On Sunday, in the Wall Street Journal online, writer Dave Shiflett penned an opinion piece about the upcoming American Atheists convention in Salt Lake City, Utah — on Thursday, in fact: “Where Atheists Meet to Evangelize: Telling believers they are rubes may not be the best recruitment strategy.”
Frankly, I’m still not sure what to make of it. I don’t know what Mr. Shiflett’s personal religious views are, but his article contains a number of mordant jabs. “… deity-dissing group,” he calls American Atheists at one point.
“… suggesting that the uninitiated are delusional and feeble-minded might not be the wisest way to expand your brand.”
I’m reminded of what Julia Sweeney reports in Letting Go of God, what her mother says in a phone call after Julia is accidentally outed to them: “Everyone knows that there are those few people out there who don’t believe in God, but they keep it quietly to themselves!”
The timing of Shiflett’s article was curious, because on April 11, Kellie Moore wrote a piece in the Washington Post about the growing number of secular communities: “Don’t call it atheist church; secular communities are growing.”
Moore notes that many of the secular groups are geared towards families with young children, and that the children’s activities don’t include “teaching atheism.” In fact, they try to steer clear of any kind of indoctrination.
“Teaching atheism”? What would that even look like??
In my own Evangelical upbringing, a fair amount of time in church was spent teaching us theology and Christian apologetics, the systematic field by which Christians learn how to present a rational basis for the Christian faith and defend it against objections. Everything from having us memorize Bible verses to lessons on Sunday mornings about the Christian life were intended to prepare us to “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19).
Going between these two articles, it’s interesting to see how religious people superimpose their models of church and community onto atheist assemblies. To paraphrase Queen Victoria: “Whatever do atheists do?” They assume that, like them, our goal is to make more atheists; to break down the deeply held beliefs of Christians with cold, hard, scientific logic and rational arguments.
The popular image of an atheist is based on media figures like Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens, aggressive and vituperative voices bent on destroying any belief that isn’t founded in hard science or reality. We are portrayed as angry, bitter loners without a moral foundation or compass. A recent study covered today in Pacific Standard confirmed that Americans intuitively judge atheists as immoral.
One article on Crosswalk.com claims to expose “Chilling Strategies of Neo-Atheists.” If you’re paying attention, this is how Evangelicals portrayed Communists in the 1950s—godless, immoral atheists mobilized by Stalin to turn the United States just as Communist and atheist as the U.S.S.R.
Nicoll claims that part of the atheista strategy is to target the young and turn them into god-hating, anti-religious clones. (Transference much??) He then quotes philosopher Richard Rorty, who described his dream that students might enter college “as bigoted, homophobic religious fundamentalists” and leave full-fledged atheists.
“… we are going to go right on trying to discredit you in the eyes of your children, trying to strip your fundamentalist religious community of dignity, trying to make your views seem silly rather than discussable.”
It’s true that some atheists share this view; that religious people are feeble-minded and that religion must be stamped out if humanity is to survive and thrive. Yet what Nicoll accuses us of sounds more like what Evangelicals having done since the inception of Christianity. “Give me the child of seven,” said Francis Xavier, “and I will give you the man.”
This is the distorted view of atheism that we have to contend with, just as many liberal Christians try to distance themselves from their bigoted brethren.
Honestly, how often does the average atheist think about religion? Probably not much. For those of us who follow the news (politics in particular), it’s difficult to ignore the presence of Christofascism, the kind of belief that seems eager to wield a sword to spread and enforce Christianity far and wide.
So were it not for city councils opening meetings with Christian prayers, daring anyone to bring a lawsuit; wedding photographers and bakers making martyrs of themselves in their increasingly bizarre war on marriage equality; and politicians trying to write their religious views about women’s bodies into law… well, most of us wouldn’t think much about religion.
The new Cosmos (with the amazing Neil deGrasse Tyson) is a reminder that there’s more than a lifetime’s worth of amazing things to think about and ponder!
Yesterday, I posted an article with the musing that punishing those who hold (increasingly) unpopular views about marriage equality “seems to run counter to the very message of the LGBT movement, which is that there’s room at the table for all. The real question is whether equality opponents are willing to sit at the same table.”
This is where I’m also at with Evangelical Christians.
The fact is that, until we invent spaceships to whisk us away to other planets, we’re stuck learning to live peaceably together on this one. The atheists I know are willing to reach out, to build a table where there is space enough for everyone, their views and beliefs (however strange). Because right now, outside of academia, we’re rarely invited to join the party. True, we often self-segregate, but mostly, that’s because we’re accustomed to not even being recognized.
We don’t want to necessarily make atheist converts. We don’t want to dash anyone’s hopes and dreams. Rather, we desire a renaissance of critical thinking—and less dogmatism. We want children (and adults) to be free to consider every possible idea and facet of human knowledge, and decide for themselves what they believe instead of being told that they must accept one particular narrative, without question, or burn forever in Hell.
Because it’s about time we started celebrating the wonder of being alive.