Sorry, your beliefs are not off-limits

It’s no secret atheists are not the most popular group.  We have a reputation for being smug, arrogant, and generally not fun to be around.  It doesn’t help that many “activist” atheists go out of their way to be a nuisance, often treating believers with derision and condescension.  Meanwhile, we have to deal with a wide variety of negative attitudes, running the gamut from simple ignorance to outright hatred.

Those of us who see atheism in a different way have the unenviable task of dealing with the antipathy created by this awful combination of ignorance and the poor behavior of our cohorts.  As non-believers who do not hold the faithful in contempt, we must balance two priorities that are often at odds.  On one hand, we must be true to ourselves and not ashamed of our beliefs; on the other, we must not needlessly alienate people of faith.  Different people find different ways to do this, depending on their personality and life situation.

For myself, I’m someone with a very conciliatory nature so my overall goal is generally to get along with people as best I can.  I’ll go along with family prayers and such (though purposely keeping my eyes open).  I’ll avoid openly insulting religion when among company that contains believers.  It’s my hope that by doing this I can help eliminate some of the stigmas that come with non-belief and work towards creating an environment where respectful debate and discussion can happen.

But apparently this isn’t enough for some believers.  This absurd post in the Telegraph came across my Twitter feed this morning.  In it, a Mr. Tim Stanley argues that, essentially, atheists need to just shut up and stop criticizing faith because some believers might get their feelings hurt.  Stanley attempts to still affirm that he believes in free speech, but then clearly implies that, at least as far as Internet debates go, seculars need to keep their opinions to themselves lest someone’s deeply held beliefs be offended.  Stanley posts:

But it’s still amazing how people feel that they can casually mock the spiritual and emotional convictions of others – including Tweeting directly at believers that God doesn’t exist and they’re either liars or idiots for saying so.

Yes, it’s really amazing how some people are brazen enough to state that they don’t believe in God and actually feel like they can express this to those who do.  I for one am entirely baffled that anyone would feel like they have a right to question other’s beliefs on the Internet, since this has never happened ever before.  Please ignore for a moment that atheists are persecuted in numerous countries across the globe and routinely told we are awful people.  A theist has his feelings hurt, so we must tone down our rhetoric.

Are believers really so scared of their beliefs being questioned?  I get that it’s hard to have your convictions attacked.  As someone who used to be religious I get that your beliefs are important to you and define who you are.  But my beliefs are just as core to who I am.  Not believing that God has a plan for me, that he would take care of me, was a huge step in my coming to be a more independent, confident person and taking charge of my life.  No longer pretending to belief in mystical things has been incredibly liberating, and I feel more comfortable with myself and who I am than I ever did in the church.

What believers like Stanley seem to be asking for is that their beliefs, and ONLY their beliefs, be kept in bubbles and immune from attack.  They of course offer no such comfort to other faiths like Islam.  They certainly feel no need to withhold attacks on atheism.  Yet they expect us to pretend that their superstitions are somehow sacred, that THEY can believe whatever they want and have the rest of us walk on eggshells.  It’s the height of arrogance, and something I’d never be bold enough to even think of expecting.

Should atheists be tolerant and compassionate?  Of course we should.  The world would benefit by more folks being understanding and accepting that other’s beliefs are complicated and often well-founded (at least to them).  Religion has been around for so long because it fills a human need.  Like many I believe that this need could be otherwise filled.  But for billions of people religion is a huge part of their life.  You don’t accomplish anything by attacking it, you simply ensure that people dig in further. And you certainly aren’t improving the human condition.

I often don’t agree with the tactics used by Richard Dawkins and his ilk.  They are more about self-aggrandizing than converting or loving.  But they 100% have every right to express those views.  They have the right to attack religion how they choose to.  Believers should have no expectation that their beliefs are insulated and immune.  If their beliefs are true and well-founded, they should not be so scared to have them questioned.  Like it or not, religion is very validly blamed for many bad things in the world; the problem is that some who attack it forget the positive it can bring.   You do it no credit to demand that others treat it with kid gloves, while still retaining free reign to attack other faiths and non-belief.  You just look like a hypocrite.

If you want actual dialog, then whatever your belief, approach others with understanding and kindness. Assume that they actually believe what they claim to. Assume they are intelligent people until proven otherwise. Assume they do not hold their beliefs because they are stupid or evil.  Remember that people are individuals, not simply stereotypes. But also be aware your own beliefs might be questioned – sometimes strongly, sometimes unfairly.  If you genuinely hold them and can defend them you should have no fear to put them forth in the marketplace of ideas.