November 4, 2009

How to lose friends and offend everybody

If you were listening to NPR on Oct. 19, 2009, you may have heard this: A Bitter Rift Divides Atheists
Last month, atheists marked Blasphemy Day at gatherings around the world, and celebrated the freedom to denigrate and insult religion.

Some offered to trade pornography for Bibles. Others de-baptized people with hair dryers. And in Washington, D.C., an art exhibit opened that shows, among other paintings, one entitled Divine Wine, where Jesus, on the cross, has blood flowing from his wound into a wine bottle.

Another, Jesus Paints His Nails, shows an effeminate Jesus after the crucifixion, applying polish to the nails that attach his hands to the cross.
It's no wonder that believers were offended. I was offended, and I'm not a believer.

You don't have to defend reason and science by insulting all religious observance. I don't know about your country, but a lot of believers in the United States belong to the "cafeteria" variety. They have mainstream values, they pick and choose what religious tenets they agree with, and they quietly don't obey the rest. (Ever heard of Catholic couples who use birth control? Or Jewish people who eat bacon?) They adhere to various forms of what is known as the Golden Rule ("Don't injure or harm others. Period.") and don't believe that people who don't agree with them should die.

Most people just follow the religion of their parents and their culture. Life is busy and full of obligations, we are all under a lot of stress, and we shouldn't get down on others because it never occurred to them to question their (and their parents') religious and cultural beliefs. They are not stupid. Not everyone has the leisure, education, interest, etc., to question their or their parents' religious beliefs. They're too busy putting food on the table for their families. As long as they obey the Golden Rule and don't impose their views on others, leave them alone.

Just ignore the more benign forms of religion and only reserve your firepower for the more virulent forms. We nonbelievers don't need to create enemies. We can argue that reason and science is on our side, but we don't have to offend potential allies (and believe me, some religious people are potential allies). If you insult people, you will end up in the lonely position of preaching to the choir, because nobody else will listen to you.

To the atheists who say there are no benign forms of religious observance, I beg to disagree. You can believe all you want that a Pink Unicorn created the universe, and it's none of my business as long as your beliefs stay inside your head. Your freedom to act on your beliefs ends at the point where my nose begins. If you try to restrict my freedoms in any way (or influence politics in such a way that will restrict my freedoms), that's another thing altogether.

So, agnostics and atheists, if you do your best to tamp down the anger between believers and non-believers, you can have a civil (and even cordial) conversation. And that's what I call a good start.

(The photo was by Dianna Douglas/NPR)

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