Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Why Atheists Shouldn't Keep It to Ourselves

I like to think that when someone poses a question to me, I respond appropriately. I'm sure we all believe this about ourselves, whether or not it's true, but in general, I do my best to probe for further elaboration, helping me to form a more accurate assessment of the sincerity and intent of their question. Undoubtedly, I'm more patient and effective in this offline than I am online, though I think that's reasonable to an extent, because of the immediate availability of information on the internet. However, one particular question that religious believers occasionally put to me will irritate me without fail, regardless of where it's posed and how it's phrased. The question is, "Why can't atheists just keep their opinions to themselves?"

There are many, many ways of responding to this, but one important reason was yet again made clear to me last night. In my Comparative Religion class, morality was the subject of discussion, and one young Christian guy felt the need to throw in his two cents on secular morality. According to him, secular morality is an oxymoron and without religion there would be no right and wrong. I calmly informed him that the Golden Rule is one example of secular morality, that morals may develop inevitably as the consequence of human interaction (which is what morality is all about), and that atheists are not amoral hedonists but are often driven by firm moral values that have led us to reject the immoral teachings of religions like Christianity.

After class, he approached me and thanked me for an interesting conversation, adding that I'd given him a lot to think about and the entire class has been a learning experience for him. This is one very good reason for atheists to speak out. We might think that the world learned a lot about atheists during the peak of "New Atheism," or that the wonderful internet has helped spread awareness of what atheists are truly about, but there are clearly still some people around who have not gotten the memo, as they say. Of course, it is possible that this Christian heard all of this stuff before and simply dismissed it. But since you don't know for sure, it doesn't hurt to try, and sometimes you may explain things in a way that clicks with a person where previous attempts have failed.

Being that atheists are the least trusted minority in America, it's never a bad thing to educate others and correct misconceptions. Some non-theists shun the atheist label because of the negative associations it has in the minds of many people, but this is actually part of why I call myself an atheist. I think it's worth it to show people that atheists are not all god-hating morally perverted commies. Pigeon-holing any group identity in such a way is wrong. It also seems fruitless to try and escape the connotations by simply choosing another label. If religious zealots are willing to smear the word 'atheist,' they will be just as willing to smear 'unbeliever,' 'non-theist' and any other words that don't fit with their narrow worldview.

Declining to be labeled may not be so productive either, since it certainly won't help people to be more understanding of atheistic views, and at some point we do have to learn to live with labels, because they do describe who we are (man, woman, black, white, teen, and adult are all labels). I'd rather try and resolve bigoted assumptions than simply try to avoid them, and this is not just something I do with atheism, but with any label, whenever I hear people attaching ridiculous baggage to it.

Getting back on track, why is this question so irritating to me? Because, really, there is no wrong answer to it. Why should atheists keep their opinions to themselves? Why should anyone keep silent? There is nothing bad about conversation, but there is a lot to be said about censorship and the suppression of "unacceptable" opinion. People who imply that you should not share your views are those who dislike your views and want them out of the marketplace of ideas. The question irritates me because it is dishonest. The person asking it hides behind a cowardly rhetorical device, instead of expressing their true feeling: you should not be allowed to say those things about my religion. There is no genuine curiosity, no concern for respect. Only a desire to silence dissent.

This alone would be ample reason for sharing our views. No idea, however beneficial or detrimental, should ever have a monopoly on human thought.