Hey, atheists, grow some balls already!
It’s been around 30 years now since Harvey Milk stood up and declared that people get out of the closet. It’s about time that we also stand up and declare to the world, proudly, that we are atheists as Richard Dawkins’ Out campaign suggests. Of course, I’ve unintentionally alienated those people who are uncomfortable with the term ‘atheist’ but are nonetheless part of the more general non-religious community. We could quibble about terms, but the simple fact is that those who don’t believe in gods are atheists, and this is the common thread that ties us all together. Thus, it’s about time we reclaimed the word atheist the same way that others have reclaimed queer or gay. This is the first step to truly taking a stand for ourselves.
Many people, like myself, have embraced this coming out, and I am glad to stand among them. However, with other atheists this approach seems too forward, in-your-face, or even offensive. To some, we simply need to avoid offense and conflict with religious people and with faith in general. So, knowing that I’m likely to offend these fellow nonbelievers, I think that is a completely cowardly and ineffective approach.
While I recognize that being confrontational and challenging all the time and in every situation is unrealistic and, frankly, annoying, I strongly believe that there is nary a situation that I should not be open about my lack of belief concerning this deity that is supposedly ubiquitous yet intangible. In other words, I should, in fact, be out. Further, I strongly believe that we should be willing to challenge the worldviews of those we disagree with—little matter the subject, the relationship between potential interlocutors, or the likelihood of ever convincing them. As we should very well know, even if we cannot convince them, its good practice and it may get a curious ear of someone near by. Don’t underestimate the effect of dialogue.
When I was around the age of 15, I woke up one morning after a party at a friend’s house before anyone else. In order to kill some time I perused the bookshelf for something to read. It wasn’t long before I discovered, for the first time, Plato and his wonderful mentor, Socrates. I quickly became enthralled by this persistently questioning, pestering, and annoyingly wise character. Over the years, I began to wonder what such a person would look like now, and began to realize that today as in his own time, he would come off as an annoying loudmouth who wouldn’t leave people’s worldviews alone. And yet those dialogues are still read today because someone was willing to have them then.
As I watched the so-called ‘new atheists’ emerge, I began to understand that the Socratic influence on our society has cyclically worked its way through groups, individuals, and causes until anyone who was willing to talk with almost everyone about what they believe, why they believe it, and to (hopefully) draw some different conclusions from those people was, in some small way, continuing this Socratic influence.
These ‘new atheists’ had done what many had done before by standing
up to the apologists of a set of unjustifiable worldviews. They had taken on
the Socratic mantle, continuing the conversation
And why are these house-atheists so uncomfortable with a more aggressive approach towards the faithful and doctrinaires? Well, because they want to cooperate in larger social issues, avoid unnecessary conflicts, or avoid badgering people who will not be swayed anyway. I understand the desire to cooperate, live-and-let-live, tolerate, and to be submissive to a dominant culture. I understand that there is a sadomasochistic culture out there for people like that. OK, I admit I’m being somewhat disingenuous there, but my point is that there exist many people who simply value tolerance, diversity, and getting along too much. I should know because I attended a Quaker school for 13 years, and the Quakers are the masters of the celebration of diversity, often taken to absurd degrees of non-violence as Thomas Paine observed in Common Sense in lambasting them for siding with the British in order to avoid conflict.
My disagreement with this non-confrontational pacifism towards religion and faith stems from what diversity we are celebrating. It is not wonderful, per se, that we live in a culture with atheists, Christians, Jews, Moslems, Buddhists, Hindus, etc, but that we live in a culture where these groups are able to talk to one another, learn from each other, and challenge each other’s worldview. We should celebrate diversity of perspectives in the search of what is true, not a celebration of having different conclusions.
There will always be people who do not want to hear, will refuse to listen, or listens only to yell (a certain tall and loud Fox News commentator comes to mind). But we have to keep in mind that this defensiveness is often derived from deep fears and insecurities which surface when prodded. Most people, including those within our community, do in fact fear what is true, and will avoid it if they can. This is why some people take so long to finally admit to themselves that they don’t believe in any gods, that they are actually gay, or that uncle Murray, who insisted on praying before Thanksgiving dinner, is deluded and whose opinions about the nature of the universe don’t actually deserve our respectful silence all the time.
Even the well-intentioned nonbeliever often fails to distinguish between respect for people and for their ideas. People who do not wish to create conflict believe that they are keeping the peace (or whatever they say to rationalize in their minds why they don’t challenge people around them) when in fact they are simply unwilling to admit the presence of a real unspoken conflict that they are ignoring. The conflict of ideas exists whether we voice it or not. The difference is that so long as most atheists keeps quiet most of our culture keeps assuming that the theistic worldview is the justified view because it is not challenged. And the longer we keep quiet in these situations the longer they will seem to be correct. And the world will continue its snail-like crawl towards out-growing absurd beliefs simply because people are too cowardly or polite to challenge people on their ridiculous beliefs in our everyday lives. What is needed is a grass-roots movement, a guerilla warfare of ideas, and not just giants debating in lecture halls that uncle Murray has never seen and will likely never seek out.
So where does Socrates come in, then? Well, he comes in because this article comes across as aggressive and obnoxious. This caustic tone is intentional on my part because I believe that it is necessary in most circumstances—and yet asserting facts acerbically will turn off your intended target, right? So here lies the problem: I think these issues need to be handled roughly because I find them repulsive and ridiculous and because some people won’t listen without this passion, but I can’t use that tone without turning off almost everyone I talk to. This breeds the conflict between the aggressive and confrontational anti-theist, atheist, or rational responder and the less confrontational freethinker, humanist, or ethical culturalist. Socrates, or at least some aspect of his method, holds a key to the solution.
Socrates was made famous for his drawing conclusions out of the people that he talked with. One gets the feeling, in reading Plato’s dialogues, that Socrates knows where he is leading his interlocutor, but knows that simply stating it will never convince them. His wisdom seems to be that he understands that when someone comes to a conclusion themselves, they are much more likely to accept it. One needs to come to a conclusion on their own. It doesn’t matter if I think that the god of the Bible is a megalomaniacal bastard, because until I get the Christian I am talking with to see it, any such declaration will come across as an aggressive attack to be discarded. So we need to remember how we came to our view and not give them our conclusions. That is, we should introduce our perspective on how we arrived at those conclusions in this continued celebration of a diversity of views. We need to ask the right questions to paint the right background in order to have them paint the foreground for themselves.
And when, at the last minute, they play the faith card, remember that this is never the end of the conversation. This is, in fact, where the conversation really begins. It is when one has retreated behind imaginary walls of protection that they stand most naked, and this is the point at which a further question is rarely expected, and when asked is almost always met with astonishment. Nobody expects you to challenge them after they have admitted that they are irrationally bastioned behind nothing. In truth, they are probably surprised themselves when you point out that this is precisely what they are doing. Getting them to admit this…well that goes back to the debilitating insecurity that the fear of what is true creates.
So, with that in mind, let me return to the issue of how we atheists should address theists. Wouldn’t you prefer your uncle Murray understood what you believe and stop praying before dinner? Wouldn’t the world be a better place if everyone used rational, evidence-based reasoning to solve problems? I understand that you might believe that the climb is too steep for us to reach in our lifetimes and that religion will likely never disappear. I understand that life is much easier without perpetual conflict with family, friends, acquaintances, and co-workers. But at the same time don’t you understand that any progress we have achieved in our society has come about through the personal sacrifices of the few that were willing to stand up for what they believed in? And doesn’t it make sense that the more people willing to stand up for something, the easier it will work itself into the mainstream conversation? Wouldn’t the quiet and conflict-avoiding voices of those that didn’t speak up in the past have made it easier to get rid of slavery, women’s suffrage, and other social efforts much sooner?
Might people such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who speaks out for atheist and feminist causes under perpetual threat and necessary protection, be able to walk the streets freely without fear for her life if your voice had been willing, whenever you first realized you didn’t believe in god, to shout it from the rooftops and to challenge your friends and family on why they still did? Maybe not, but imagine a world where everyone always stood up for what they believed. Is it possible that your excuse for not doing so is shared by other quiet ones who are not shouting as well? What if they are looking for someone as inspiration in the real world, and not just a celebrity who seems out-of-reach? Maybe a real revolution of the masses is by the masses; when the individual simply does what they think is right, and is willing to listen to their neighbor do the same thing.
Do we wish to continue the celebration of the diversity of views where conflict is inevitable in silent prostration or proudly voiced protestation? If you aren’t going to be the neighborhood atheist in the field, then perhaps you might be the neighborhood house-atheist.