Hiding one’s tribe
I was reading this article over at the Friendly Atheist and I thought “you know, this is exactly why I kept my opinions about god to myself for so long.”
Basic gist of the story (for those who don’t click through): A Government banquet includes a fairly mild prayer. Being a government function, there should not be a denominational prayer of any kind. An atheist in attendance gets pretty damned angry and writes a letter.
The Mayor says “I’m sorry – we didn’t think about that” and suggests some solutions. The atheist becomes obstinate and demands a public apology.
If we were talking about a prayer before a City Council meeting, I’d be on board with this guy’s anger because church and state are supposed to be separate in our country. If you want God to give you a hand with your political decisions, you need to ask him for that help on your own, thank you very much.
What happened here is much less troublesome. It calls for a more measured response and I fear the response was over the top.
I think some atheists read about guys like this and decide that it would be best if they hide their opinions. My own impression was that most atheists I knew were assholes. This impression is aped by many others and it made it easy for me to continue with that erroneous assumption.
Not wanting to be associated with a group that was known for being assholes, I decided I’d hide my tribal affiliation because while I could agree with their core belief, I couldn’t agree with how they were expressing it. Well – I couldn’t agree with how I thought they were expressing it.
I mean, I’d never throw a fit over a brief prayer at a banquet. I’d be annoyed by it but it seems like such a small issue that it wouldn’t be worth more than a casual “please try not to do that” comment. To me, this guy feels like – well – an asshole.
I would look at a guy like this and because I didn’t want to be that kind of atheist, I resisted being any kind of atheist.
As if the simple act of concluding that there is no god would turn me into someone who I was not.
The problem here is that there is a belief – even amongst a lot of atheists – that the worst thing atheists can do is talk about being atheists. We think we look like jerks because we don’t buy what the church is selling. As long as we quietly disbelieve and avoid making waves, it’ll all be OK.
Except it isn’t OK. I’m not OK with someone claiming this is a Christian nation because I’m a citizen and I’m not Christian. They don’t get to force me to live by their rules because there are more of them. That is exactly the kind of thing this country is supposed to be fighting against.
Somewhere along the line, it occurred to me that being an atheist doesn’t make you an asshole. Being an asshole makes you an asshole.
As frustrating as it can be at times, religion is everywhere and there are times when it is appropriate and OK (non-governmental functions/functions in church), times when it is inappropriate and not OK (like when you hang a prayer banner in a public high school) and times when it is inappropriate and probably not a big deal (like a milquetoast prayer at a banquet).
When a guy goes ballistic about little things, it makes a lot of people say “see? Atheists are assholes!” They ignore the fact that members of the religious right have a persecution complex and so they try to make sure they don’t get persecuted by persecuting everyone else.
I dont know the guy in the article. Maybe he’s a good guy who has just had enough. Even if he is, though, I think he’s tilting the wrong windmill.
Being an “out” atheist doesn’t mean you have to fight every bit of religion in our world. There is too much of it. I think you need to fight the parts that are dangerous. Like the Catholic Church’s assault on gay marriage or the push for creationism in public schools. Any time we go after the small stuff, we just alienate the believers who could be on our side.
And here’s the thing – most atheists know that. As I’ve come to realize, there are a whole lot of atheists in my life and they are all really cool people who also happen to be atheists.
My choice to “come out” was all about realizing that it didn’t matter that some atheists were assholes because they did not define atheism. They were only defining themselves.
NOTE: The incident that inspired my blog actually happened in Canada. While my statements about separation of Church and State still hold true for America, it was wrong of me to imply that Canadian and American law are the same on the subject. Let me say, though, that I think church and state should be separate everywhere. Canadian or American, though, I still think the guy was kind of a jerk.