they like. Those of us who have no such beliefs, however, should not be required to make special changes to the language of our own government's oaths in order to participate in these basic secular processes in good conscience.

In my personal case, my refusal to make these types of appeals to a deity does not stem simply, or even primarily, from a desire to make the point that I am a non-believer. I think it is immensely disrespectful to everyone who truly does believe in God for me, as a non-believer, to offer prayers to a deity when I doubt that deity's existence, and to invoke that deity as a means of solemnizing oaths. It would not only make a mockery of true believers, it would make a mockery of God if such a being exists. It makes a mockery of religion for me to conduct an outward show of it when I do not believe in the sanctity of those gestures. I do not have religious faith, but I respect the sincere religious belief of others, and I will not mock it by pretending to share it when I do not. I would rather be damned in the eyes of believers, and in the eyes of any God that may exist, as a non-believer than as a hypocrite. Further, I think that any God who might exist and actually be worthy of worship would find false professions of faith infinitely more offensive than the sincere expression of doubt or unbelief.

I find it incredibly frustrating that so many Christians (I call out Christians specifically here because Christianity is the dominant religion of the United States) believe that a lack of belief in God translates into a lack of personal morality and the lack of an ethical belief system.  Firstly, the facts do not bear that out -- see the Washington Post piece linked above. Secondly, I think it says nothing good about a person's character if the main reason why they value compassion and justice is that they fear some invisible being is going to punish them after they die if they misbehave. Call me crazy, but I don't believe I have to follow some other person's interpretation of what God wants, when I have no way to prove that God's existence or to validate that person's interpretation, in order to behave compassionately and ethically towards my fellow human beings. We are all fellow travelers in our brief voyage on this planet, and being cruel and deceitful towards other human beings, treating them like puppets to be used for my amusement and enrichment, damages me as surely (if not as severely) as it damages them.

It also frustrates me profoundly when Christians assume that I, and other non-believers, denigrate Jesus and oppose his teachings in their entirety. While I do not share all of Jesus' beliefs, I admire him deeply for his emphasis on mercycharityhumilityhealing the sick, and honoring the powerless, and above all for his condemnation of hypocrisy and insistence on speaking truth to power no matter the personal cost. Many of the non-believers I know who have read the Gospels feel the same way.

If you think that perhaps I'm overstating the prejudice some Christians have towards non-believers, I assure you that I am not. There is nothing like growing up in a semi-rural area in the Bible Belt to make you deeply aware of the misconceptions many fundamentalist Christians share about non-believers, and the profoundly un-Christian ways in which they often behave towards those who openly do not share their faith. And there's nothing like proximity to large numbers of loudly self-proclaimed Christians to make it clear why Jesus commanded his followers to pray privately unlike the hypocrites who make a point of praying where they can be seen and commended for their righteousness. A love of public sanctimony in the name of religion seems to be a hallmark of false prophets.

I know that non-believers are often perceived as being angry and strident when we speak about our convictions. Unfortunately, part of the reason for that is that we ARE angry. Greta Christina sums up many of the reasons why in her essay "Atheists and Anger." We're not indiscriminately angry at all theists or all religious expression in the public sphere: we're angry at theists who treat us unfairly because of our non-belief and who propagate misconceptions about our character, and at government funds and institutions being used to promote religious agendas and to endorse religious belief as the social norm.

To conclude this essay, I want to note that I know Christians and other devout individuals who are sincere and lovely people, and treat me and other non-believers with love, fairness, and respect. If they choose to pray for me or are concerned about the well-being of my soul, I appreciate their affection and thoughtfulness. These are not the type of believers who drive people to write essays like this one.

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