Being a more assertive atheist

Jeffrey Tayler had a nice editorial in Salon on about 15 ways atheists can be more assertive. There’s nothing actually new in it, and it’s really just reaffirmation for atheist readers, but its ballsy tone has captured some attention. Here are some of the suggestions I really find appealing.

1. “Let’s say grace!”

Tayler’s response is boldly blunt:

No, let’s not. When you’re seated at the family dinner table and a relative suggests clasping hands, lowering heads and thanking the Lord, say “No thanks. I’m an atheist. So I’ll opt out.”

That’s actually a pretty tough thing to do in real-life circumstances. There is a lot of pressure to just shut up and conform at family gatherings. And I’d imagine most atheists would object that doing this is just being a dick and unnecessarily rocking the boat, because it really does no harm to just hold hands, bow head, and shut up for a minute or two to avoid awkwardness.

But Tayler makes a strong argument against that:

Nonbelievers have every right to object when being asked to take part in superstitious rituals; in fact, if children are present, they are morally obliged to do so. Courteously refusing to pray will set an example of rational behavior for the young, and contribute to furthering the atheist zeitgeist.

Most of what we do as atheist activists involves making ourselves more visible. The billboards, the bus ads, the provocative book titles, cartoons, and T-shirts – the ultimate purpose to all of these things is to put atheism in people’s faces. It’s a lot easier to hate and fear something that you never have to see. Making ourselves more visible makes us harder to hate, harder to slander, and harder to ignore.

I’d like to add another reason: it’s not just for us.

You see, when we atheists take the initiative at these family gatherings to assert that it isn’t mandatory to take part in the rituals of whatever the dominant religion at the gathering happens to be, we actually empower people with other religious beliefs, too. If the atheist at a mostly-Christian gathering stands up and says “no, thank you” to coercion to take part in Christian rituals… then the Muslim girlfriend or the Jewish roommate or the uncle who is experimenting with Buddhism also get a free pass to do the same. That’s important as communities and families become more diverse. It’s no longer cool to just assume that everyone who comes to Christmas dinner wants to thank Jesus for the turkey (or even that they’ll eat the turkey).

2. “Religion is a personal matter. It’s not polite to bring it up.”

This first one was interesting, but this may be my favourite, because – if you haven’t already noticed – I’m not a big fan of tone police. I’m even less fond of hypocrisy, and particularly unimpressed by religious people who will on one hand assert they have a right to have the culture around them bend to serve their beliefs, then turn around and say that their beliefs are out of bounds for public discussion.

Sure, there’s no need to just – out of the blue – start quoting Hitchens to people who were talking about something totally unrelated. That’s obviously ridiculous. However, when someone makes a comment – no matter how casual – that is religiously motivated, game on. For example, if, during the family dinner, Uncle Biff makes a homophobic joke… have at him. And if sweet Aunt Lulu puts on a hurt face and says homosexual marriage just feels wrong… ignite the flames.

Because, again, standing up for rationality doesn’t just help atheists. A rising tide lifts all boats. For all you know, there may be someone else at that gathering struggling with their sexuality, and too afraid to stand up for themselves just yet. They don’t deserve to be hung out to dry because you don’t want to ruffle feathers.

11. “You have no right to criticize my religious beliefs.”

Ah, yes, the old saw. Personally, my own response to this has always been simple: “If you have a right to state them, I have a right to criticize them.”

14. “My religion is true for me.”

In the domain of stupid responses, this may be the apex. I just love how Tayler takes it on:

A soppy, solipsistic and juvenile declaration and cop-out bordering on the delusional….

Love it.

Of course, the rest of the response is pointing out “that’s not how science works”, which I find of questionable use. Many religious people have no qualms about flat-out rejecting science, so pointing out they’re not being scientific is hardly going to impress them.

That’s why I say the list is more about atheist reaffirmation than it actually is about facing down ignorance and irrationality. I don’t think most of Tayler’s suggested responses would have much effect on the kind of believer who would actually say these things.

Still, I admire the attitude. He’s right – we need to be more assertive.

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Being a more assertive atheist by Indi in the Wired is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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