Agnosticism Without Pain

Slate (reprinting from the Financial Times) has a story on how difficult it is to be an atheist in the United States. I read the piece with the same attitude that I have regarding most pieces about how difficult it is to be atheist/agnostic in the US, which is with a mild sense of dissonance. I have been the sort of agnostic that shorthands into “atheist” for all of my thinking life, and I haven’t made any secret of my lack of faith. The negative consequences for such a lifestyle choice, so far, at least, have been pretty minimal and indeed close to non-existent. I’m not saying other agnostics and atheists have not suffered negative consequences for their lack of belief; I’m sure they have. What I’m saying is that I haven’t, and it’s mildly curious to me why I have not.

Naturally, I have theories.

The first and most obvious: I am white, male, heterosexually paired, educated and financially well-off — i.e., the advantages I have are substantial and immediately apparent in our culture, so that even if being agnostic somehow offers a disadvantage, it’s swamped out by other factors. I have privilege in ridiculous amounts and I know it.

Second, neither in my social nor in my work life is being an agnostic a penalty. I write for a living; the writing I do is consumed by a class of people (science fiction and fantasy readers) who generally are not only not scandalized by my agnosticism, but might be mildly surprised if I did have strong religious beliefs. Likewise, my social peers are currently other writers and people who tend toward professions where a lack of strong religious belief is not a problem (science and tech-related fields, with some overlap in creative professions). So again, my lack of faith is really not a penalty.

(One interesting wrinkle on this: I live in a rural, conservative community and have for more than a decade. Rural conservative communities are just the sort of place where atheists and agnostics aren’t supposed to fit in. But in eleven years living here I can’t remember it ever being an issue. I suspect one reason for this is that many of folks here are from churches which have an active policy of tolerance and an emphasis on one’s good works. I suspect that another reason is that people here know I’m a writer and just assume writers are odd ducks anyway.)

Third, as far as being agnostic goes, while I’m perfectly open about it, I’m not aggressively so, nor am I generally antagonistic toward the concept of faith. I’m perfectly happy for others to have faith, and generally speaking I don’t take offense at the display of faith around me, or stand against it so long as that expression of faith does not encroach on my own rights and prerogatives. If having faith and/or being religious gives you joy, then have it and be it; for myself, I’ll pass, thanks. I think it also helps that, from my own personal interest, I know a fair amount about a number of faiths and can speak with at least passing knowledge about them (and am often curious about the things I don’t know). People with faith assume those without it have no knowledge, interest or respect for faith. If you let them know you do, in my experience a lot of suspicion goes away.

Fourth, I’ve been lucky. I grew up without a religious background, so I didn’t have to rebel against it. My education was at schools that actively encouraged pluralism and tolerance for faith, including the absence of faith — I was on my high school’s “Faith Gang” as a representative of secular humanism, for example. I’ve gotten through life largely surrounded by tolerant people, both of faith and without it, which allowed me to develop my own views on faith without undue defensiveness or division. Not everyone has that.

Add it all up and you get an agnostic experience without ostracism or penalty, at least so far. I am led to believe that my lack of faith will keep me from being President of the United States, but inasmuch as that’s not actually a life goal for me (and Krissy wouldn’t let me anyway), this is not a huge setback. Otherwise, essentially, it’s not been a problem for me. I wish others who choose not to believe were as fortunate as I have been.

169 thoughts on “Agnosticism Without Pain

  1. Just to get ahead of the inevitable tea reading regarding my labeling my lack of belief as “agnosticism” rather than “atheism”: Please be assured that I know the inside of my head better than you, have thought about my position a great deal, am not stupid, and choose to label myself “agnostic” for good reasons. Telling me that I’m really [insert your favorite sub-species of non-believer] is going to offend me because it implicitly assumes you know more about my position than I do. You don’t. Please don’t agnostisplain at me. I thank you in advance for skipping this particular tiresome discussion.

  2. Damn (or the secular equivalent), you said it well, sir. Agree with you entirely. I do hope for the day that running for POTUS does not have a faith test, but I guess one thing at a time. After the scandal of same sex marriage dies out through … dying out, we (or one of my descendants) will see what the future holds.

  3. Hmm. As someone with experience with “secular humanism”, then, perhaps you could answer a question I’ve been noodling recently (not having had a lot of experience with humanism, myself):

    Is “Humanism”, per se, necessarily atheistic, agnostic or secular in nature, as a philosophy? Can you be spiritualistic, theistic, or religious and at the same time claim to be a humanist?

    I ask simply because I’m trying to better understand my own beliefs right now, and I think doing that means better understanding other belief and non-belief systems.

  4. Hmm. I have a lot of overlap with your list of privileges (except for being male–I never quite get to that Y chromosome) and I’m a filmmaker and writer. But I’ve been shunned, patronized, told I’m going to hell, nearly slapped, and fired over being a non-believer. I suspect that’s due to being from an intensely (though very nice!) Irish-Catholic family and attending Catholic high school. The Catholic high school wasn’t my idea.

    And yet I still want to spank atheists who deride and denigrate people with faith. It’s the same thing in reverse.

  5. Interesting. Very briefly: I did grow up in a mildly religious household (conservative and later reform Jewish), was motivated to seek a degree in religious education, came to the conclusion that it was all bollocks while getting that education. Had to deal directly with faith-based discrimination during school and into my young-adult life (even to the point of arguing with an Army recruiting Sgt over leaving the “faith” portion of an application empty) and am generally very intolerant of expressions of faith. I feel that those who have it ought to be ashamed of it and should therefore be keeping it as quiet and private as possible. I’m sick of the undeserved and unfounded influence it has on the society I live in (just one GOP debate ought to be enough to illustrate that) and believe that there’s a fairly high probability that the answer to Fermi’s Paradox is because we’re still mired in it across the globe – a clear indication that the species still has a long way to go before it will be admitted to the League of All Worlds or whatever else they’re calling it these days.

  6. I’m an atheist myself. It hasn’t caused me any real problems, but there are definitely people I don’t mention it around, just to avoid having a big discussion that I know won’t lead anywhere. On the other hand, I have very good Christian friends who aren’t bothered in the least by my atheism. I’ve even been to a few bible studies with them to learn about what they believe. Some atheists would say that it’s good to learn about religions because you should know your enemies, but it’s better if you can think of it as getting to know your friends.

  7. “Atheist” may simply be a rather loaded term. I assume that for those that are being polled, the word “atheist” implies a militant anti-religious individual, rather than someone who is simply not religious.

  8. Stephen A. Watkins, the evidence is already in the term, “secular humanism”–originally coined to differentiate it from the original, theistic humanism. Wikipedia has some decent summaries.

  9. I think Penn Jillette’s take on agnostic vs atheist is useful:
    Agnosticism and Atheism answer different questions:
    Is there a God? I don’t know (Agnostic)
    Do you believe there is a God? No (Atheist)

  10. My way of describing it to the faithful is this, “I had faith, then I lost it. I worked hard to get it back, and then I lost it again, so I’ve come to the conclusion that I should not be trusted with faith, because I clearly don’t know how to take care of it.”

  11. In my (deeply religious and conservative) area being a heathen unbeliever makes one a stranger in a strange land, regardless of whether my personal faith (or lack thereof) is brought up. I don’t talk to /everyone/, but I’ve certainly heard animus towards atheists and agnostics, as well as ignorance as to why we believe the way we do, including that we hate the Christian god or are angry at same, and at least once that physical violence was acceptable towards someone who says their god doesn’t exist.

    I think a lot of it is that people here were brought up to be religious, were always surrounded by people who were religious (and mostly Protestant), and never had cause to learn about unbelievers, and so scramble through their experiences, not knowing what to make of us, instinctively distrusting (and fearing, in some cases) the Other.

  12. My wife an I usually fall into the “Believe whatever you want to believe in, just leave us the hell out of your crusades.” type of people.

    Having said that, I fall into agnostic-atheist realm as well. And I’m still pleasant to the door step word spreaders. It makes them happy usually. Why should I cause them or myself to have a bad mood over it :)

  13. Also my family and in-laws don’t get it either; some of them are convinced I’m bound for hell, others are worried about my kid not being baptized/christened/brought up in church (believing that I’m condemning her to hell), others are just uncomfortable with the whole thing and don’t bring it up.

    Big cultural differences between the urban West Coast and the rural midwest/northern South, oh yes.

  14. I had a similar reaction after reading that article a few days ago. I’m an atheist, and would say so if asked, but it just doesn’t seem to come up that often in daily life. At least not in any way that would have a real negative impact on my life. I lived in central Florida a few years ago and it only came up once outside my circle of friends and classmates. My apartment building had a laundry room, where I was moving clothes into the dryer. An older woman came in and made some brief small talk. After a few minutes of silence, she stopped her folding and asked very sincerely, “Do you know where you’re going to go when you die?” I said, “Probably the morgue.” She followed with a short statement on Jesus and salvation. I said, not condescendingly, “Well, you enjoy that.” I bid her a good evening and left.

    Any other discussion of religion/faith in my life has been with people I already know well enough that I don’t have any fear in making my beliefs known.

  15. Glad you’re not being persecuted for non-belief, John! As a Christian, I am feeling more and more on the outs these days thanks to media secularists who classify me as a low-grade moron for believing in God. I don’t believe science and religion are mutually exclusive…when did that happen? It’s okay to believe in Evolution, that the Earth is 4.6 billion years old, and in God all at the same time.

  16. This has been on my mind lately, as a couple of acquaintances (both uncommonly kind, bright, and hardworking) on this blue-island-in-a-red-state, have been pretty loud and proud about atheism lately in their Facebook feeds. Most of my friends avow that they have no use whatsoever for organized religion.

    I cannot really explain it, but I’ve always believed in the existence of an entity-I-cannot-hope-to-understand, and it doesn’t offend my grasp on rationality to call that entity God. Perhaps my grasp on rationality is nodding to pragmatism on that point.

    On the other hand, I find the doctrine of grace to be deeply irrational and offensive — and that sentiment came into being along with my faith-as-such. More to the point, I suspect that folks’ belief in that doctrine, and its popularity in the States, lies at the heart of the questions posed by the OP.

    Meanwhile, I consider myself awfully lucky. Religious scholarship has informed my morals and buttressed the coping mechanisms that come in handy when I start to slip… but at no time have I ever condoned the proposition that atheism and immorality are inextricable. The examples set for me when I needed them were nearly unanimous in their resolution that life is a question of choices, regardless of how much faith one needs in order to make them well.

    As much to the point, I wonder why so many people do equate atheism with immorality, by inference if nothing else.

  17. Another article in the fine tradition of “a modern journalist takes a strange voyage to the exotic and backwards land of traditional America”. America is more than the Bible belt and small towns. I grew up in the South, so I know a little bit about that.

    I fled. Now, I live happily ensconced in the upper class bubble, recently popularized by Charles Murray’s new book as a “SuperZip”. Being an atheist here is hardly uncommon and no social handicap at all, so far as I can tell. The discussion of religion here is sotto voce, and mostly in purely operative terms. I.e., you can talk about that you go to church or that you did things related to it, but you do not talk about God, your faith, and most particularly you never, ever, tell anyone else what they should believe.

  18. I am a little surprised you don’t get more flak given where you live, but I suspect that the small-town dynamic of “they’re good folks, it’s none of our business” that one sometimes finds is at work here.

  19. I wonder if there’s a correlation between levels of believers’ anger with atheists broken out by gender. I mean, most of the atheists/non-believers I know who are vocal about it are men. Just anecdotally, a lot of women aren’t. I mean, churches of all stripes are weird about women and women’s bodies–it wouldn’t be a far leap to be weird about women’s rejection of faith.

  20. @David, that happened when the vocal xians started pushing harder and harder for more anti-science and pro-religion. I know a large number of people who believe in god and who are also scientists. They are clearly not morons. But the marching morons are also the loudest.

  21. Yes, in my daily life (at a science lab, living in a city) I am not persecuted for atheism. However, to me the really troubling point from that article is that in all of history, there has been ONE openly atheist elected official in ALL of Congress.

  22. Between being adopted quite young (by my single mom’s married sister, just to confuse those computerized family-tree generators), and my adopted mom’s subsequent divorce and remarriage, there’s a fair bit of religious variety just in my parenting. They took the smart approach, exposed me to as many kinds of religious experiences as possible but left me to choose for myself.

    On the rare occasion I’m asked about my beliefs, if I’m feeling generous I’ll say that I’m not a member of any church, but if forced to put a label on what I believe, I’m probably closer to Unitarian than anything else, with a fair bit of Jewish influence from growing up in New York (plus my adopted father was “ultra-reformed” Jewish). Or else I’ll tell them yes, I believe in a god (or divine force, or even just an orderliness to the universe) that doesn’t necessarily match their own image. I guess I’m somewhere between an agnostic and a pantheist.

  23. @Caladan: that’s actually a misrepresentation (By Penn as well). If you do not want to fall into the discussion of what exactly belief means, you don’t “believe there is no God”. You accept the probabilistic findings that A: the chances of such a being existing are so vanishingly small as to be almost effectively zero and the finding that so far, everything we’ve learned about the universe we inhabit does not require a supernatural being to exist or operate, and finally, the evidence for interaction with our everyday lives is simply not there. Spaghetti Monster and all, you know.

  24. Your third point is, I think, a big reason why some people find it hard to be an atheist. It’s not their philosophical stance, it’s that they’re militant and rude about it. Hey, guess what? If you tell people you think they’re silly, muddled-headed fools who are too weak to do without their belief, they won’t like you! Proselytizing atheists tend to run into all of the negatives that people who claim to have ultimate truth do, plus they tend to be insulting about it to boot. Such people don’t get any sympathy from me. Believe what you want about the nature of reality, but have the tolerance and good manners to allow other to do the same.

    The irony? If the atheists are right, it doesn’t matter. We’re all just bits of material anyway and that’s all. There’s no purpose, no larger end result. In that view, I can’t see how it matters in the least whether others believe or not. In contrast, when a religious person tries to convert someone they at least believe that it does matter… that one has a soul that will be damned if the person doesn’t believe (and yes, I’m just talking Christians here for the moment).

  25. I was a mostly stealth atheist as a teenager, living in eastern North Carolina. Came out a little bit in college (still in NC, but in a college town, so I wasn’t totally alone in my view). I have been open about my beliefs (or lack thereof) since I moved to California — but living on the west coast, I’ve only been asked twice in 11 years if I’ve accepted Jesus Christ as my personal savior, while that was a weekly (if not daily) occurrence in the south.

  26. I spent most of my life describing myself much as you do, and only switched to “atheist” over the past few years, primarily due to the increase in fundamental Christianity, in the country and my own family. (Contrarian, much? Well, maybe a little.) I have actually received relatively little flack over this.

    I wonder if my military experience would be different today than it was in the early 1980’s, however. I have heard things that indicate that the Army is not as secular today as it was then.

  27. It cuts both ways. In intellectual circles, being a Christian is often derided, and people sometimes take the worst known qualities Christians can have (evangelical homophobe, catholic priest child molester, TV preacher snake oil salesman, neocon middle-eastern country invader, etc), and assume you’ve given your implicit OK to all that behavior. Uh… no. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten the “Oh, you’re a Christian, well how do you feel about ?”. Hey man, Stalin was an Atheist but I don’t blame you for the mass murder of several central-asian ethnic groups!

    Anyway, I appreciate your link to a group like the Brethrens as a counterweight to my above listed stereotypes. There are a lot of churches that are heavily involved in good works and not at all involved in politics, and are unfortunately largely invisible to the rest of the country.

  28. Yeah, wife and I fall into pretty much the same privilege/work environment and even live in a rural community. Biggest thing we have to deal with is schooling daughter (11) to no call other people’s beliefs “myths”. Despite active memberships in many community groups, no one’s ever even asked us what church we attend or anything like that, much less cast aspersions on us. I guess it has to do with going through life being polite and friendly with folk.

  29. I’m a middle class, white woman who has lived her entire adult life in big cities working for newspapers. My extended family is largely some sort of generic christian but short of an occasional inquiry about why I’m an atheist, it’s basically a non-issue.

    I had a little more trouble as a very awkward child growing up in NH. I didn’t stand for the pledge both because it had god in it and because I don’t believe in promising loyalty blindly. I think I live in a great country but I also believe that I could be happy in other countries and that I can change my opinion of my own country if I see fit to do so. I got taunted a bit for being a “communist satanist” for feeling this way but since I was already lacking in popularity, it wasn’t really putting me out too much.

  30. I generally call myself a “cheerful atheist.” I don’t care if other people are religious, as long as they don’t get any on me, and I don’t hate religion, any more than I hate, say, professional hockey — it’s just not my fandom.

  31. I’ve never had the slightest trouble about my atheism either; but I’m not a militant atheist, (militant atheism is a position I consider deeply ridiculous and just plain stupid).

    I wish we -did- have souls and an afterlife; I just don’t think the evidence supports the hypothesis. I don’t hate religion, I don’t try to convert people, and I don’t think religious people are stupid. We just have a diference of opinion. i’m not horrified by a creche scene or people in court swearing on the Bible. I don’t think I have a right to try and force people to behave in public as if they were secularists.

    I’m not an atheist who’s angry at God, in short.

    Note: the US is a “Christian country” in the sense that the overwhelming majority of the population are practicing Christians, and this is unlikely to ever change.

    Furthermore, the “establishment” clause of the Constitution does not make the government secular, and was not intended to do so — the first Congress had an official (and paid) chaplain.

    It was just intended to make the (federal) government -non-denominational-. That is to say, not to take sides between different (Christian) denominations. At the time, many States had official churches and the Constitution didn’t affect that one iota.

    Throughout most of its history, the US government has publicly endorsed a sort of vague tepid nondenominational Christianity in public and that’s almost certainly exactly what the people who wrote it intended. Several Presidents called for national days of prayer, for instance. (Lincoln was one of them, IIRC.)

    Nearly everyone at the time (including the numerous deists among the Founding Fathers) thought that religion was absolutely essential to a functioning society. Washington was almost certainly a deist (18th-century equivalent of an agnostic), for example, but he attended Anglican/Episcopalian services all his life — because he considered it a public duty to set a good example.

    (I go to Anglican services occasionally myself, and will be buried according to its rites; it’s a gesture of solidarity with my family/ancestors/people and of respect for their traditions.)

    Furthermore, note that the Constitution binds the -government-. Private citizens are perfectly free to impose any religious test they damned well please, and nobody has any right to stop them. Other people only just barely have a right to an -opinion- about their doing so.

    Atheists who try to act as if Christians were a barely-tolerated minorty who can be excluded from the public sphere DO run into trouble in the US, and they deserve every bit of it. I have no sympathy for them and will give them no comfort or assistance when the rightly aggrieved majority defunds their favorite cause or whatever.

    My advice to other atheists would be to do what I do — smile and nod, and be politely respectful of religious practice. If you get into someone’s face, they’re going to get into yours.

  32. I think I took more abuse from strangers in my 25 years as a Catholic than I have in the subsequent 15 years as an agnostic. Which is not really very much at all, but more than zero. I’d say it depends a lot on the cultural environment you inhabit, but as our host proves, that environment doesn’t always react in the way you’d predict.

  33. rickg, there’s only one real problem with that position. It’s fine to be tolerant of things that don’t matter: What color shirt should you wear today?

    Tolerating belief systems that run counter to reality and which are used as political bases to affect the law of the land – that’s a different story.

    One of the reasons folks have been so ‘shocked’ over the past several years by authors like Dawkins and Dennet & Hitchins is that they’ve stopped accepting the religiously-based argument that we should be tolerant or simply leave well enough alone.

    I’ve chosen personally, not to wander door to door with pamphlets in hand. Instead, I’ve chosen to confront the issue as it arises in my daily life, by simply no longer tolerating the faith-based assumption that you can believe whatever you want about the world and how it operates without being questioned and without suspicion being cast on your thinking processes.

    I don’t approach this in an initially antagonistic way (but it sure turns out that way once the other side realizes that they’re not getting any passes just because they believe in “god”). One example. A couple of gentlemen sitting one row in front of me on an airplane were crowing over having finally managed to raise the funds for building a multi-million dollar church, all for the glory & etc. But when asked why they hadn’t raised that money to actually do some of the things their Church supposedly recommended (after all, God is everywhere and you don’t need an auditorium to pray). Well, let’s put it this way: my way of looking at things was unacceptable.

    Religion (organized religion) has gotten far too much of a pass over the past couple of hundred years. It’s really only now that the threat of being burned at the stake for heresy has been greatly minimized that folks are really beginning to hear that their belief system is not sacrosanct, (Catholic Church, abuse of children; same kind of things from the Ultra-Orthodox in Israel): how much more is being hidden behind the skirts and the generally accepted concept that you just don’t question those kinds of things? A lot is my bet.

  34. I have never encountered a “militant” or “proselytizing” atheist. There are people who when pushed about believing in someone else’s particular system of ontological metaphors, push back. Though even then, this only seems to happen online.

  35. @Crothyolffan

    I agree, but as a short hand it’s useful in explaining the primary difference between the two.
    Personally, I’m a hard atheist. I don’t believe in a god and see no evidence in favor of one. But if you’re going to be intellectually honest, the existence of of a god can not be 100% ruled out. But 99.9999999% certainty is fine by me.

  36. Leonard said “you never, ever, tell anyone else what they should believe”

    As a Christian living in a purple island in a red sea in the South I wholeheartedly agree with this idea. Christians aren’t called to dictate faith to others, we’re called to tell a story about our own faith. How we do that and at what times to what people is highly debated, but I do get upset by how many Christians seem to think that everyone should believe what we believe. And don’t get me started on the theocracy so many seem to want.

  37. Alex von Thorn – if you would like to meet militant, proselytizing atheists, many of them live on Reddit. They boast 475,851 members as of today. They are certainly not 100% militant, but many are and that is their support group.

    http://www.reddit.com/r/atheism

  38. @crotchetyoldfan: Actually, butting into other people’s conversations and demanding that they justify their belief systems even when they are not forcing them on you (either immediately or through politics), or even asking for your approval of them, is pretty much the definition of antagonistic. As you’ve said, you find religious faith abhorrent, therefore you choose to actively stomp on it wherever it presents itself, though I guess actually going out and looking for it is too much effort. How is that anything but antagonistic? What do you believe it will accomplish, other than to make you feel pleased that you made someone uncomfortable? “Hey, thanks for butting into my life and telling me I’m stupid and you hate my beliefs! I will certainly rethink them!” I dunno about you, but that’s not something I find compelling when evangelicals try it on me.

  39. “Tolerating belief systems that run counter to reality and which are used as political bases to affect the law of the land – that’s a different story.”

    But that’s the same story about just about everyone’s belief systems.

    Refusing to “tolerate” a belief system because (a) you don’t believe it (saying that a belief “runs counter to reality” is only another way of saying “I don’t buy it”) and (b) because the people who believe it want to act, even in public (gasp!) according to its logical consequences, is…. well, I guess I’d just call it “intolerant.”

  40. In my experience, religious people react much differently to “agnostic” than “atheist.” Maybe because agnostic implies you haven’t quite rejected their god, it doesn’t seem to threaten them as much.

    Growing up in a largely Hispanic, lower middle class, Catholic neighborhood, I learned early on that being a self-professed atheist was akin to being a torturer of cute kittens and devourer of babies. Now, if asked, I’m honest about my lack of religion. Be even so, I still find that some people recoil if I get brave and say “atheist.”

    As a rule, I practice a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to my atheism. Especially, since I work for a Christian church. It’s a part of a progressive denomination, but still, I don’t think most of the sweet little old church ladies would like me as much if they knew I was a dirty-A-word.

  41. My husband is pretty open about his atheism. We live in a small southern town, and he works in a nearby small southern town. Rarely, if ever , has he had any kind of negative reaction when he answers questions about his faith (or lack thereof) – and this *is* small town Southeastern USA, so people are *always* asking.

    I have my own set of beliefs – quite different from his – and I’m often on the receiving end of questions such as “How can you be married to that?” or “Don’t you know your husband is going to Hell!?!”. There are also acquaintances of ours that really believe I am failing in my wifely duty to save his soul.
    I try to deal with it in way that conveys both respect and an attitude of “this is none of your damn business”. Sometimes I succeed more than others.
    I’d be curious if partners/spouses/S.O.s of atheists/agnostics have had similar experiences.

  42. @P. Kirby: I suspect that has to do with the stereotype that atheists are angry, shouty religion-haters who want to make it illegal for your kid to say grace over her peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich. Yes, it’s a dumb stereotype, but that’s likely what those people are triggering on.

  43. Mean spirited words and deeds are never going to convert those who are on the opposite side of the theological fence.

    My mother’s family is Catholic. My father’s family is technically nondenominational but is very similar to Southern Baptist. I went to a Catholic grade school and a Church of God high school. For a very long time I struggled with what I experienced. Each denomination was failing to put into action what it was preaching. I read, studied, prayed, meditated, pondered, and reflected. I believe what I believe because it is my conclusion. My faith is my own. I practice what I believe. I accept others may believe differently and I treat them with the respect and dignity I would want if our roles were reversed. I am often shunned by “Christians” because I disagree with many of their practices and politics. Occasionally I am ridiculed by Atheists for being weak minded and needing a crutch. I find my life to be more fulfilling with my faith, but just because I have faith doesn’t give me the right to persecute you for your life’s choices.

    Let me say that if you were caused pain by a Christian who disagreed with your faith or lack there of, I am sorry. I apologize on their behalf, please do not lump all Christians into a fundamental conservative bat-shit crazy mindless covey. Some of us are intelligent caring people who are embarrassed by those who share our label.

  44. Perfect. I completely agree. Worship what you want how you want, that’s cool. That’s America. Just keep it to your own area and leave me be and I’ll do the same with you. Cool? Cool.

  45. I grew up Baptist in Alabama. Realized around 13 I didn’t believe what most of my family did (neither did my dad, I came to find out a few years later, and he noticed it in me but wanted to let me come to such choices myself) Then when I was 14 I got very lucky and was able to take a trip to South Korea with my martial arts instructor and some other students, to stay and training in a Buddhist temple on Jeju island that was ran by a childhood friend of my instructor. While living and learning with the monks a profound respect for them and their beliefs grew within me. As such, I self-identify as a Buddhist for shorthand in most of these religious talks, and have openly since I gave it a lot of thought once I got back home. The long version would be a non-religious Buddhist. Or Buddhist-Agnostic. As for me Buddhist is a set of philosophys meant to act as a lens to how one views the world(one that science actively backs up for the most part). For others I acknowledge that is can be a true to form religion, but personally (and with all respect to anyone who thinks that way) I feel that sort of nailing down the finer points and getting dogmatic over it is exactly what Buddha said to not do.

    But anyway, in the 13 years since that trip I have only had two people really get in my face about my beliefs or my lack of beliefs. I have had many talks with people over the years, but I’ve found in when calmly explain myself to them, even if they began heated, then the talk really turns out smoothly. One of my friends maintains that he shouldn’t have to explain what he thinks to others, they should just accept him, and that is their failing not his. But there are a lot of “should bes” in the world, with regards to how we think it should work. And we can’t affect how another person thinks or behaves, all we can do is affect ourselves.

    Bah, I get far too rambler on this subject. Apologies to anyone having a “Too Long; Didn’t Read” reaction^^

  46. Marcia is a Quaker with strong Buddhist leanings, but not a believer in any traditional deity. We have frequent discussions about the value of religion, but don’t differ much about its truth. Since I’m determinedly non-spiritual, I take the line that false belief, however useful, is a Bad Thing. She doesn’t agree.

  47. The only time I was asked to join a church function is when I lived in Alabama during and right after college. Even then, after I didn’t go to anymore functions, no one bothered me about my having a religion, or not.

    I do believe whichever area of the country you live in matters as to how you’re treated by various religions. Even in the realm of the same religion, but different regions of the country. I grew up as a Jehovah’s Witness, still believe in it, but do not attend. It is in that religion where I noticed the different treatment in the different regions. Texas is not so good for it.

  48. If you sincerely believe that people who fail to comply with god’s wishes will burn in hell for eternity, it is cowardly and displays a lack of faith to NOT attempt fairly strenuously to convert them to your religion. Anyone who professes to be Christian and does not attempt to convert you either doesn’t take their beliefs seriously, or hates you personally so much that they are willing to sentence you to eternal torture rather than be mildly inconvenienced.

    Conversely, if you believe that religion is a corrosive, mind-destroying cancerous meme that does real, significant, long-lasting harm, not just to the people who believe it, but to the entire planet and every living thing on it, then “tolerance” and “respect for diversity” actually have strong negative utility. For an atheist, choosing not to publicly oppose religion and work toward its eradication is an act of cowardice.

  49. It seemed to me that the article was actually excluding agnostics, casual unbelievers, and even “in the closet” atheists from its consideration, and was thus selecting for the kind of atheists who often tend to be belligerently evangelical about it. And life is tough for belligerent evangelicals no matter what their belief is.

  50. @crotchety

    ” there’s only one real problem with that position. It’s fine to be tolerant of things that don’t matter:…Tolerating belief systems that run counter to reality…”

    “I’ve chosen personally, not to wander door to door with pamphlets in hand. Instead, I’ve chosen to confront the issue as it arises in my daily life, by simply no longer tolerating the faith-based assumption that you can believe whatever you want about the world and how it operates without being questioned and without suspicion being cast on your thinking processes.”

    Yeah, you’re the sort who will antagonize people, then complain they’re antagonized. The first quote shows that you arrogantly assume that you KNOW the nature of reality. Second quote? Well,, you seem to question people in an insulting manner and assume you’re their intellectual superior. Guess what? Doing those will rankle some people. You don’t get to piss people off, then complain that they’re pissed off.

    I agree with you that private religious beliefs shouldn’t be the basis of public policy. In controversial ethical issues you’ll find me arguing for maximum personal choice and liberty. But I expect that from everyone. Atheists who sneer at others and treat them as inferiors don’t get a pass and certainly don’t get any sympathy from me when they have to deal with the results of their attitude.

  51. Greg, please don’t speak for Christians other than yourselfs. Many Christians believe that the best way to convert others is to live by example and let others come to them. To claim they they don’t take their faith seriously because they disagree with your methods of encouraging conversion is great arrogance.

  52. I think it is a good idea to look at the benefits of religion often like other forms of privilege like white, male, rich, etc. People will think you more moral. The orthodox are generally considered to have more integrity. If you commit a crime and express a religious guilt and redemption story you will be more likely to receive a lesser sentence or parole. You can be elected to high public office and be fairly forward about your religious beliefs. Your religious beliefs will generally be given higher status than non-religious beliefs. Faith is to be praised. (For an atheist all of their beliefs are acceptable to attack because there is no religious exemption.) If you go “and God Bless America” most people will have more favorable feeling towards you and, more importantly, your message.

    It is okay to be the Village atheist as long as you aren’t to loud about it. Questioning some one’s religious beliefs is poor etiquette, but proselytizing religion is allowed.

    Further, Religion in the US most often limits liberties to the non-religious by forcing them to live by that creed, then persecuting them for some other creed. Looking at Reproductive rights, Evolution, Homosexuality, Liquor laws in many states, provide many examples. Are you persecuted for being an atheist no, but you must live like a religious person.

    Likewise try being that person who come out against prayer in schools. The seething animosity can be quite something.

    Often, if one is acceptable in so many other ways, the lapse of being an atheist can be overlooked. Especially if one isn’t being uppity about it. But don’t mistake that for anything like acceptance of atheism.

  53. I tell people I’m beyond belief.

    I grew up in a mildly Jewish household, that suddenly got more religion when my little sister reached school age (she was the only one of the three of us to be bar/bat miztvahed) -> Growth of cynicism.
    I went to a Jewish summer camp, where we prayed twice daily (to services we wrote and conducted ourselves, with lots of rock music). That sort of thing was frowned on when I returned -> Mastery of cynicism.

    I’m married to a wonderful woman with a pretty strong faith in a non-personal God. She belongs to a great UCC congregation that if I posessed any faith, I’d probably be active in. I see faith as something I _lack_, I’m not talking about faith in the big man in the sky who cares about what I do, I’m talking about the faith that the institution provides a community of happy people and that those people are better for their belief in a big man in the sky etc. It’s not quite to the point of envy, but it’s very interesting that they’ve got something there.

  54. Funny enough I was actually reading on wikipedia today what being agnostic means because considering my own views towards God and Christianity in particular I have been wondering if I fall into this category. I am still very unclear of where I stand of course, having grown up in a religious family/community but it’s nice to have a better understanding of what being an agnostic means. Thanks for your post!

  55. Matthew, please don’t accuse me of being a Christian. Out of respect for the host of this venue, I will refrain from expressing my opinion of Christianity. But I think you can guess.

  56. Indeed, Christianity mandates conversion of nonbelievers. I’m not aware that it mandates how a Christian is supposed to convert others. Lecturing, handing out pamphlets, butting into others’ conversations and “but aren’t you going to HELL?!” may actually drive people away from the faith, so why on earth would it make sense for a Christian to do those things?

    Certainly it may be easier, or more personally satisfying, to lecture and harass than to make the effort to live by example. Living by example is hard, Barbie, and it certainly lacks that smug frisson of getting to tell other people just how much smarter you are and better you are than they. But I guess that’s what we all need to ask ourselves: do I really want people to come around to my way of thinking, or would I prefer to remind them that they are the dumb, benighted masses so that I can feel superior? (You will note that this mode of thinking is not limited to any religion or lack thereof.)

    I suspect a lot of people confuse vigorous advocacy in the political sphere with personal advocacy.

  57. @Greg:

    Alternatively, you could be a Christian who believes that Christ is merely one path towards the Divine, and that non-Christians aren’t going to hell simply because they’re not Christian. Or, you could be an atheist who believes that religious belief is perfectly fine for the religious as long as they aren’t assholes to other people about it.

    It’s amazing the diversity categories can contain.

  58. @ Greg 2:18

    I do not agree with those who aggressively champion their faith or lack there of, but I also do not condemn them for it. IMHO if I were to go about thumping people about the head and shoulders with a bible, I would do more harm than good for my faith. Conversely if I were to intelligently engage those who disagree with me and share with them how my life is better because of my faith I have a chance of them at least hearing the message.

  59. Greg:

    “Anyone who professes to be Christian and does not attempt to convert you either doesn’t take their beliefs seriously, or hates you personally so much that they are willing to sentence you to eternal torture rather than be mildly inconvenienced.”

    Oh, nonsense. There are plenty of churches and individual Christians who choose not to proselytize, and it has nothing to do with the reasons you offer up. Your definition of “Christian” appears to be a particularly narrow one.

    “For an atheist, choosing not to publicly oppose religion and work toward its eradication is an act of cowardice.”

    Also nonsense, in part because it appears your definition of “atheist” is likewise narrow.

  60. I’m an Atheist, I live in Alabama, I’m an Activist and a comedian. I’m the type of Atheist that is often called “militant”; but I assert that’s an intentionally defamatory misnomer. I’m the type that responds to the “God Bless” with a “No, thanks” because if we’re in an equal and open society and you get to tell me about yours I get to tell you about mine. I do try to make sure I’m not the one who starts that discussion- for any number of reasons including I’ve had it before and it often bores me. Instead of answering “I don’t go to a church” I answer “Oh, I’m an atheist” to the “Which church do you go to?” I almost never “hide” my atheism when confronted about it, or religious beliefs, and I don’t feel I should. I think it’s more important, for me, to let other people know that they already know an Atheist.

    Personally, I don’t care about the personal morals/philosophies/beliefs of others until one of two conditions trigger. (1) Those things are presented as facts. (2) Those things start to effect me. I assume other people feel the same way, and that we’re all operating on generally the same sociability level- which is why I don’t wildly swerve away from other cars when passing them on dark country roads. We’re each entitled to believe whatever we want; but no one is entitled to their own facts.

    However, I’m a horrible pedant. I assume that everyone else is like me- none of us are special- and that they too wish to know when they are wrong, and how, and where to go read/study to improve their knowledge. So when someone says something demonstrably wrong about Radio-isotope dating or Evolution or Atheists, I speak up. I try to explain the facts, how we know those facts, and why whatever they were saying was incorrect. And then we all go down the rabbit hole. No matter how polite, apologetic, and tolerant I am, I’m the militant. Because I spoke up.

    For instance: I dispute the usage of “militant” it’s as loaded a weasel word as there is, designed solely to strip the credibility of any labelled with it. It’s a purely emotive argument in a discussion, supposedly, of logic. If I sneeze and someone says “God Bless You!” They’re not a militant Christian; but if I respond “And may Harry Potter smile warmly upon you as well,” I’m a militant atheist.

  61. Greg, you are not a Christian at all, yet are making generalized statements about what all Christians have to do if they are to call themselves Christians?

    Do you really think you have the moral authority to make those statements, or are you just successfully trolling me?

  62. @Greg:

    In a weird way, I’ve got to thank you for the reminder why I find evangelical preachers of any stripe (and yes, Professor “religious people are psychotic” Dawkins I’m looking at you) tiresome beyond belief. ‘Don’t be the crusty anus of the body politic’ is pretty good base code for everyone.

  63. @Farley
    I am happy to hear of your experiences in my state! I really love Alabama, and it really isn’t as bad down here as people like to make it out to be. We have our share of faceplamy state government issues, but then we have those fairly regularly on a national level too. But I’m getting off topic.

  64. One interesting wrinkle on this: I live in a rural, conservative community and have for more than a decade. Rural conservative communities are just the sort of place where atheists and agnostics aren’t supposed to fit in. But in eleven years living here I can’t remember it ever being an issue.

    Well, I guess that’s a reminder that (as the saying goes) when you ASSUME you make an ASS out of U and ME both. Down here in New Zealand, a “rural conservative community” not only elected our first transgendered Mayor but a few years later put her in Parliament and kept re-electing her until she resigned. I guess those bigoted hayseeds were more interested in what she did on the job than her genitalia. It also helped that she was very up front about her past as a stripper and sex worker, on the grounds that people can’t dig up dirt on you if you’ve done it yourself.

  65. Living one’s life in an exemplary fashion — best possible strategy for converting the nonbelievers, or comfortable rationalization for lacking the courage of one’s convictions?

    It’s a lovely sentiment to say “People should be able to believe whatever they want, as long as they’re not hurting anyone,” but in order to use that as an excuse for inaction, you have to be willing to turn a blind eye toward a huge amount of harm being done in the name of other people’s beliefs.

    To pick a topical example, religious conservatives are constantly attempting to defund Planned Parenthood. If they succeed, people will die who would otherwise have lived, because of their efforts. Efforts which are direct, even logical, consequences of their beliefs. Opposing their efforts, without opposing the beliefs which led directly to them, is not an effective long-term strategy for preventing their beliefs from leading to people’s deaths.

  66. @Craig Ranapia
    ” ‘Don’t be the crusty anus of the body politic’ is pretty good base code for everyone.”
    That is wonderful!

  67. Hm. I’m going to have to ask my atheist friends (of whom there are many; in the very liberal crowd I run in it’s as common or more common than Christianity) about their experiences that way, because now I’m curious. I was both an atheist and a pagan in a small, close-minded town, and the only flack I ever caught for it was from my Dad (and my Dad has always given me flack for everything).

    Currently, I identify strongly as both a Christian and an agnostic (my usual phrasing is “heretical heterodox Christian agnostic.”). I believe in a Deity, but I believe just as strongly that neither I nor anyone else can pretend to be sure. I’m also very strongly secularist; I think my religion is between me and Presumed Deity, and should stay the Hell out of everyone’s public policy except inasmuch as it informs their personal values and convictions. (I think the Founding Fathers were with me on this one. And Roger Williams.)

    When it comes to proselytizing and evangelism, what I tell people is that yes, I do it to everyone I meet, all the time. ‘You Will Know They Are Christians By Their Love,’ after all. That, and as an anonymous source I call not-Francis-of-Assissi said “Preach the Gospel always. If necessary, use words.” My actions should be sufficient to show people my faith. If they are not, then I need to work on myself before I’m fit to minister to others.

    I’m happy to talk about my faith whenever, of course (example: what I am doing right now!), but it’s not for me to decide when to start that conversation. People who are genuinely curious about my faith or religion in general raise the subject eventually. People who are not, don’t. And since I’m one of them blasphemous Christian Universalists, I believe we’re all going to Heaven eventually anyway, and there’s no urgent need to talk y’all around as long as you aren’t egregiously misbehaving by any ethical standards.

  68. Craig Ranapia:

    I submit that the religious/political climate of rural New Zealand is probably different from that of the rural USA.

  69. @Greg

    People who are challenged on their beliefs, frequently hold on to them more tightly. Many people on both sides might find your cures worse than what they try to help. You might have a love for righteous grand actions, but that isn’t always the best way to accomplish your objectives.

    Even if you were right about Christians and Atheists, and you aren’t which many others have so well addressed, one could reasonably address even your proposed means as asinine.

  70. Scalzi:

    “it appears your definition of “atheist” is likewise narrow.”

    I intended it to be understood from context that “atheist” here is intended to — narrowly — refer to the kind of people described in the previous sentence, who believe that religion is severely harmful to the planet and everything on it. Apologies if I failed to make that clear. Yes, I’m aware that there are atheists who don’t believe that; I wasn’t attempting to talk about them.

    Also, I understand that there are self-identified Christians who don’t believe that failure to adopt Christianity necessarily leads to eternal torture. I’m also not talking about them.

    I’m trying to talk about people, on both ends of the religious spectrum, who honestly and sincerely believe that leads inevitably to a horrible outcome. Don’t they have a moral responsibility to try to prevent that outcome?

  71. Ugh, that should be “honestly and sincerely believe that (insert other belief here) leads inevitably to a horrible outcome.” I fail at formatting.

  72. It’s funny to me that my response to your article is a supportive and resounding “Praise Jesus!” I like what you said and how you said it. And I appreciate your attitude towards people regardless of belief. While you have not had much in the way of conflict, you have a positive attitude, a healthy curiosity, and level head. That’s worth A LOT!

    @Rob Moffet– agreed and thank you. Some days I feel like people just don’t get it.

    My thoughts…I believe in science. I believe in God. I was brought up adoring sci-fi and fantasy literature (THANKS MOM!)…and I have learned the value of appreciating people whose decisions on faith, or choice to not believe, differ from mine.

  73. I’m also an agnostic who doesn’t take any flack for it. It probably helps that I live in liberal Seattle and associate mostly with folks in the high-tech industry. And it may help that I’m a practicing Unitarian Universalist (UU is a religion in which being openly agnostic is acceptable, even common). So when I’m in a group of people and the subject of religion comes up, and I suspect agnosticism would not be approved of, I describe myself as a Unitarian. I suspect most people don’t know much about UU and, in the absence of knowledge, assume it is more similar to their own faith than it actually is.

    I have a couple of neighbors who are fundamentalist Christians, and while we’re not close friends, I find them to be perfectly nice people. The one hint of weirdness was when one of their kids kicked a ball into my back yard and asked to retrieve it. I invited him to pass through my house on his way into the back yard, and he said he wasn’t allowed in my house because we had Magic: The Gathering cards, and those were Satanic. But that same neighbor noticed when my automated sprinkler system went insane while I was on vacation and starting watering my lawn nonstop. She found the shut-off valve and used it, saving me from a truly shocking water bill.

    Another fundamentalist Christian neighbor often gets my mail, and I get hers, because we have similar house numbers. It’s funny because I get her Christian magazines and she gets my (Satanic?) SFF magazines. But we always promptly and politely return them to each other.

  74. @edward

    “It is okay to be the Village atheist as long as you aren’t to loud about it. Questioning some one’s religious beliefs is poor etiquette, but proselytizing religion is allowed.

    Actually, to me, both are poor etiquette if done derisively or from a point of view that assumes one’s interlocutor is an ignorant fool. Done with respect for the other point of view, both can be valuable contributions to a discussion.

    For a group that is all about objective facts, atheists in the US oddly seem to have a problem dealing with the reality that the country is populated by a large percentage of people who believe in a god, usually the Christian God and that telling those people that they’re deluded and one’s intellectual inferiors isn’t going to be well received.

    Remember, the Slate article linked above is about why it’s hard to be atheist in the US… not about the validity or not of the stance. To me, the main reason it’s hard is that some atheists make it hard by ridiculing any belief in the spiritual. Go to reddit or a similar place and you’ll see this in action. People will make derisive, mocking comments about the Flying Spaghetti Monster, etc. Now, imagine you’re in the other camp and happen to believe. How would you then feel about such people? Right… You’d be insulted and tend to feel that atheists were jerks even though most aren’t at all that mocking.

    What people on both sides of this argument are doing is judging the other side by that side’s most vocal, visible members. For Christianity these tend to be the evangelical elements, especially those who are involved in trying to enact their principles into public policy. For atheists, this tends to be Dawkins and the like. However, both camps have large numbers of people who have settled on a viewpoint about what the world is, live accordingly and get on with their lives.

  75. Well, my 17-year-old son seems to have a better grip than most of you guys about ‘reality’ – the reality IS, whether you profess a faith, are agnostic or an atheist, ‘Haters gonna hate: potaters gonna potate’. Says it all, really. Oh, just so you guys can all feel free to attack me on your presumption of my standpoint, I live in a mixed family: my son and husband are atheists, my daughter and I are Christian. How does that work? Very nicely, thank you, with love and respect … which is what some of you commenters (from both sides) are clearly lacking. Being a jerk to other people just because you can means that you are lacking in personal growth – whether that is developmental, spiritual, psychological – whatever you choose to believe.

  76. Oh, for the days when I could find the energy to get hot and bothered about how, because of my lack of religious belief, I could never be an elected official, blah blah blah, my butt hurts, etc..

    similar to John, I’ve had it too good for too long to be able to get justifiably upset about anything that isn’t having a material impact on my own life. Don’t borrow trouble, as it were.

  77. @greg – you have a tendency in arguments to tell other people what they’re really thinking. You should try not to do that. Sometimes you have good, interesting points that are compromised by this tendency. (to wit, the sentence above Living one’s life in an exemplary fashion — best possible strategy for converting the nonbelievers, or comfortable rationalization for lacking the courage of one’s convictions? which assigns a motive to people whom you DO NOT KNOW.)

    I know I react very poorly to someone saying to me “What you really think is… “. My usual replies to such would have a Mallet descend on my head.

  78. @Kevin Williams:

    I submit that the religious/political climate of rural New Zealand is probably different from that of the rural USA.

    Almost certainly, but the wonderful thing about human beings is they just don’t stay on script. When I was coming out, some of the most supportive and generally fraking humblingly awesome people I’ve ever been blessed to know were in my church, “rural” relations and the center-right political party I was an out office holder in for almost a decade. Like John, I’m not trying to turn my specific experience into a universal constant but I’ve just learned to be very careful about making assumptions about individuals based on collective stereotypes. Grace and ugliness don’t always come from the expected places.

  79. Looking forward to the article about how hard it is to be a non-golfer in the corporate world and the ensuing firestorm.

  80. I think Jon is right when he discusses priviledge. In my experience, having nonconfomist beliefs matters most when they don’t conform with the beliefs of those who think they are higher status than you. People rarely push this sort of thing with their social or heirarchical superiors and tend to be tolerant when discussing it with equals, but if they are expecting “respect” (in the sense of blind agreement, and that is pretty damn common, unforntunately) and don’t get it you are assualting their social position. People have a deep instinctive primate need to preserve that.

    There is also a wierd detente *between* many faiths about this – possibly due to long bloody historical experience – but this treaty is often seen as not applying to atheists. If you view this as primate status behaviour again, major religions have high status members who would be offended if you poached, but the athewatsits (and pagans, and other “low status” faiths in your current spacetime locus) don’t, so are free game.

    I also suspect this is why “militant” is more often used to label to atheists who proselytize than theists who proselytize – the first is messing with the percieved social order, the second is not. It also makes sense if you compare militant theists – someone labeled “militant” is almost certainly stirring up the hierarchy in a way people don’t like. They are “uppity.” (Unless, of course, they are already high status, where they are tolerated “eccentrics” as long as they don’t piss off other high status folks.)

    So yeah, I’m not surprised that his Glaughleepettinness is not currently hasseled over his religious stance even if he is in a fairly conservative area (although admittedly not the Deep South) – no one around there is “the Boss of Him” (outside of the Scalzi Compound, which is not very theist, IIUC). I *am* curious if John spent much of his life when he was lower status/priviledge in any highly religious area.

    Oh, and just to stir up the local hierarchy – I think John is the kind of “militant agnostic” who would willfully and with forethought tape bacon to a cat. I think we can all agree that that sort of thing just isn’t Kosher. So there.

  81. I’m amused by all the comments about “militant atheists”. I know there are smug jerks of every persuasion, but the sorts of people who get defined as “militant [insert religion here]” for any other group, are people who do more than say “I categorically reject your views.” I think of groups like The Westboro Baptist Church or Al Qaeda when I think militant. These are groups that don’t just hold strong opinions, but actively harm and incite hate. Even groups that isolate themselves such as some mormon, amish and jewish sects are not considered “militant” simply for their strong beliefs. People who go door to door, refuse their children and themselves modern medical treatments, or who don’t allow women equal rights or privileges are rarely labeled as “militant” simply for having strong opinions on the matter.

    I really don’t care what anyone believes, if they aren’t imposing their views on others, but I’ve spent a long time considering how I can and should view the world and my place in it. I am fine with being questions on my views and challenged on my assumptions. I realize not everyone feels the same way and I don’t push the topic on people unless they push the topic on me to start with. I’m still going to be labeled “militant” for my views because I defend them strongly. It irks me a bit that the word “militant” is used to belittle an otherwise peaceful and non-violent viewpoint but I suppose I am just going to have to deal with the fact that some people would rather attack the person than the arguments.

  82. Greg, you’re a member of an unpopular minority group. Suck it up or they’ll eventually come for you and you will have nobody but yourself to blame.

    More generally: every society has legitimizing myths. None of them are “true” in the sense that the inverse-square law is true.

    “Democracy is the most legitimate form of government” is a legitimzing myth, for example. It has no objective correlative; it’s just a widely-shared opinion here and now. So is “Family X should rule”, or for that matter “maximize pleasure and minimize pain” or “lying is bad”.

    And opinions are like assholes; everybody’s got one, and few bear close examination.

    You can’t arrive at a normative statement (“X is right”) because morals, including public and political ones, aren’t arguments, they’re feelings. There is no connection between “is” and “ought”. All morality is simply belief and taboo. It’s an emotion resulting from childhood conditioning with some genetic component.

    You can argue logically -from- a normative assumption but you cannot argue logically -to- it. The basic assumption you either share, or you don’t; and incommensurable assumptions about values cannot communicate, they can only fight. Differences of that sort are settled by power, not reason.

    From the viewpoint of social functionality it’s largely irrelevant what the content of the myth is; the important thing is that it be widely shared, because this lets people interact without killing each other all the time.

    This is why I’m perfectly ready to tolerate and even participate in religious or religiously-tinged public rituals.

    They’re part of the social consensus, the agreed stories that constitute our collective existence and keep things from being a Hobbesian war of all against all.

    They’re valuable not because they’re -true-; that’s a meaningless assertion in this context.

    They’re valuable because they’re -there-, because they are and have been -believed-. And it’s not a buffet or a la carte, it’s Table d’hôte.

    When social consensus, the shared myths, breaks down you get collapse — followed by the creation of a new consensus, often imposed by slaughtering everyone who disagrees.

    And the existence of tolerance depends on self-restraint.

  83. “I’m trying to talk about people, on both ends of the religious spectrum, who honestly and sincerely believe that leads inevitably to a horrible outcome. Don’t they have a moral responsibility to try to prevent that outcome?”

    Yup.

    But it isn’t necessarily cowardice or lack of faith – believing that another approach would be more effective is another possibility, as is outright apathy. Or even enormity. You (and I and everyone else) is almost certainly reading this blog on a device that’s components were (at least some of them) built on the backs of people working in conditions that we’d find appalling and near slavery. But we still do buy them, for a myriad of reasons, when we could be argued to have a moral responsibility not to.

    I mean, I consider the fact that I care very little that people I like are going to hell to be my biggest failings as a human, although I’ve got plenty of others. I don’t act because, like boycotting all the shit that is made in dehumanzing conditions, I don’t care enough. I don’t care enough because…well, hell, who knows? Chalk it up to me being a bad person.

  84. I think it also helps that, from my own personal interest, I know a fair amount about a number of faiths and can speak with at least passing knowledge about them (and am often curious about the things I don’t know).

    I was a devout Mormon growing up. Scripture study is a huge thing in that faith, and high-school students are expected to attend religious classes daily or weekly– in my area it was every weekday before school. Then, in college, I lost my faith in the sudden poof-where’d-it-go kind of way– but I was double majoring in English Lit and Voice, so we had lots of discussions about Milton and Biblical symbolism and performed lots of religious works in concert. The end result was that when I sang in a Messiah chorus a year ago, half the choir assumed that I was a hardcore, seminary-educated Christian because I was able to answer interpretive questions about the lyrics in some detail.

    Like you, I’ve had an easy time with the whole atheism/agnosticism thing. It’s actually easier to explain to people that you’re “not religious” than that you’re Mormon– people think Mormons are weird, but even really religious people think “not religious” people are just sadly misguided. (I’ve found that’s the best way to say it– it means the same thing as atheist, when you think about it, but has none of the aggressive connotations.) I think a big part of why it’s been so easy is that I spend most of my time with, and talking to, college-educated liberals. Even religious acquaintances don’t generally bring up the subject, though– it’s not good manners to discuss religion with people you don’t really know!

  85. Living one’s life in an exemplary fashion — best possible strategy for converting the nonbelievers, or comfortable rationalization for lacking the courage of one’s convictions?

    Best possible strategy. After all, having the courage of one’s convictions means living them as if others were judging whether they were convictions of worth, instead of just blabbing about them.

    See, that was easy!

    @Tom Hand: Please. That’s not about militancy; that’s about the failure mode of clever. “God bless you” or, more usually, “bless you” is a social courtesy that people say when you sneeze; they are rarely actually calling down a blessing on you to protect your soul from being stolen by the Devil, any more than they are actually wishing you to abide with God when they say ‘goodbye’ to you. When you respond with a comment about Harry Potter, the pretty obvious inference from that is “Oh, you mentioned God in some context? Well, I think God is imaginary and made-up, just like Harry Potter, and I intend to point that out to you on the slightest pretext.”

  86. I attended a private elementary/intermediate school. The reading textbooks for the younger grades had stories from Greek mythology. I remember reading, as a first-grader, something in one of those books which said, to paraphrase (hell, it’s been more than thirty years), “The Greeks made up stories to explain things they couldn’t otherwise explain by themselves”, such as weather. My first thought upon reading that sentence (and again, I was maybe seven years old at the time) was “Oh, you mean like god!”. It took me another decade before I was prepared to openly refer to myself as an atheist, but that’s only because I didn’t know in my early years that there was a word for the conclusion I drew as a seven-year-old.

    My husband is what I’d call a militant atheist. He’s more than happy to openly refer to xtians as “morons”, “idiots”, “cowards”, etc. While I happen to agree with him on a lot of levels, as many others upthread have pointed out, being openly aggressive/antagonistic about one’s personal views, or about how “wrong” someone else’s personal views are, is not really the best way to be taken seriously.

    When I worked at the grocery store, a married couple who were regular customers of mine kept inviting me to attend their church. I politely demurred each time. Then they started bringing me religious pamphlets. I waited until they left, then I would dispose of them. However, as time went on, and they kept on bringing me pamphlets and inviting me to their church, I finally couldn’t stand it anymore. When they handed me the last pamphlet, I looked them in the eye as I threw it in the trash. They never came through my line again. Since the sequence of events I’ve just described took maybe two or three years to play out, I think I was remarkably patient–I kept hoping they’d get the hint and drop the subject or stop bringing me pamphlets, but rather than decreasing the pressure they stepped it up. I could have taken the “militant” road and told them at the outset I thought their entire belief system was utter nonsense, but that would have cost me my job.

    To make a long story short, I’m an atheist, but as long as the xtians don’t proselytize to me, I won’t tell them to their face what I think of the crutch they seem to think their existence depends upon. I would expect (but rarely get) the same courtesy from them.

  87. @Marnie
    I agree and have often been annoyed by application of the term militant to people who weren’t actively being militant. Chalk it up to the war of the rhetoric. Controlling the words that define the argument is the first step to Winning without having won.

  88. Tom Hand:

    Wow! Are you serious?

    “However, I’m a horrible pedant. I assume that everyone else is like me- none of us are special- and that they too wish to know when they are wrong, and how, and where to go read/study to improve their knowledge.”

    People do not like or want to be told when they are wrong, and how, and OMG WHERE TO GO TO IMPROVE THEMSELVES. If people would like to be schooled by you, or want your opinion on whether their beliefs and actions are correct, they will ask you. If you like picking fights with people by offering unsolicited criticism, then you can’t complain when people call you militant. Also, you get bad reactions when you respond to “God Bless You” with a Harry Potter blessing because you are making fun of them. People don’t like pedantry and they don’t like mockery. You might need a new hobby.

    Also, I wouldn’t ordinarily point this out in an internet comment thread, but because you claim you like it, I’ll say that your use of “effect” above is dead wrong and you should go read a dictionary to improve yourself.

  89. rickg:
    “To me, the main reason it’s hard is that some atheists make it hard by ridiculing any belief in the spiritual. Go to reddit or a similar place and you’ll see this in action. People will make derisive, mocking comments about the Flying Spaghetti Monster, etc. Now, imagine you’re in the other camp and happen to believe. How would you then feel about such people? Right… You’d be insulted and tend to feel that atheists were jerks even though most aren’t at all that mocking. ”

    What a startling lack of empathy.[1]

    Perhaps some atheists are commonly exposed to “derisive, mocking comments” about their viewpoint as well. In fact, I think we can easily concede that to be true. Should atheist jerks be held to a higher standard than theist jerks? If so, why?

    [1] I kid, of course. This is an online religious discussion.

  90. martin says at February 8, 2012 at 3:38 pm :

    There is also a wierd detente *between* many faiths about this – possibly due to long bloody historical experience – but this treaty is often seen as not applying to atheists. If you view this as primate status behaviour again, major religions have high status members who would be offended if you poached, but the athewatsits (and pagans, and other “low status” faiths in your current spacetime locus) don’t, so are free game.

    So it is like in the Bad Old Days when you had to be careful what you did to most people because you didn’t want to start a feud between your families? And athewatsits are like people who have no relatives in the region?

  91. Tom Hand @ 2:48:

    Right on.

    There’s a lot of unacknowledged (because people don’t think about it) proselytizing going on, and it’s kind of annoying to be steeping in it all the time. It says “In God We Trust” on our money. Sure, it’s no skin off my nose, the money still spends the same. But suggest that the phrase be removed and many people will be offended. I’ve taken to asking how they would like to see “In Shiva We Trust” on their money. If they express displeasure, I point out that this is exactly how I feel about “In God We Trust.”

    People are free to believe what they wish. I just want them to quit putting it in the air I have to breathe.

  92. I am an atheist. I don’t believe in anything. I think religion is silly. This rarely comes up in conversation. Most people don’t care. I work in corporate america and I have worked for a variety of large and small companies. People rarely talk about religion at work.

    I was a boyscout as a kid and religion never came up. This whole thing about how you have to be religious to be a boy scout is news to me. Boy scouts was just a way to play in the woods and go camping.

  93. The only real difficulties I experienced as a non-believer were in the Army in the mid 90s, where there was an expectatation that I participate in group prayers; at the squad and platoon level these often resembled football huddles, so non-participation was a visible act of rejection/disrespect. I refused just once, and realized it wasn’t worth the hassle or distrust that caused, so I just closed my eyes and went along with it.

    I do get where the religious folks are coming from in that situation. Service members tend to be more conservative and religious (Christian) than society at large, most of them are very young, and many face real danger. Bringing dissent into that kind of group dynamic takes some courage, and can cause problems with the group, which isn’t something I cared to do.

  94. @Marnie:

    +1. In my social circle, my Catholicism and center-right politics are, shall we say, not the norm. I was at a party when the sexual abuse scandals were at their height, and ended up on the receiving end of a lengthy, intimidating and pretty damn triggering tirade from an atheist acquaintance — because, hey, if you’re a Catholic you automatically condone everything the Vatican says and does, right? (On the lower end of that scale – I don’t think I’m personally responsible for the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition. Really.)

    I wouldn’t call that *cough* gentleman “militant”. “Obnoxious arsehole” would be closer to the mark.

  95. It says “In God We Trust” on our money.

    I would put government endorsement of religion on a slightly different level than individuals making vaguely religious comments without any attempt to proselytize. The former is why we have groups like the ACLU. The latter, I think, can take a less aggressive approach than “Aha! You said GOODBYE! I don’t want to abide by your fucking made-up deity, so keep it out of my face!” But that’s me.

    WRT “militant,” anyone who identifies as a feminist gets this too, and it generally means “somebody who is a little too focused on the subject for my comfort level but not actually fanatical”. I frankly think a better term for the Dawkinses of the world is “reactionary atheist”. There’s nothing wrong with strong convictions and the willingness to speak up on one’s behalf. But those things are very different than avenging the slights of obnoxious Christians you suffered in high school by dedicating your adulthood to being a jackass to anyone who isn’t a card-carrying Skeptic.

  96. @Craig Ranapia

    If you do not make excuses for pedophile priests then I do not consider you at fault for their actions, however I hope you would vehemently condemn the behavior of the priests AND the church’s history and policies when dealing with the issues in the past. I would hope you’d side with the victims and feel they had a right to prosecute the individuals and organization that hurt them. If you didn’t I would question whether your religious beliefs were clouding your judgment. That wouldn’t make you at fault but it would make me question your values.

    But let’s be clear here, atheists are regularly told that they have no basis for morality and that atheism leads logically to the downfall of societies and genocide. There are people who (wrongly) claim that Hitler was an atheist or argue that Mao and Stalin are examples of what you get from atheism. The person you mentioned at the part was a jerk. People who make these assumptions about atheists are jerks. Jerks are all around us. I promise you that jerkiness is not relegated to atheists.

  97. Like you, John, I have never suffered for my lack of belief, and I’m perfectly happy to let people believe any damn thing they want so long as they don’t proselytize to me, or attempt to pass laws for a secular society based on whatever beliefs are pushed by their particular faith. If someone says they will pray for me, I thank them for the generous thought, and don’t worry about it. It has no impact on me, but to brace them about it would merely be rude.

  98. Having grown up in a somewhat secularly religious family (Mom took ME to church, Daddy didn’t ever go, but heaven help me if I broke any of the standard Christian beliefs), then becoming what I suppose would be considered “evangelical” in my college days and dropping out yet again when my wife and I both realized how screwed up we were getting, I’m probably in the agnostic (but too afraid to claim atheism) category.

    I think folks who are actively proclaiming their atheism (a childhood friend does online) are the ones getting the flack, just as would a particularly obnoxious evangelical would in trying to convert someone. We have actively conservative politically, evangelical family members who routinely ignore our heathenism, but I’m pretty sure they would take some offense if we started trying to pull out an aluminum baseball bat to their beliefs. Usually when someone comes up to me and starts hitting me upside the head with their beliefs, I tend to say “I gave at the office” or “Been there, done that” with an upturned right eyebrow; most leave quickly after that.

  99. @Doug from Tally

    You say:

    “I think folks who are actively proclaiming their atheism (a childhood friend does online) are the ones getting the flack, just as would a particularly obnoxious evangelical would in trying to convert someone.”

    How is saying your an atheist akin to being a “particularly obnoxious evangelical”? Seems an unfair standard. Lots of people proclaim they are christian or jewish or muslim or buddhist or whatever religion they may be, online and that’s not considered “trying to convert someone.”

    I also see people posting inspirational images and status updates about the importance of having jesus in one’s life and relying on prayer, or quotes from buddhists teachings. They do this and I manage to survive unperturbed. Do you feel these people are also “particularly obnoxious” or do you feel that just acknowledging one’s atheism, in a public settings, is offensive in a way that acknowledging one’s religious beliefs, is not?

  100. @Marnie:

    Quite. I have a very simple (nay, simplistic!) classification system for people: Shits, Bores and Good Eggs. Sharing my religion/politics/sexual orientation/ethnicity/whatever does not automatically secure your place in the third category; quite often the reverse is true, because how boring is it to live in a world where everyone looks and thinks like you?

    It often makes life insanely annoying but never dull. :)

  101. It’s not always easy, and certainly never wise to label people you don’t know very well.
    I’m agnostic, and I have to say that I’ve found it much more difficult being openly Republican in liberal communities, than being openly agnostic in religious communities.

    Are all Republicans homophobes? Bigots? Islamaphobes? Religious wingnuts?

    I’ve seen them lumped together and labeled all of those things on this forum, throughout various topics, over the last day or two. Does that mean everyone on this forum is hate-filled, leftist, intolerant and bigoted?

    No, I don’t think so.

    I’m a conservative Republican who disagrees with the party on some issues like gay marriage.
    I agree with them on many more issues like smaller government, pro-life, lower taxes, fewer regulations, more rights for property owners, energy independence through increased drilling, more government transparency, fewer czars, fewer agencies, fewer departments, fewer subsidies, etc.

    Does that make me evil? To a lot of people who comment here, yes it does. Are they more than willing to tell me that? You bet.

    It would be one thing if my posts were openly antagonistic. If I stick a finger in your eye, by all means, poke back. But if I make a reasoned argument, I would appreciate the same in return.

    I’m just calling it like I see it. Go back through the Komen topics, or Proposition 8, and especially Santorum if you want to get a look at some tolerance and civility. I’m not bitching or whining. I come here for a reason. I just think since this topic is about “Agnosticism Without Pain” it’s a worthwhile correlation. I get some bullshit every now and then about agnostics having “no moral underpinnings” from the religious wing of my party. So I’m not saying it doesn’t go both ways. But it is much, much more difficult to have an opposing viewpoint on a site that is overwhelmingly liberal.

  102. I wish I’d had as nice a time as you, John.

    I will *try* not to be a dick about it. I *do* try not to be a dick about it. Sometimes, I’m a dick about it – I genuinely regret that.

    We do the best we can wi’wha’we got.

  103. My wife has her beliefs and I have my (lack thereof), but we just don’t bother to discuss them. However, I’m sure she would agree strongly on one point: writers are odd ducks. Quack quack!

  104. Different Greg here.

    grew up in rural midwest. pretty much hid my atheism. just easier that way. is it *hard* being atheist agnostic? Thats subjective. Individually, I would say not much. Like my day to day life wasnt (and still isnt) impacted too much. But overall, there seems to be problems with folks not getting separatiin of church and state concepts. And its usually atheists or agnostics that have to push for that. though sometimes its members of a minority religion. being christian in a mostly christian country has its advantages. subtle as they may be.

    I dont recall ever going door to door to convert someone to agnosticism or giving unsolicited advice to a believer. I definitely do not have any tolerance for teaching creationism in public schools, or having prayer in public schools, or having the ten commandments in courtroom. I dont like christmas displays on government property and think the ‘have a lottery to give everyone space for their beliefs’ is more teouble than its worth and would rather see the whole thing go away, but meh.

    the thing is, I think some would call anyone ‘militant atheist’ if they push for a respect to “separation of church and state”. How many are ‘some’ is less certain, but it seems to be greater than ‘enough to keep putting church back in state’.

    I am fairly sure that the whole issue around abortion in the US is sourced by religioous people. Not that all religious people source it.

    In comparison, I dont know of any national atheist or agnoatic movement that is trying to force their views on others. But then some will say ‘separation of church and state’ is pushing atheist views on everyone else.

  105. Nica Lalli had an interesting essay concerning “pink atheism” as a counterpoint to “hard atheism” (wikipedia definition) — her site doesn’t seem to be up, but wayback has it: http://web.archive.org/web/20090226121807/http://www.nicalalli.com/Pink%20Atheist.htm

    Crystallized a lot of things familiar to my own experience, and why there is such gender disparity in atheist/agnostic communities. If you don’t come from a nonbelieving family, there is this definite sense that you are leaving behind your culture and your family by choosing not to believe. If I had to guess, I would say this is the #1 reason why women are more likely to be ‘in the closet’ atheists or disinclined to make it an issue (e.g. “spiritual but not religious”, answering polls that they believe in god, etc). I’m sure there’s more to it than that, but it was helpful to me to realize how many other women operated under this more intense family and social pressure.

    I think I was about 10 when a friend of mine told me I was going to burn in hell forever because I didn’t go to church, but separate issue.

  106. Until recently I was a librarian at a liberal arts college with a religious history but no current religious affiliation. Even there, being an atheist wasn’t a big a deal. I suspect it would only have been if A) the school still maintained a religious identity (as a similar sized university nearby with the same background does. They have a statement of faith document all staff and faculty have to sign, attesting that they will neither drink nor engage in pre/extramarital sex) and B) if I had been obnoxious about it. I’m fairly laid back about religion and my lack thereof and simply avoided making any laud snickering noises when matters of religion came up, which was almost never.

    It’s surprisingly easy to be an atheist in the US, just as it is easy to be religious, because as long as you show a modicum of social decorum, no one can even tell the difference (which is a matter of contention among some of the more fundamentalist minded folk in our country but that’s another issue). And, as John mentioned, most of a person’s daily behavior is self-selecting towards whatever preference you have. Obviously, if you’re an atheist and you decide to hang out in a Southern Baptist Mega Church, you’re bound to run into some resistance. But what are you doing there, you silly billy? There’s probably a Skeptic Society meet up somewhere nearby, usually within easy reach of beer.

  107. @Erin:

    I think I was about 10 when a friend of mine told me I was going to burn in hell forever because I didn’t go to church

    Golly. I’d respectfully suggest to your friend that the seating plan for the afterlife is ever sooo slightly above his/her pay grade.

  108. The closest thing to trouble that atheism ever caused for me was when I discovered, in college in southeastern Virginia, that forthrightly stating what I believed or didn’t believe would actively offend a lot of people and make me the object of some nervous joking. (But there were also jerks who made a point of antagonizing devout evangelical Christians by incessantly teasing them about Satan, so it went both ways.)

    Mostly it was fine, though. I’d get into interesting theological discussions with people and they always seemed to assume I was right on the verge of converting to whatever they believed, so I felt a little guilty about leading them on.

  109. @ John
    You and I are essentially in the same privileged boat and I loved this post. Minor point of debate:

    I wish others who choose not to believe were as fortunate as I have been.

    I don’t think you can really choose what to believe. If you’re standing at the edge of a cliff, you can’t choose to believe you can fly. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t make myself believe in a religion or faith I don’t.

    @ Stephen A. Watkins

    Is “Humanism”, per se, necessarily atheistic, agnostic or secular in nature, as a philosophy? Can you be spiritualistic, theistic, or religious and at the same time claim to be a humanist?

    Humanism, at its elementary core, is the belief that one can build a sound and socially responsible morality without calling on a Higher Power. No humanists I know would probably say this excludes believing in such a Power, only that it requires believing in such a Power is not a prerequisite for being a good human being.

    @ crotchetyoldfan

    Had to deal directly with faith-based discrimination during school and into my young-adult life (even to the point of arguing with an Army recruiting Sgt over leaving the “faith” portion of an application empty) and am generally very intolerant of expressions of faith. I feel that those who have it ought to be ashamed of it and should therefore be keeping it as quiet and private as possible.

    That sounds positively religiously anti-religious.

    @ Caladan

    I think Penn Jillette’s take on agnostic vs atheist is useful:
    Agnosticism and Atheism answer different questions:
    Is there a God? I don’t know (Agnostic)
    Do you believe there is a God? No (Atheist)

    I would put it this way:
    Was Existence Created by an entity or entities we would recognize as cognizant? I don’t know. (Agnostic)
    Do you believe human concepts of God(s) are even remotely likely to encompass such hypothetical Creator(s)? No. (Atheist)

    @ Kevin Hicks

    I spent most of my life describing myself much as you do, and only switched to “atheist” over the past few years, primarily due to the increase in fundamental Christianity, in the country and my own family.

    I used to be lower key about my non-belief as well. I too became more in-your-face about it as the BS “Culture War” meme gained traction. Partially that is because, examining history, I note how rare religious tolerance has been, and how much rarer tolerance of the irreligious has been, so I skew to the defensive whenever I sense someone wants me to keep my disbelief to myself. Also, when the ambient rhetoric gets hostile to me or people dear to me, my instinct is to challenge it vociferously. Unfortunately, in that contentious mindset, I can sometimes be a real twit and come off as intolerant of religion, which I truly am not. It’s something I need to work on.

    @ Marnie

    I didn’t stand for the pledge both because it had god in it and because I don’t believe in promising loyalty blindly.

    I just never said the “under God” part as that would have been the hypocrisy. My loyalty wasn’t and isn’t blind, but I, for one, applaud your decision not to say things you didn’t mean. Too many soi-disant patriots in these United States place the importance of symbols above the actual liberties and Constitution for which they stand, and I find that despicable and denigrating to everyone who’s ever put anything on the line to keep themselves and others free from slavery to those symbols.

    It irks me a bit that the word “militant” is used to belittle an otherwise peaceful and non-violent viewpoint but I suppose I am just going to have to deal with the fact that some people would rather attack the person than the arguments.

    Not that it in any way excuses such misapplications, but I suspect militant, like many words, has largely lost its meaning through constant overuse. It’s almost like there’s a War on Emphasis (see what I did there?).

    @ Craig Ranapia

    Well, I guess that’s a reminder that (as the saying goes) when you ASSUME you make an ASS out of U and ME both.

    That saying never made sense to me. If someone assumes, they make an ass out of themselves, but how to they make an ass out of the other person? Or, when you ASSUME, you make an ASS out of U, but not me. I know I’m nitpicking. Feel free to ignore me. Pithy slogans that don’t hold up to closer scrutiny are just a pet peeve of mine.

    I’d respectfully suggest to your friend that the seating plan for the afterlife is ever sooo slightly above his/her pay grade.

    Not a few folks claim devout piousness to God without admitting that the God they worship is themselves. As with holier-than-thou “militant” atheists, self-aggrandizing assholes can drag any communities name through the mud if others all in the group are like the loudmouths.

    @ Greg

    To pick a topical example, religious conservatives are constantly attempting to defund Planned Parenthood. If they succeed, people will die who would otherwise have lived, because of their efforts. Efforts which are direct, even logical, consequences of their beliefs. Opposing their efforts, without opposing the beliefs which led directly to them, is not an effective long-term strategy for preventing their beliefs from leading to people’s deaths.

    Why do you assume they speak for the whole of Christianity? If I go out and pommel someone for not being an atheist, does that mean other atheists should get religion quick or their implicitly supporting my heinous behavior?

    @ mythago

    God bless you” or, more usually, “bless you” is a social courtesy that people say when you sneeze; they are rarely actually calling down a blessing on you to protect your soul from being stolen by the Devil, any more than they are actually wishing you to abide with God when they say ‘goodbye’ to you.

    Even I say “bless you” as it’s more laconic than “I care about you enough that I’d prefer you didn’t die”.

  110. @ Craig Ranapia
    That phrase should have read self-aggrandizing assholes can drag any communities name through the mud if others all in the group are like the loudmouths.

  111. @ Craig Ranapia
    *screams at self for not adding the friggin’ missing word to the correction post!!!*
    Third time’s a charm…

    That phrase should have read self-aggrandizing assholes can drag any communities name through the mud if others think all in the group are like the loudmouths.

    I really need to get more sleep.

  112. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t make myself believe in a religion or faith I don’t.

    “I can’t” != “nobody can”. Rather a lot of people are perfectly capable of talking themselves into believing various things, or being persuaded of various beliefs. Also, many religions are not ‘faith based’ in the sense that you must absolutely believe without question in the literal existence of supernatural being(s) or miracles. That’s not to say you should become religious, by any means, just that some people in fact choose belief and others in fact adhere to a religion for reasons other than literal faith. I’ve known a surprising number of folks who describe themselves as Catholic because they were raised as such and value their church community, even though they are agnostic about the literal existence of God.

  113. I’m an antitheist. I have no issues with gods I haven’t met yet. Should I cross paths with a god that turns out to be a jerk well then I’ll be a misotheist. But I do have issues with their fandoms and oppose the BNFs.

  114. Since I’m more likely to offer a political opinion than a religious one, I don’t know if I have any data with respect to Billy Quiet’s assertion, but I think he’s on to something.

    I find that SF fandom in particular tends to be well supplied with both atheism and a belief that it should obvious to the casual observer that all intelligent people should hold the same leftist, technocratic views. SF con panelists are frequently willing, in the middle of a discussion about any random thing one might imagine, to make parenthetical political remarks decrying those who have opposing views with an expectation of an amen from the congregation. The “fans are slans” meme runs deep.

  115. Mythago: I prefer “evangelical atheists” for the Dawkins of the world. Also, thank you for pointing out that sometimes, for some people, the best way to proselytize is to simply be the best person, following the requirements of your religion, that you can be. I certainly admit to be one who can very easily be anti-proselytized by “traditional” methods.

    And my church has had its nose rubbed in what happens when “conversion to our faith, because it’s the best for ones afterlife” becomes “conversion to our way of life, because it’s the best” over the last 50 years, and are still paying for it. So maybe I’m a little sensitive.

    In general, as a Christian, I seem to keep having recourse to the story of the merchants in the Temple and the parable of the good Muslim. Oh, that’s not what it says in the Gospels? Wanna tell me it’s not what it *means*, now that Samaritans no longer exist?

    In response to comment #2 and that article, it was sent to me last week, and I had the same reaction the person that sent it to me (a buddhist, as a matter of fact) had: “so, he postulates a two-axis system, and then says without evidence ‘there’s almost nobody out here, so let’s convert it into a heavily-correlated line’, and surprise surprise, thinking (which he considers good) leads to lack of belief in God (which he has), and vice versa (which is what he’d like to prove). Way to beg the question.” Oh, and he throws away the 2000 years of connotation of the term “gnostic”, hoping nobody would notice.

    As a certain Church Lady would say, “How conveeeeeenient.”

  116. mythago points out something important above – many religions are not ‘faith based’, and so the issue of atheism vs. belief is not so critical. And even religions which are nominally faith based, as Catholicism, may be not so stringent in practice for some communities and for some people.

    It’s an interesting effect of growing up in a fundamentalist religion, that while you may come to disagree with what it teaches, it’s much harder to disregard the way it framed the question. I’ve seen some atheists who reject Christianity due to the inconsistencies in the Bible, but who will still argue that liberal Christians – say, those who believe the Bible to be less than literally true, or who believe that women should be the equal of their husbands – aren’t really believers. Sometimes it’s difficult to really wrap your mind around the variety of religious practice that exists in the world (or even within Christianity, or within Catholicism, or…) when you’ve been raised to believe there’s only the One True Way.

  117. Just on a practical note about discrimination I’m trying to change careers now (scientist to science librarian) which means working in an academic library. But I live in Nashville, and beyond Vanderbilt (maybe a position in a few years) and TSU (not seen a science specialist position advertised) the next 5 or so academic libraries ask for a statement of faith in the application. Here is part of Belmont University’s non-discrimination policy, “Belmont University exercises preference in employment on the basis of religion so that it may fulfill its vision and mission of offering an education in a Christian community of learning and service.” Which is just fine, really – Belmont is selling a very specific thing. In their recent Systems Librarian job posting was a bit stronger language, “Applicants will be required to explain how their knowledge, experience, and beliefs have prepared them to contribute to a Christian community of learning and service. Applicants could include, for example, a statement of how their Christian experience (academic, intellectual, or personal) would shape their role at Belmont.”
    Technically, this clears the legal limits for discrimination based on religion, but I think it’s clear non-Christians are just not wanted. You may be thinking, “Why would you want to work at such a place?” Um, benefits, pay, working conditions – a genuinely beautiful campus in a nice and convenient portion of town, also some friends from the neighborhood who work there. Also, news flash, I don’t really care about my coworkers religion. A lot of people in Nashville have no idea that businesses (specifically non-profits) can and do discriminate on religion in hiring. In Nashville that is overwhelmingly going to be Christians deciding not to hire non-Christians.

  118. Gulliver: If I go out and pommel someone for not being an atheist, does that mean other atheists should get religion quick or their implicitly supporting my heinous behavior?

    Actually, I think that’s exactly what has caused the term “atheist” to something that atheists tend to avoid: because some atheists are also assholes, people often make a generalization to all atheists.

  119. @Craig:

    One would think! But I also learned eventually that the most productive response to such things was peaceful disengagement. No witticism can break through that kind of thinking.

    Having thought very much lately about the sociological dynamics of atheism/skepticism/agnosticism, I do feel a kind of desire for a new generation of Carl Sagans. Neil deGrasse Tyson comes pretty close. And I love that Richard Dawkins himself has turned more toward shining a light on the amazing and uplifting qualities of science and nature in recent years. I sympathize above with those who have hardened in to atheism as a reaction to religious trends in the US — it was partly what has caused me to non-invasively identify as such, after identifying as an agnostic for years — but, without getting too buddhist about it, I have repeatedly found that the counterintuitively most effective response to psychological violence is to respond with compassion. Even if I might look at the Catholic church’s harboring of pedophilia, the characterization by George Bush of the war on terror as a holy crusade, Bosnian genocide, etc, and be filled to the eyeballs with an all-consuming sadness beneath which is the speculation that without religion we might be better off as a species… the thing on which I think most people can agree is that the universe is vast and mysterious, containing more beauty and strangeness than we could ever possibly fully apprehend. And that perhaps religion in humanity is yet another of these incredible and ultimately irresistible complexities, impossible to extract from the whole of our nature.

  120. @RickG

    I use the derisive aspect of “Village Atheist” as a stand in for “He is a nice guy with some pretty odd beliefs. Okay to hang out with but I wouldn’t want to vote for him” Yes, I think it is quite derisive. To me it is like the woman who is allowed to be “good as a man.”

    There is nothing more mocking in of one’s beliefs than to be told that because you have no belief, you have no morals. I have faced that. If you think that the one outed Atheist in the history of congress to believe that this doesn’t matter it does. The majority of people polled continue to say that they would not vote for an atheist. It is considered poor form to make Mitt Romney’s religion an issue but an atheists lack call for no outcry.

    Yes there are plenty of Christians in this country, but that does not give them a tyranny of the majority aspect to make me live by whatever laws they wish.

    To damn someone to a eternity in hell for not following a particular set of beliefs is beyond ridicule.

    Further, It is only in religion that people generally demand the freedom from ridicule. To ridicule celebrities for how they act, sing, what they weigh, how they look or dress causes little distress in America. Obama or Bush can be compared to Hitler with very little outcry. Telling people what sort of education they should get, what sort of person they should or shouldn’t marry, what sort of medical services they should be allowed is all fine in America.

    It is only Religion that people claim a sacred exception. America does not have problems with jokes about seventy two virgins. They have no problem with laughing at the many armed statues of hindu gods.

    I generally don’t go around ridiculing peoples beliefs when it is irrelevant to relationship I am having with them. To ridicule them personally, depends on closeness to me, whether the are inhabiting the public sphere, and what effect I think it might have. Generally I am trying, like most people not to be too much of an ass. There are many things in this world that I tolerate and let go because it is either not my business or I am just trying to play nice in a world we all have to share.

    That toleration does not require me to stay silent however when it comes into the public sphere and is affecting me and those I love personally. There I will happily use ridicule because it can be an effective rhetorical tool. This includes discussions about someone’s positions on something like economics, their preferences for different aesthetic experiences, or takes on football teams. Your religion is not sacred to me, but for me it is not the limitation of you. It is one item among many and note a voting litmus test, or one that defines them forever and eternally.

  121. Oops above ^^^ Only with their own religion that people claim a sacred exception. Ie Jokes about seventy two virgins are accepted with no outcry because Christians don’t find Islam to have that level of Sacred etc.

  122. Saying, “I have no religion” is kind of like being gay and saying, “No, I’m not seeing anyone right now,” so you can remain in the closet.

    Please note: it’s not up to me to decide for someone else what is best for them. There are plenty of legitimate reasons for a person to prefer to keep their sexual orientation or religious persuasion (or lack thereof) private.

    But since I enjoy privileges that make it safe for me to be an “out” atheist, I am. I figure the more of us there are, the more people will become comfortable with the idea that we’re not amoral baby-eaters, but are actually normal people just like them.

    I try not to be obnoxious about it. But when I’m in a conversation and someone says something that clearly assumes everyone in the conversation also believes in a deity, then I will do the little “ahem” and note that I am not such a person and would they care to rephrase that so it’s more inclusive? I consider it important to remind such folks that people like me exist.

    On the “bless you” debate: I say “bless you.” But as I pointed out to an atheist friend when he objected, I don’t say “God bless you.” I am fully qualified to offer my personal blessings, and an atheist should agree they’re at least as effective as any purported deity’s.

  123. @Erin: I wholeheartedly co-sign your wish for more advocates for the natural world, itself, being full of awe and wonder. (Some people will see that as a reflection of a deity. That’s cool too, but it’s not mandatory.) Given that Dawkins is spending a lot of his time doing things like railing against Harry Potter, I don’t think he’s it.

  124. @ mythago

    Given that Dawkins is spending a lot of his time doing things like railing against Harry Potter, I don’t think he’s it.

    Since my field is evolutionary computation and was partially inspired onto my career path by Dawkins’s books of evolutionary biology, I have a lot of admiration for him as a scientist and a science communicator. But when it comes to all the time and energy he spends trying to paint religion as the world’s main source of evil, I have better things to do that listen to him ride his political hobby horse.

  125. @Guess

    The Boy Scout Oath starts
    “On my honor I will do my best
    to do my duty to go God and my country.”

    Makes it sort of hard to take that oath and not believe while keeping the integrity of the person taking it. Most troops and I am sure most kids never thought about this. It was all about camping and the like. I could not be a Boy Scout though because I was not willing to perjure myself in that way. Likewise when offered membership in the Masons Boy’s group (which is was fun to meet girls at the dances) I could not take a similar oath in good conscience. I am glad my parents made me think about this, but I do feel I missed out on the camping and dances. I know there were many non-believers for whom this was not an issue, generally because they didn’t think about it.

    Pledge of Allegiance was also a problem. It is sad because it goes into the idea that if you can’t take the oath you can’t be trusted. You aren’t one of us, or in the Pledge of Allegiance- not one of the US.

  126. “People are free to believe what they wish. I just want them to quit putting it in the air I have to breathe.”

    — so, to make you feel better the overwhelming majority should feel worse? Ain’t gonna happen. Numbers are power.

    Also, frankly, I don’t see why this should bother you. I’m an atheist and it doesn’t bother -me- one little bit. “In Shiva we trust” wouldn’t either.

  127. @Gulliver

    Not that it in any way excuses such misapplications, but I suspect militant, like many words, has largely lost its meaning through constant overuse.

    I don’t reject that there are definitions of “militant” that might well be applicable, I reject that the term is applied in different ways to believers and non-believers. If we are going to use the term just to describe someone who is vocal and active in a cause, then fine, but that makes a lot more people “militant christians” and “militant muslims” and “militant jains.” But the word is not used that way, except with atheists and I think it’s done to diminish the non-believer’s merit as a person, instead of directly addressing his or hers arguments.

  128. “A lot of people in Nashville have no idea that businesses (specifically non-profits) can and do discriminate on religion in hiring.”

    — ummm… that comes under “freedom of religion” and “exercise thereof”. It’s a religious institution and is upfront about it. That’s -precisely- the sort of thing the Bill of Rights was intended to protect.

  129. A lot of the kvetching here is that “atheists don’t get equality”.

    Well, of course we don’t. We’re a minority, and a rather small one, and widely disliked. The majority has more political and cultural power by force of numbers (not to mention votes), so they set things up to suit themselves, not us.

    I’m frankly baffled that anyone could -expect- it not to be that way. Do I have to point out that the sun rises in the East and babies aren’t found under cabbage leaves?

    I’m also perfectly happy to be left alone as long as I don’t get in people’s faces.

    I’ve gone to schools, for example, where morning chapel was compulsory. I could have got out by being all stroppy about it (the Jews and Buddhists had their own morning meeting), and I suppose an atheist opt-out would have been possible.

    But I didn’t bother. Why on earth should I? Since I’m an atheist, the whole thing was fundamentally pretty meaningless to me, so why should I get my knickers in a twist? I just went and sang the hymns, which had nice tunes. No problemo. It was a tribal ritual and I was, perforce, in that tribe for the duration. The white crow is not an enviable position, only a fool would put themselves in that slot when they didn’t have to be, and Mrs. Stirling didn’t raise any fools.

    Things -could- be a hell of a lot worse for atheists. In any straight-up fight, the believers would always win. Do not provoke people who are much stronger than you are. If you do, you’re so stupid you deserve the consequences, to be blunt. Life has enough fights that -can’t-be avoided by a little social lubrication, aka “hypocrisy”.

  130. @S M Stirling

    It is legal, and I believe to make it Illegal would be far worse in a very possibly a religious warfare sort of way. But it is still discrimination. When Salvation Army and the Boy Scouts come out against employing gays it is still discrimination. It does not make it right because it legal. Neither does the ordination and putting only men in top religious positions which is standard and accepted in many faiths, cease to be discrimination against women because it is legal.

    i do think these organizations should be pressured socially for these practices among many. The law should not be involved but to those making a choice to participate- one should not be impressed. Religious Toleration is important but should not make them free from dissenting ideas and critique. That is the balance between freedom of religion and freedom of speech.

  131. @SM Stirling

    We better perjure ourselves, hide our thoughts, and keep our complaints out of the public sphere because we really should fear that it could be worse.

    Wow and that if that isn’t worthwhile discrimination I don’t know what is.

  132. @S.M. Stirling

    Things -could- be a hell of a lot worse for atheists. In any straight-up fight, the believers would always win. Do not provoke people who are much stronger than you are. If you do, you’re so stupid you deserve the consequences, to be blunt. Life has enough fights that -can’t-be avoided by a little social lubrication, aka “hypocrisy”.

    So if I don’t lie about my atheism, I deserve to be discriminated against because I’m a minority and I should expect it?

    Bully to you if that’s how you want to live your life but I personally think that the best way to reduce the stigma of being an atheist is to be open and unapologetic about my atheism, while also being a decent human being.

  133. Raised as a Unitarian Universalist/atheist aka humanist. Limited issues in grade school/jr high 1960s regarding skipping “under God” in the pledge quickly straightened out by school administration with support from my parents. Had one or two people edge back uncomfortably when I said I didn’t believe there was a God – rather as if they were afraid I might be struck by lightning and they might get caught in the backsplash.

    Tend to self identify these days as a UU and “religious humanist’ – and am active in my church. Along with UU Christians, UU Pagans, UU Buddhists. My elevator speech is “I’m a Unitarian Universalist and my understanding of religion is that each person is called to come to his or her own understanding around issues of ultimate importance.”

  134. I’m a Christian, but the majority of my friends are atheists. I occasionally surprise them when I don’t fall into their stereotyping, and in general we get along fine. Except once, when they were talking trash about Mother Theresa. That sort of annoyed me.

    I guess I could generalize this to the rest of the world, too. Atheism in general doesn’t bother me. I understand where they’re coming from, and think it’s perfectly reasonable for them to believe the way they do. It just annoys the hell out of me when someone like Hitchens or Dawkins (or their clone) comes along and assumes *I* don’t have a very good reason for believing the things I do.

  135. @S.M. Stirling:

    Things -could- be a hell of a lot worse for atheists.

    Sure. Getting stabbed to death is a hell of a lot worse than being kicked in the stomach until you pass out. Common assault is still wrong and generally assholish, though and I’m pretty happy our legislation and social norms frown on it.

  136. shakauvm: Except once, when they were talking trash about Mother Theresa. That sort of annoyed me.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mother_Teresa#Criticism

    She felt that suffering would bring people closer to Jesus.[79] Sanal Edamaruku, President of Rationalist International, criticised the failure to give painkillers, writing that in her Homes for the Dying, one could “hear the screams of people having maggots tweezered from their open wounds without pain relief. On principle, strong painkillers are even in hard cases not given. According to Mother Teresa’s philosophy, it is ‘the most beautiful gift for a person that he can participate in the sufferings of Christ’.”

    That right there? That’s seriously messed up.

  137. I was fired from a job after I politely said I would not participate in a prayer circle for a sick colleague. Of course, the stated reason was that all of a sudden there were ‘lots of complaints’ about how I spoke to callers (I was the receptionist), even though I didn’t change how I was speaking from the previous two years.

    My companion, even after knowing me for 6 years, actually said to me that “one can’t be a moral person without religion” while knowing I am an atheist (this was 10 years ago and I still remember his words quite vividly). He’s a ‘go-to-church-only-at-Xmas-or-weddings-or-funerals’ person, so that was something that didn’t go over well with me for a good while. Technically, I always knew he was a hypocrite about religion, but since I’ve known so many of them, I was ignoring that about him because his good qualities were more important to me.

    We normally rub along just not mentioning religion much, and although neither of us will try to change the other, this has always been the scary monster we pretend isn’t there so we can be okay with each other. When I say the pledge, using the words “one nation, of the free” (thanks JH), he just grits his teeth, and when he and his family say loud, pointed grace at dinner, I just look out the window.

  138. @romsfuulynn
    I really love what the UU’s do. They take all the wonderfully positive things about the church : the community, the looking out for one another, the getting together and being positive about stuff, and they remove all the moldy baggage. The judging people who don’t think like us, the saying people are going to a hot place, the attempting to force ones beliefs on others by way of law. My fiance is from the UU church, and I have been attending services at her church and really love it. We will be getting married there in September. I love the fact the humanity can take the higher Threat of God out of church and still retain the core of what was important to begin with. I feel this is something that a God would be proud of, if it were watching.

  139. I grew up in Amish regions of PA and the worst row I ever had with my mother was when I was 17 and I told her that I was an atheist. I wasn’t trying to make a big deal out of it or anything. It just sort of came up in conversation. I come from a family of Lutherans. My mom is generally one of the nicest, most gentle people I have ever met, but that day was the only day she ever actually raged at me. She screamed and yelled and sobbed over how she was a “failure as a mother” if she couldn’t raise me to believe the way she did. And I said that I thought she did a good job because she raised me to make my own decisions about my beliefs and it wasn’t her fault if I came to a different conclusion than she did. She said that it was because if she had done her job right, I would’ve agreed with her. There was crying and screaming and she threw things at the wall, and at a certain point, I dissolved into a sobbing mess because I couldn’t stand the verbal abuse anymore.

    And I couldn’t figure out why she took this so personally. We weren’t a huge church-going family. We only attended services once a month on communion Sunday. Dad would mostly sleep through them. My extended family is super religious, but comparatively, my folks weren’t. So I was shocked when this turned into the huge blowout that it was.

    And the following day, she pretended like that whole ordeal never happened. I’m 30 now, and since then, she’s only ever brought it up twice… in order to guilt me into something. As though my atheism was a huge disappointment to her and as such I OWE her whatever it is she’s trying to guilt me to do. And, until about five years ago, if I was visiting the family home during the designated church Sunday, I was still required to attend services, partake in Communion, and donate to the collection. Some stuff happened about five years ago, and ever since, I think she’s come to accept that she can’t force me to change my mind and I’m still a good and moral person, so she’s stopped pushing. Plus, it helps that my sister came out as being “spiritual but areligious”. My immediate family is currently pretty cool about it (the only one who was bothered was Mom and she’s mostly over it, now), but I know better than to tell my surviving grandparents or my cousins, because I know I’d be written out of the family.

    Anyway, unless I know I’m surrounded by like-minded or otherwise tolerant individuals, I do NOT discuss my lack of religion. Ever.

    So, yeah, that article was unfortunately spot on by my experiences.

  140. You don’t see it where you live because you moved there as an adult. I’m from Dayton (went to school in Kettering) and this article resonated with my childhood quite strongly. I lost friends and got plenty of shit for being an atheist, so I started hiding it. Once I got to college I stopped caring so much about what people thought about me, but I still wouldn’t openly bring up my atheism if I were back home. I can’t imagine Bradford is more progressive than Dayton/Kettering.

    It’s been liberating since I started living in Asia, actually. Atheists are the majority in Korea, no one cares. Except the legions of cultists but they screw with everyone.

  141. I think a lot is going to depend on your family’s attitudes, because some people are under a lot of pressure to raise religious children. In my case, my parents were lapsed American Baptists who may have retained some beliefs but had become disenchanted with organized religion, so they weren’t going to push anything on me. And even though I grew up in a pretty religious neighborhood, I never got much friction about finding my own way.

    I was an outspoken atheist at age 6 because I’d seen a good friend of mine badly freaked out by Baptist Sunday school. Later on, when I was about 12 or 13, I decided I was some kind of nonspecific Christian for a while, partly because almost everyone around me was, but I didn’t understand much about what that meant and it didn’t take.

    In hindsight, I think my grandparents were kind of bothered by my parents raising me without religious training. And I may have occasionally encouraged it by wondering aloud, with my usual limitless capability for self-doubt, about whether I’d been missing something by not getting it. But they didn’t make a big issue of it to me, apart from my grandmother giving me a Good News Bible at one point.

  142. KateH: My companion, even after knowing me for 6 years, actually said to me that “one can’t be a moral person without religion” while knowing I am an atheist

    Is “companion” something along the lines of “significant other”?

    If so, I know people sometimes quote “love knows no bounds” and similar sentiments like that, but sometimes the saying “there are plenty of fish in the ocean” has more immediate application. Along with its follow-up, slightly less known, quote: “Every fish deserves to live with a fish that respects them and their beleifs”

  143. It’s interesting- I was raised in a nominally Methodist household (Christmas/Easter), but when I told my mother I was an atheist, she reacted very strongly, as if it was some sort of personal failing. I never thought of her as particularly religious, which is why her reaction was so unexpected. Like our host, I live in the Great Lakes region- mostly people are live and let live with respect to my beliefs. Then again, I share many of the same privileges John has, as well.

  144. As someone mentioned about Geo. Washington above, I’m also an Episcopalian mostly because of family tradition and the desire to set a good example. I genuinely like the liturgical traditions of our church, and the fantastic music, so it’s no great burden. I also adore most of my fellow parishioners – another ‘win’ in my book.

    If pressed for a personal theology, I’d probably admit to a sort of vague deism / panentheism that would likely annoy some (but not all) of the priests at my parish. But hey, we’re Episcopalians – wherever two or more are gathered in His name there are three or more opinions ;)

  145. Marnie: Sorry to take so long in replying, but I had other things going on last night.

    You may have misunderstood my position; I have absolutely no problem with just about anyone of any ilk, Christian, Mormon, atheist, agnostic, Hairy Muffinite, gay and, yes, even Republicans, as long as they aren’t in my face about it. When I say “obnoxious” I mean the folks who like to tell you how dumb YOU are for not believing the same way they do. That’s different from someone saying (as they do here in the South from time to time) “Have a blessed day” or “God bless you” or putting notes around their cubicle about Bible verses. Heck, if one of my staff was an active atheist and wanted to put up something stating their beliefs, it wouldn’t bother me (though it might trouble the bigger boss…).

    I’m all for people having beliefs–without them it’d be a pretty bland place–and even discussing them. On the other hand, constant and obnoxious reminders of any position when someone has already told you that it just isn’t all that big a deal to them gets old.

  146. SM Stirling: Please to google “tyranny of the masses.” I trust you have the intelligence to take it from there. If you still don’t understand the point, then all I can offer are my condolences and sympathy that somehow you were convinced that the proper role of the opressed is to just shut up and take it.

    “to make you feel better the overwhelming majority should feel worse?”

    –>If being reminded that not everyone around them agrees with them or wishes to live the same lives as them makes people feel worse, then people ought to double-check their personal empathy circuits. I am unoffended when one of my staff says grace to himself quietly before meals. I recognize what he is doing, and leave him be until he looks up, ready to participate in the conversation. If everyone at the table did the same, I would equally leave them be until they were ready. But if he feels offended that I don’t also pray, then that’s his psychological baggage, not mine.

    Oh, as long as I’m asking you to google, go ahead and try “Jessica Ahlquist” and be sure to read the comments sections of the various articles. That’s what some Christians do when they’re offended by an atheist who requests that a public school adhere to the First Amendment.

  147. @Doug from Tally

    When I say “obnoxious” I mean the folks who like to tell you how dumb YOU are for not believing the same way they do

    Isn’t a statement specifically about atheism, necessarily a rejection of religious principals and thus would fall under your umbrella of “obnoxious”?

    I think it’s telling that you say:

    Heck, if one of my staff was an active atheist and wanted to put up something stating their beliefs, it wouldn’t bother me (though it might trouble the bigger boss…).

    You may not mean to but, what you are saying here is that you consider it quite noble of you to grant an atheist the same rights as you grant the Christians at your company, but that the atheist shouldn’t expect that your boss would do the same. Just the mere acknowledgment, in someone’s personal work space, of their alternative beliefs, would be sufficient grounds for one of the management to have issue with a person.

    I’m not saying your atheist pal isn’t obnoxious, but I am saying that the way you discuss the topic suggests that you are willing to put up with atheists only as long as they aren’t too obvious about their atheism yet you are more accommodating to atheists than others you know. You are saying that all the day-to-day mentions of christianity that fill even the language of your region don’t count as an ” obnoxious reminders of any position” but that a similar amount of talk of atheism would.

    This is generally the problem of privilege. Almost all of us have privilege of some sort. As a middle class white woman, I can walk into any store and no one looks at me like I’m a potential criminal. I have a certain amount of privilege there that a man of color might not. I don’t have to think about how I act, how I’m perceived or what challenges I might face when I go shopping. If an African American man tells me that no one trusts him when he goes shopping, it would be pretty ugly of me to say something like “well, don’t dress so black.” or “don’t be silly, I’ve never had that problem, just talk whiter, like me.” Christians have privilege where you live and you are aware of it. Instead of asking atheists to stop being so obviously atheist, maybe you could focus on being the type of person who treats atheists with kindness both directly and in your interactions with other Christians. Perhaps the reason you only notice the “obnoxious” atheists is that the other non-believers don’t feel they have a safe place to be honest about who they are. If only the bold and brash feel comfortable enough to be honest about who they are, then you’ll have a really skewed view of the community.

  148. Seeing what Jessica is dealing with right now tells me we have a long way to go before everyone has religious freedom, which includes freedom from religion too.

  149. You sound like a good agnostic, so you shall surely go to heaven for your efforts.

    Quack!

    Live and let live. Respect others’ beliefs and opinions. Not a bad way to go. I have to hope that folks do not feel offended or threatened at seeing religious displays unless the displays are somehow actually threatening in nature — like human sacrifice for example. I think I’ll go with religious intolerance on that one. Otherwise, it’s a free country (more or less).

  150. I’ve gotten more crap over my lifetime about being a headbanger (especially in high school in the early 90s) and a D&D player than I have for being atheist. In, oh, 1994, I told one of my coworkers that I played D&D. Her response was a prompt, “Do you worship the devil?” That being said, I’ll never be able to hold a publicly elected office because atheists are the most distrusted demographic in our nation. So despite the unconstitutionality of a religious test in our nation, I would find it close to impossible to be elected because I’m not religious.

  151. @ Marnie

    If we are going to use the term just to describe someone who is vocal and active in a cause, then fine, but that makes a lot more people “militant christians” and “militant muslims” and “militant jains.” But the word is not used that way, except with atheists and I think it’s done to diminish the non-believer’s merit as a person, instead of directly addressing his or hers arguments.

    I see what you mean. Members of other groups have to actually show some belligerence (albeit often only of the verbal variety) to get labeled as militants; whereas often all atheists and agnostics have to do is let it be known they don’t follow a religion.

    I also wonder how much it has to do with where one lives. John mentioned he lives in rural Ohio, where his neighbors don’t give him flak. But, as J pointed out, kids often have to put up with more social pressure. I’ve spent my whole life in major metropolitan areas. Austin is the smallest city I’ve ever lived in. I spent most of my childhood in D.C. and Tokyo, and went to undergrad in L.A. before moving back to D.C. to start my business. In all that time I’ve have many pleasant conversations with people who weren’t pushy, but never had anyone get obnoxious. Perhaps that’s the city ethic of not being a busybody. Or perhaps it’s simply because I’m a pretty good judge of character in real life and I avoid obnoxious people whenever it’s practical.

    As with most forms of marginalization, I suspect the answer is that how hard it is to be an atheist is dependent on too many variables to be easily calculated. I think our best strategy may be to take a page from the playbook of Mormons, Muslim and others facing systemic distrust, and just make sure society knows were their friends and neighbors in a non-confrontational, but also non-submissive, way.

  152. @Greg: Look at the source of the criticism of Mother Teresa. Hitchens and the founder of Rationalists International. Hardly unbiased sources.

    I’ve actually talked to people that have worked with Mother Teresa, and asked them about those charges, which they laughed and said were totally false.

  153. Anytime anyone asks about my religious affiliation with some vague hope of conversion, I say I’m a faithful worshipper of the metal gods, and if you have a problem with that, you can taste my axe. Usually shuts ‘em up.

  154. @ shakauvm

    Look at the source of the criticism of Mother Teresa. Hitchens and the founder of Rationalists International. Hardly unbiased sources.

    And Donal MacIntyre and Tariq Ali and everyone who criticized her for not returning the $1.4 million in donations made out of stolen money from convicted fraudster Charles Keating. Christopher Hitchens and Sanal Edamaruku may be avowed atheists, and Hitchens can be an idiosyncratic world-class jerk, but that doesn’t automatically invalidate their criticisms in which they were not alone.

    I don’t know if Mother Teresa was an opportunist, a do-gooder or both, but she was no saint.

  155. shakauvm: Rationalists International. Hardly unbiased sources. … I’ve actually talked to people that have worked with Mother Teresa

    It’s way too early for this level of cognitive dissonance in the morning. Since it may be a while before I get my morning coffee, perhaps you could consider why people who worked with Mother Teresa might not be entirely unbiased themselves.

  156. Thanks for posting this! I’m a Christian working on a science degree who spends a lot of time on the internet, and I see countless posts about how hard it is to be atheist in the US. But easily the majority of the people I know are atheists, and I can’t see how it’s held any of them back in the slightest. I also hear from Christians how hard it is to be religious in a university setting, but honestly, I don’t really see that either. If I tell people at work I’m a Christian, they are usually mildly interested, or mildly condescending until I explain that just because I’m a Christian doesn’t mean I don’t believe in evolution. While I don’t doubt that plenty of people have genuinely experienced discrimination and other consequences for standing up for what they believe is true, I think there is perhaps a tendency in both groups to exaggerate just how much they have suffered for their convictions.

  157. “Militant Agnostic: I don’t know and you don’t either.”

    I do often say, “Nobody knows,” but I mostly say it to atheists. Or I say, “The organized religions jump to too many conclusions, but the atheists throw out too much of the evidence. (Which is also a sort of conclusion-jumping.)”

    I seldom get in trouble (except on forums). With religious people in person, I usually go along with whatever they’re celebrating; I figure the positive parts are as likely to be more or less true as anything else.

    Functionally I suppose my view of reality would resemble Hinduism or Buddhism or such. Or “New Age” — now that’s what really gets reviled and persecuted.

  158. Miriam@2:02: I’m a Christian working on a science degree

    Hi!

    I see countless posts about how hard it is to be atheist in the US. But easily the majority of the people I know are atheists, and I can’t see how it’s held any of them back in the slightest.

    That’s an interesting combination of cherry picking and anecdotal evidence. Its nothing but people you happen to interact with on some way (so its anecdotal), but you disregard the ones who disagree with your desired outcome (so its cherry picking).

    I think there is perhaps a tendency in both groups to exaggerate just how much they have suffered for their convictions.

    If you want to exercise the “science” part of your science degree, here’s something that might qualify as applicable evidence:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Discrimination_against_atheists#United_States

    several polls have shown that about 50 percent of Americans would not vote for a well-qualified atheist for president.[51][52] A 2006 study found that 40% of respondents characterized atheists as a group that did “not at all agree with my vision of American society”, and that 48% would not want their child to marry an atheist. … Many of the respondents associated atheism with immorality, including criminal behaviour, extreme materialism, and elitism.[54]

    Sounds like discrimination to me.

  159. Things -could- be a hell of a lot worse for atheists. In any straight-up fight, the believers would always win. Do not provoke people who are much stronger than you are. If you do, you’re so stupid you deserve the consequences, to be blunt. Life has enough fights that -can’t-be avoided by a little social lubrication, aka “hypocrisy”.

    Ah, the “don’t you have more important things to worry about?” derail. Like someone else mentioned above, if you have religious privilege, in that you identify with the dominant group that benefits from societal privileges, such as Christians currently do in US culture, then of course you get to say there are “more important things to worry about” because you don’t have to worry about whether or not your lack of religious beliefs will adversely affect your job, your relationships with friends and family or possibly your safety. What has happened to Jessica Alhquist is the a textbook example of what happens when enshrined religious privilege is threatened – a 16 year old girl gets death threats for requesting her school comply with the Constitution and the Establishment Clause. The attempt last year in Michigan to exempt religiously-based bullying from the anti-bullying laws passed to protect students is also an example of an attempt to maintain religious privilege at the expense of those needing protection. So yes, for many atheists, speaking up to challenge religious privilege and the encroachment of religion into areas that should maintain the separation of Church and State – which is for everyone’s benefit, not just atheists – is an important thing. Speaking up when religious conservatives try to push their particular creation story into science classes, when scientific literary is absolutely vital to one’s education and knowledge, especially if we want to continue competing in the international arena of technological and scientific advancement, is important (and again, doing so doesn’t just benefit atheists). Especially when doing either usually results in accusations that atheists are immoral, loud-mouthed, disrespectful, untrustworthy and unAmerican. Just because they spoke up to point out an injustice. If those issues aren’t important to you, that’s fine – you just don’t get to determine that they’re not important for anyone else.

    The US is a democratic republic, not a straight democracy where “majority rules.” If that were the case, black people would still lack civil rights, women wouldn’t be able to vote and the US would be a Christian nation. Might does not make right and I was under the impression that one of the binding principles of our nation is that the wants of the majority do not get to trample over the rights of the minority. So the argument that atheists ought to shut up and sit down because they are in the minority anyway, otherwise they deserve the social censure they get, is antithetical to what it means to be part of American society.

    The term “militant” gets applied equally to the atheist who merely asserts one’s atheism when asked and to the atheist who’s being a douchenoodle (and yes, I’m happy to admit there are some because I’ve met them and I don’t like them either). It’s a fallacious equivalent. One is not militant when one says, “No, I don’t go to church, I’m an atheist” and yet given some of the reactions I’ve experienced, one would think that I’d just announced I like eating raw babies with tartar sauce for breakfast.

    John, I greatly respect your writing and have enjoyed reading your blog. Like you, I’ve been very lucky in that my lack of religion hasn’t resulted in many negative repercussions. I also suspect that has to do with the type of people I tend to gravitate toward, my economic status, my location, level of education and probably a dozen other factors. My personal philosophy parallels yours except for that within the last few years, I decided to embrace the term “atheist” because for all intents and purposes, that’s what my view on the existence of a deity amounts to, and because I don’t think it’s a term to be ashamed of. I’m happy to share the fact that I am an atheist because I want my life to add to the growing number of examples that one doesn’t have to embrace a religion or belief in a deity to be a good person and to live a happy life, because the stereotype that asserts otherwise is still extremely prevalent. I won’t barge into a conversation to declare I’m an atheist, but I certainly won’t keep my mouth shut when someone assumes I’m religious and definitely not when I hear someone make an erroneous generalization about atheists. You’ve chosen to retain the term “agnostic” and that obviously works for you, so great. I would just ask that you consider how religious privilege plays a part in public perception of atheists and atheism. The results of these polls may not illustrate the reality you and I live in, but they’re obviously a reality for other atheists. You may not aspire to be President of the US (and jeez, who would want that job? Every president looks like he ages 10 years over the course of 1 term), but for a highly-qualified person who would be a competitive candidate if it weren’t for the inconvenient fact that he or she refuses to compromise on his or her personal morals by hiding his or her atheism, the ostracism and penalties that come with atheism are indeed a serious problem – in which case, both the atheist candidate and the public he or she would serve lose out.

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