Atheists in the Pews and “Good News”

August 18, 2010

sanctuaryLast weekend, I went to church. Twice.

It had been a while since I’d stepped foot in a church. The first service was a wedding for two of my best friends from college; one is a Rhodes scholar and chemist and the other is studying at a seminary to become a Lutheran minister. The sermon focused on this distinction (that many might see as a contradiction) – the scientist and the theologian. It was a beautiful service and I was thrilled to be there for it, and since the sermon was primarily a celebration of their relationship, I was able to appreciate it.

The next morning, after a late night out celebrating their wedding, I joined my family for the baptism of my first nephew. The sermon was an amalgamation of cheesy images and Bible verses guided by PowerPoint. Listening to the preacher wax on about Jesus, I felt like I was at a megachurch listening to Ted Haggard. Needless to say, I sat there with a bit of a self-satisfied (and very sleepy) smirk on my face. Is he serious? I asked myself, happily thinking about how much “more enlightened” I was. Of course, I kept such thoughts to myself.

In both instances, I could’ve been an asshole. “No,” I might’ve said, “I refuse to go to church. Sorry guys, but I just can’t be there for these important landmarks in your lives because I don’t agree with your religion.” But because I am an engaged individual who has religious people in my life, I could not. Still, just because I was there didn’t mean I had to listen, right?

A couple days later my mom called to talk. At one point in our conversation, she brought up the sermon. She admitted that it wasn’t exactly compelling for her – she thought the presentation of bolded Bible verses and stock images of praying hands was somewhat over-the-top. That said, she also said that she had continued to ruminate on his message of giving back to the community and being a caring citizen in the days following. Though she didn’t buy a substantial amount of what he had preached, she still found a lot in what he said that was worth considering. I’ll never find a church that affirms exactly what I believe, she said, but the community and the practice of taking a few hours every Sunday morning to listen and reflect is important to me.

When she said that, I realized I could hardly remember what the sermon had been about. I was there, but I wasn’t present. I wasn’t paying attention. I wasn’t listening. The moment I saw the first PowerPoint slide and heard the praise and worship music, I tuned out.

I feel bad now for being so arrogant while listening to the Sunday morning sermon, because it is entirely possible that I missed out on the nuggets of insight that my mom, because of her open mind, had been able to absorb. As someone who believes that one can still learn a lot from the teachings of religion without following religious dogma, I wasn’t doing a good job of practicing what I preach.

After my mom finished talking about the sermon our conversation shifted, as it often does, to my work as a secular activist. I don’t know how you do it, she continued. I don’t think I could be a Secular Humanist because I just don’t ever hear Atheists having anything positive to say. Every time I hear Atheists in the news, they just seem so negative. I’m not so sure about Christianity, but at least it’s uplifting.

She’s right: we have a lot of work to do. So often, we engage in mean-spirited criticism when we encounter those with different opinions. In many ways, we’ve earned our bad reputation.

On the other hand, we’re a young movement and we are already doing amazing things. There are secular folks doing important work all over the place, and it needs to be heard about. This is why we need more public, positive secular stories.

Still it is true that many people, like my mom, continue to go to church even when they don’t agree with a lot of the church’s fundamental beliefs. Let’s face it: my church attendance last weekend wasn’t a fluke. Atheists sit quietly in church pews every day throughout the world. Many do so because they feel they have no choice, and that is a true shame. It’s a major problem and I hope that the more public some of us become about our secular identity, the more comfortable others will feel doing the same.

But many others do it for less obvious reasons. As far as I can tell, there are three big reasons some Atheists go to church (aside from those who continue to go because they fear “coming out”). These are:

1. In solidarity with the religious (as I did twice last weekend),

2. To learn from the insights of various religions (as I have done for much of my life), and

3. Because organized Atheism lacks a robust community and is too negative (as my mom suggested).

I’d like to see our community find ways to not only be open to the religiosity of our friends and loved ones – so that we do not miss opportunities to learn by not listening, as I did last weekend – but I also hope that we will focus less on what sets up apart and more on articulating our positive values. Maybe if we do that, fewer Atheists will feel the need to go to church to find community and positive ethics. Where Atheism is lacking, religion will continue to thrive.

I have a friend coming to visit this weekend. I’m sure we’ll have a late night out Saturday. But who knows – maybe we’ll drop by a church Sunday morning in hopes of learning a thing or two. If we do, I’ll try to be a better listener this time.

Atheists in the pews may not buy the “Good News,” but maybe, with an open mind, we can make good on shifting some of our hostile views.


18 Responses to “Atheists in the Pews and “Good News””

  1. Lucy said

    Loved this post 🙂

  2. Hitch said

    I think there is quite a bit of good stuff in here. Let me give you my personal view on it.

    “community and the practice of taking a few hours every Sunday morning to listen and reflect is important to me”

    True. I wish more people would listen more and judge less.

    “I wasn’t doing a good job of practicing what I preach”

    Yep, and all this time I was on your case about that… listen more, judge less.

    “I don’t think I could be a Secular Humanist because I just don’t ever hear Atheists having anything positive to say. Every time I hear Atheists in the news, they just seem so negative. I’m not so sure about Christianity, but at least it’s uplifting.”

    Yes your mom is right. And if she comes to this blog she will get a similar picture. But I have lots of positive exchanges with my unbelieving friends all the time. We discuss how to help oil spills, which charity to pick to help in Pakistan, how to help atheists who got bullied again, how to strengthen the community. That just doesn’t make the news (or your blog). There are lots of positive things to report from the SSA meeting for example… Hitchens had many nice and conciliatory words for people who pray for him in kind. Anyone reporting it? Harris speaks on ways to be moral? Covered? Dennett is a really nice and positive guy, do we hear that when new atheism is discussed?

    To alientate for an atheist, it is enough to exist.

    “engage in mean-spirited criticism”

    My criticism is not intended as mean-spirited. It is honest. If feelings get hurt, shouldn’t we say it? If people get not listened to, isn’t that exactly the lesson to learn? I critique because I care. The moment I stop I have given up. A lesson learned from the late and great Randy Pausch.

    “we’ve earned our bad reputation”

    No we don’t. The secular students did not earn the swastika thing or the presentation as shadow-of-the-night campaigner, when you know full well that they reached out and engaged, invited dialogue and mutual listening. That is not an earned reputation, that is misrepresentation.

    People should be judged for what they did, not for what they can be painted to be.

    Also notice that only one side is under the magnifying glass here. What about a detailed assessment of what the MSA students did. How did they encourage reaching out to atheists? How did they foster dialogue?

    No, we are not given a fair story and a fair picture and the reputation earned on what we get is unfair.

    Respect is a two-way street. I what you call progress is demanding respect from one side while not expecting it from the other. Why you only like progress you approve/participated in is also not clear to me.

    “Atheists sit quietly in church pews every day throughout the world. Many do so because they feel they have no choice, and that is a true shame. It’s a major problem and I hope that the more public some of us become about our secular identity, the more comfortable others will feel doing the same.”

    You make it sound as if the problem is just having enough visible people. Of course the real problem here is that coming out as atheist incurs a sever social risk in many areas. A stigma fed by people reinforcing how negative atheists are. Do you understand why I have such issues how you present atheism? It feeds exactly into this problem. It makes it harder for atheists to come out if you have big blog posts that constantly reinforce just how negative atheism really is and how they are nasty etc, when it’s a tilted picture to begin with.

    I have no problem going to church and be polite. I go to religious ceremony of my friends all the time. Many atheists are not rude or negative. But that doesn’t mean I can just say I’m an atheist, because thanks to the image people will automatically infer I am rude and negative. This is not an image that we chose, but that is widespread even among people who have never met an atheist in their lives.

    Rather than help conciousness building with the believers, you help reinforce the stereotype.

    Now to be realistic, some atheists are rude, but no more so than some believers. Yet we do not run around and tell some christian kid who curses that he is hurting christianity and try to control his move. We don’t highlight that one kids behavior as example just how bad christianity is. But exactly that we constantly do to atheists. And you on this very blog constantly do it.

    “1. In solidarity with the religious (as I did twice last weekend),”

    True, I do it. Many do it.

    “2. To learn from the insights of various religions (as I have done for much of my life), and”

    Fine for everybody to do. Christian apologists read atheists, and in fact I know some divinity schools who do so on a very high and rather nonjudgemental level. Good for them!

    “3. Because organized Atheism lacks a robust community and is too negative (as my mom suggested).”

    Nope. We have communities but yes it could be more. We do not lack it. Secular groups are all over the country. We have youtube communities, forums, blogs, conventions. But all we hear from it is the negative. It gets amplified and pulled out of context. The only thing we learn about AAI is burkagate and debaptizing not all the other stuff. The only screenshot we see are the most extreme stickers not the most friendly ones.

    We can construct a negative image by just reporting on the worst.

    And what does it do? It makes community harder. You notice how people react to you at the SSA. Have you helped strengthen the community, or have you helped fracture it? We do not need this internal black-painting. It hurts the community. A lot. We need the opposite. We need advocates who embrace diversity, help overcome problems without making it a big judgment, who contribute to invite those in who are scared and persecuted, and who foster diversity.

    “I’d like to see our community find ways to not only be open to the religiosity of our friends and loved ones”

    That’s a good point. I felt people did listen to Weyer. But we have a weak community. Is it not OK for us to actually help strengthen ourselves some?

    ” – so that we do not miss opportunities to learn by not listening, as I did last weekend”

    You link to the 9/11 thing again. I agree that you weren’t listening to what people meant or how they felt. Instead you had to judge them quickly and harshly. Remember, I ask you to judge less and listen more. Exactly the point about the 9/11 post. How did that help us as a group that you made a big fuzz about that one, not properly presenting what people actually meant and painting them as bordering on islamophobia?

    ” – but I also hope that we will focus less on what sets up apart and more on articulating our positive values.”

    If you do not want to focus on what sets people apart, why do you constantly highlight what sets you apart from other secular people?

    “Maybe if we do that, fewer Atheists will feel the need to go to church to find community and positive ethics. Where Atheism is lacking, religion will continue to thrive.”

    There is nothing wrong with going to church. There is community. And there is positive ethics. In fact atheist blogs are filled with discussion on ethics, if you look.

    Atheism is lacking, in an image that they actually deserve.

    Let me make this explicit:

    The famous Minnesota study [1] has shown that atheists are by far the least trusted group in the US. Exceeding broadly understood stigmatized groups such as Muslims or gays.

    It’s important to note that this image is undeserved. In most social dimensions atheists are good, moral citizens and contribute productively to society. Atheists dominate nobel prices and national academies. But also some of the most generous philanthropes such as Bill Gates or Warran Buffett are secular (do we ever hear about that or see secular society get credit?) But these are just examples.

    Looking at the society as a whole we find that in fact in many dimensions we exceed the average, we are better educated, more literate and have some of the lowest crime rates of any group. See the work by Phil Zuckerman who does extensive sociology on atheists in society [2].

    Chris, I honestly think you mean well. But unfortunately you are not listening or understanding the situation of atheists. It may be hard to believe but atheists broadly are not white privileged males. They are ordinary people. And they have to deal with a negative stereotype that many religious people reinforce at any opportunity. Are you helping atheists or hurting them by amplifying the aspects that you do.

    See just to say “There is no god” is the radical thing. People do not tolerate it. It is really no different than to say “I am gay”. People do not tolerate it either. We cannot solve the gay problem by saying that some are too flamboyant. And we cannot solve the atheist problem by saying that they are too outspoken, or by constantly pointing at bad apples (that all groups have).

    And if you do point at bad apples, please point at them in all corners and all sides and please give the full picture, not some slanted tendentious picture. That would be much appreciated. Thanks.


    [1] Edgell, P., J. Gerteis, and D. “Atheists as Other: Moral Boundaries and Cultural Membership in American Society.” American
    Socio­logical Review 71(2), April 2006.

    [2] Zuckerman, P. “Atheism, Secularity, and Well-Being: How the Findings of Social Science Counter Negative Stereotypes and Assumptions” Sociology Compass 3(6) 2009, pp 949-971.

    • SkepticalSeeker said

      That was a beautiful response, and thank you. My atheist community in Louisville is reaching out to fellow non believers and hosting a booth at the KY State Fair to highlight the positive contributions of atheists to American society. It’s just so easy to absorb what our critics say and forget the good stuff. And when an atheist blogger comes on and confirms the stuff our critics are saying, it makes creating positive atheist community that much harder.

    • Toby said

      Yes, everyone knows that signs of self-criticism within a community encourages suspicion from outsiders.

      Just like how all non-Muslims are so keenly aware about the differences and disagreements that exist between Muslims, and this encourages Islamophobia. They see some Muslims saying to a subset of other Muslims, “let’s stop this violence and intolerance in the name of God”, and this reinforces their perception that Islam is intrinsically about violence and intolerance.

      Oh, no, wait. It’s actually the opposite. In reality, anti-Muslim bigots ignore or downplay the differences and disagreements between Muslims; this is part of preserving their belief that Muslims are a homogeneous group, and their belief that all Muslims are by nature as bad as the worst (or at least somehow complicit in what the worst do). The more they think Muslims aren’t criticizing each other concerning the very same things they themselves find problematic, the more their prejudices flourish.

      It is one thing for someone outside of a group to say “Xes do this, and that’s bad”. It is an entirely different thing for someone within the group to say “We Xes sometimes do this, and we all need to stop.” If you can’t hear the enormous difference that “we” makes, that’s too bad, and it bodes ill for the idea that we are witnessing the emergence of an atheist movement or any sort of real community. Every strong community, every strong relationship, opens up room for this sort of criticism to be given and received in love, and not in divisiveness.

      • This is pitch perfect. So right on. Thanks, Toby!

      • Hitch said

        If the criticism was honest I would have no problem. But it isn’t.

        Did you guys even read the papers I linked? My guess is no. But if you did care about the problems atheists are in you would.

        Let me make this very explicit.

        Here is Chris statement:

        “we’ve earned our bad reputation.”

        I strongly object to this. No we haven’t. I have given evidence why it’s not fair. I have shown how what the critique does feeds directly into what people do to maintain that undeserved bad reputation.

        And all you have to say to this “oh people cannot take internal criticism”?

        So swastika comparisons are given and received in love? White supremacists comparisons are given and received in love?

        Finally the atheists are extremist problem that you raise.

        Yes there is the isue with people criticizing Muslims for not speaking up against extremist who claim to be Muslims.

        Now let’s compare this to what is going on here. Greta Christina has dared to answer a question with 9/11. That’s the extremism that Chris elevates into a rant against islamophobia in atheists.

        I’m sorry but that is not extremism. To say that thousands of people dying at the hands of religious extremists is a catalyst for some people is an opinion.

        We have this completely false comparison, that violent monsters are compared to people who have an opinion that you may disagree with.

        We equate the two and them claim that equivalent measures are necessary. Can you see how completely abusive that frame of mind is?

        I’m sorry, outspoken atheists, even those who step over the civility line at times are NO WHERE NEAR violent extremists. It is in fact completely offensive and part of the stereotyping that I resist that this is even suggested.

        But yes, that’s exactly it. Atheists have to accept to be compared to horrifying things for having done one thing. Spoken.

        And because the line of honesty, openess and rudness is constantly blurred. Any outspoken atheists is endangered by these kinds of things.

        I’m very sorry but the SSA students did NOT deserve the swastika comparison. That was not loving criticism. And the SSA students dod NOT deserve to be labeled haters when they were no such thing.

        Let me bring this back to Chris’s expression:

        “we’ve earned our bad reputation.”

        So if a Muslim said to other Muslims, pointing to extreme examples, that “we’ve earned our bad reputation.” Would that be acceptable? Would that be loving criticism? Or would that be feeding the exact stereotype and unfair negative image Muslims unfortunately actually have to deal with?

        The answer is trivial. Of course not. Why? Because of guilt by association. But it is apparently perfectly fine to use guilt by association against Atheists. That’s why I have called it a smear before. It links the average with the extreme and then say “well you deserved your image!”. No we didn’t. And in fact to say so is harming, not helping.

        And Chris wonders why people upset with him? It’s not because they cannot take honest criticism. It’s because they cannot take being treated like this. Noone should take this without rejecting it.

        So don’t spin this away. It’s hurtful, dishonest and perpetrates exactly what the problem is.

        I welcome people criticizing. Go ahead and criticize my argument on its merit. But don’t expect me to stand by in silence when what is actually going on is hurting people who have done nothing wrong but speak.

        I have aspect Chris multiple times now to distance himself or explain his hurtful expressions. Instead he rejoinders with statements like yours to explain away why all this is just “loving”.

        I do not have time now but to make what I say explicit. I’ll be happy to revise Chris post into a format that I find acceptable. It will only have stuff removed that I think is unfair and tendentious. You will see that that won’t remove any criticism at all.

        But a final point. If you have a criticism for someone that you love. What do you do?

        1) Go to the town square with a megaphone and advertise to all people your grievance highlighting the worst of the other person.
        2) Approach the person you have criticism for personally and explain what the issue is, listen to their side and seek joint ways to either come to a consensus, or agree to disagree.

        If you do not understand the difference you have a real problem understanding what loving criticism is.

        All it removes is negative branding and stereotyping, the very thing I have been in love, criticized in what Chris does.

        About prejudices, again read the Minnesota study. We had our horrendous image while being nice and quiet for 30 years. People now who oppose atheism try hard to keep that image reinforced.

        This is the backdrop you have to consider when saying what you say.

        Finally no community can survive this notion: People are prejudiced about you. Noone in your community can act in any way that could confirm the prejudice.

        This is how stereotyping actually works. How is the image that African Americans are dangerous falsely kept alive? Well people point to the robbery here, and the prison statistics there.

        Chris hosts Kate saying that atheists can be stupid too. Chris says that atheists are emotionally deprived. Chris says that atheists are privileged white males.

        All these reinforce stereotypes. They take one instance, or an out of context statistics to make a statement about the group.

        And that is exactly what I criticism and ask to stop. “We deserved it” is wrong. And as long as Chris believes that atheists deserved the image they have I will be here opposing it. Because it is not the fact. It is the very stereotype people who dislike atheists keep alive to keep it down.

        Do you really care for atheists when you do these kinds of things? Is this really loving criticism and not divisiveness? I think you basically try to spin it to the opposite of what sadly happens.

        So Chris, let me ask you again to please stop stereotyping the atheist community. Please read the Minnesota study and the work by Phil Zuckerman. If you have questions, ask. If you disagree with any specific point I make, articulate it.

        I am not here to bash anybody. But I cannot stand for a community that is already hurting as badly as atheists are to have to take more of what they have to take unfairly already, but from the inside. The “we” does matter if the criticism is honest, fair and to the fact. Then yes an in-group criticism is a good thing. But first have your context right. Unfair criticism is not criticism. And it certainly is not loving.

  3. Deja said

    As a former marketer, there isn’t a question in my mind that packaging and framing are everything.

    As a critical thinker, obvious falsehoods and insistence that things cannot be questioned automatically make me scrutinize any statements that accompany them.

    There is so much information in the world it is usually easy to find less biased and questionable material.

    So when you add the lies and dogma of religion to advice on how to live your life, it’s hard to blame someone for devaluing that advice.

    That doesn’t mean it’s of no value, but I’d much prefer to listen to someone starting from a rational basis for the whys of morality and how one should live rather than a book that threatens me with eternal suffering if I don’t follow arbitrary rules. Fundamentally, that’s where “Christian living” and its morality is supposed to stem from, after all (even though non-psychotic atheists know otherwise).

    And as a final note, while I have trouble stomaching the frequently vapid sermons when I’m dragged to church, I regularly attend speeches of political figures I disagree with and read books about things I don’t like (such as the art of Andy Warhol) based on the assumption I just don’t understand them well enough. Sometimes it changes my opinion, sometimes it doesn’t. I try very hard to keep an open mind, or at least a mind that’s humble enough to realize my gut reactions are my gut reactions are exactly that – lacking in reason. But I’ve certainly listened to enough god to decide there are better, more efficient, more rational ways to improve my life and the life of those around me.

  4. sleeper said

    It is your humility–that is, your openness to show your faults–that makes this (and many other posts) so engaging. As a churchless faith-seeker, I find myself back in church for weddings/etc. and feeling exactly as you do–and I still consider myself sort-of-somewhat-kind-of part of the Christian faith. So: consider us bridged!

    I don’t know if this is common, but, in my experience, all the atheists and secular humanists I’ve ever met made me feel like a dolt for continuing to parse the idea of faith–like I’m the idiot with the opiate. Thanks for showing the human in humanism.

  5. Deja said

    *humble enough to realize my gut reactions are exactly that – lacking in reason.
    *lives of those around me

    I was on the copywriting/editing end of marketing…..hrmm.

  6. I don’t think I could be a Secular Humanist because I just don’t ever hear Atheists having anything positive to say. Every time I hear Atheists in the news, they just seem so negative. I’m not so sure about Christianity, but at least it’s uplifting.

    She’s right: we have a lot of work to do. So often, we engage in mean-spirited criticism when we encounter those with different opinions. In many ways, we’ve earned our bad reputation.

    I think your mom’s words are a case of the pot calling the kettle black. Christianity has been in the news a lot during the past decade… in the form of opposing queer people’s rights, curtailing women’s rights, supporting idiotic bigoted political candidates, and so on. While that doesn’t represent all Christians, it certainly represents the noisiest, most well funded, and politically energized part of Christianity here in the US. Christianity has heaps and heaps of negativity associated with it, not the least of which is the notion that all of humanity is an assortment of depraved sinners. I mean, how much more negative could you get than that?

    I’m usually supportive of the ideas you explore on your blog, Chris, but this really rubbed me the wrong way. Is there a strong streak of negativity among some atheists? Sure, and it would be good to shift some of that negativity, as long as this does not exclude criticizing organized religion in constructive ways. As much as atheists annoy the crap out of me, I see them as a kind of bulwark against the extreme negativity of organized religion—and make no mistake about it, there’s a ton of negativity associated with organized religion. In many respects, atheism is a response to that negativity and it can be a useful response as long as it maintains a focused, humane, and intelligent mode of conduct. In a religion-obsessed culture such as the US, someone needs to offer that criticism and given Christianity’s performance here in the US I don’t trust Christianity to do a very good job of calling itself out on its major faults.

    So, is atheism run through with a kind of negativity? Yes, it is, but that negativity is largely driven by the negativity of organized religion. That doesn’t excuse atheists from behaving like bigoted assholes—and quite often they do—but it really irks me to hear religious people complain about atheists and not acknowledge that the negativity is largely being driven by the horrible things that their own religious institutions are responsible for. This negativity didn’t spring out of a vacuum for unknown reasons.

    • @tmberwraith: I totally, totally get you. There are very legitimate concerns about religion in organized atheism. Sorry if I haven’t been clear enough about that. I think you hit the nail on the head when you say, “criticizing organized religion in constructive ways.” The problem is that when we make trash-talking religion our number one priority (aka adopt nonconstructive approaches, as atheists often do), our arguments against the truly problematic elements of organized religion lose their strength and become diluted AND, in the process, we alienate the liberal religious folks who could be our strongest allies in criticizing the problematic elements of conservative organized religion.

      That said, I think my mom’s main point was that she hasn’t been exposed to organized atheist communities that offer the kinds of uplifting messages she gets at church. Instead, much of organized secularism merely focuses on decrying the religious which is, in itself, innately negative. As justified as atheist animosity may be at times, it isn’t exactly heartwarming.

      How does that sound? Sorry for the lack of clarity, and thanks for airing your concerns!

  7. Taylor N. said

    Hmmm, this Hitch character is interesting.

    And I have a response to Deja.
    Deja says they’d “much prefer to listen to someone starting from a rational basis for the whys of morality and how one should live rather than a book that threatens me with eternal suffering if I don’t follow arbitrary rules.”

    First of all, I sometimes have an issue with the word “rational” when it comes to talks of faith. I am the most level-headed person I know, but I still know that humans are anything but rational. We are emotional every second of the dat. To repress that would be repugnant to how we were Created. (Capital C.)

    That said, I do appreciate rational discussion as much as anyone. It’s an irreplaceable aspect of communicating ideas. So I would like to rationally offer the suggestion that there can be no morality without God. I’m not saying atheists are immoral – but that their actions cannot be judged if we don’t have a tempered scale, nor can anyone’s. To say there is good or bad intrinsically creates the need for a judge, a point of reference. So what better “why” to morality than the fact that God Created a universe with order, with good and bad, which we connected to at the root of our being. The existence of God as I know Him is the very first start to a “why” for morality.

    Now – if Deja wants the “hows” of morality, just listen to Jesus. Seriously 🙂

  8. SkepticalSeeker said

    I completely get your reaction to the sermon. I go into churches for weddings and funerals, and I will listen for points of agreement but still tend to get really annoyed by the sermonizing. For an example, here is what happened at my Grandpa’s funeral last year. ( I felt totally isolated by the way the pastor seemed to just assume that we were all Christians and rejoicing that he was in heaven. It helped to know that some of the members of my family felt much the way that I did about the whole deal…stuff like this makes me queazy about ever entering a church for any reason.

  9. Michael M. said

    Perhaps I’m mistaken, but I didn’t think many people choose theism or atheism based upon what others who identify as theists or atheists have to say. That’s why I find your Mom’s comment somewhat difficult to understand. It implies that a big factor in her faith is that she has a negative impression of what she hears atheists say.

    I can find plenty of positive and negative aspects of religious and non-religious attitudes, actions and statements in the media and in my community, but I don’t think any of those have much influence on my personal beliefs. Were I a person of faith, I’d hope that my faith would be strong enough for me to feel secure in it despite my own disagreements with some other people of faith and despite criticisms from people lacking faith. As an atheist, I feel comfortable enough to accept that many honorable people with honorable intentions are believers without that making me question my own non-belief. Likewise, I can accept that some of my fellow atheists behave in ways that I find churlish and unhelpful.

    I volunteer for a number of organizations that are secular in nature — secular in the sense that they have no religious affiliation, not in the sense that they explicitly push an anti-religious agenda. Many of my fellow volunteers, as well as the employees and clients of these organizations, are all over the map in terms of religious affiliations or lack of religious beliefs. These organizations strive to be welcoming and inclusive, to make people of all faiths or no faith, all races, backgrounds, gender and gender identities, sexual orientations, etc., feel valued and assisted, not judged. A few weeks ago I participated (on behalf of one of these organizations) at a resource fair for homeless and low-income populace and had a nice chat with (among many other people, of course) a guy who works for a faith-based organization. In talking about all the different approaches that different groups take to helping people, he said “Of course, our ultimate goal is to bring people to Christ.” I know a bit about his organization and I know it helps a lot of people, but I also know it’s not an organization I would feel comfortable being associated with. I have no interest in or compatibility with its “ultimate goal,” even as I can appreciate the services it provides to many who are in need.

    So I guess my question for your Mom (and others who share her view) is why does that make me a negative person? What is more positive about trying to help people with an explicitly religious motivation than about trying to help them without regard to religious beliefs? What is implicitly “uplifting” about people who seek to convert others to their own religious beliefs, especially given that many such people refuse to be tolerant of others they deem immoral?

  10. Josh said

    I have to agree with you. My goal for this year down at the University of Chicago is to help guide our secular community into a more positive, open-minded body within the neighborhood and university. There is a real lack of positive secular narratives, but humility (like your post has displayed) can do some real good..

    It’s easy for us to advocate open-mindedness, but much harder to actually check our gut reactions at the door (or at least be aware of them). But wisdom is reflecting on experiences like you have here, and acting accordingly. Thanks for this thoughtful post.

  11. […] Atheists in a Pews as well as “Good News” « NonProphet Status […]

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