Guest Blogger

Atheists in the Pride Parade: Thoughts on Churlishness & Integrity

Filed By Guest Blogger | July 01, 2011 3:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: Greta Cristina, LGBT atheists

Editors' Note: Guest blogger Greta Christina is one of the most widely read and well-respected bloggers in the atheist blogosphere. She writes about atheism, LGBT issues, feminism, sexuality, and other polite topics for AlterNet and her own cleverly named Greta Christina's Blog, and is on the speakers' bureaus of the Secular Student Alliance and the Center for Inquiry.

How can atheists be civil and friendly with religious believers -- particularly believers who are actively representing their beliefs -- while maintaining our integrity about our atheism?

Pride 2 crowdLast Sunday, I marched with the atheist contingent in the San Francisco LGBT Pride Parade (hosted by San Francisco Atheists, East Bay Atheists, and Atheist Advocates of San Francisco). Rainbow-crossIt was an awesomely fun day (even with the "hanging around for over three hours waiting our turn to get into the parade" part). We had a good 50 people in the contingent: it was a totally fun and marvelously motley crew, and hanging out and marching with them was a blast. And we got LOTS of love and support from the crowds watching the parade: from generic "Woo-hoo!"-ing to intense emotional outpourings. (We also got a certain amount of blank, deer- in- the- headlights stares, and the occasional bit of pushback -- but mostly, we got love and support.) It was very gratifying, and more fun than a barrel of narwhals. Causing a commotion, 'cause we are so awesome!

But because contingents in the Pride Parade are organized by theme, we wound up marching close behind the assorted gay religious groups: the Metropolitan Community Church, Dignity (the gay Catholic organization), the gay evangelical group whose name I don't remember, the ones who had the float with the giant rainbow cross on it. (I so wish I'd thought to get a photo.)

Which meant that the three-plus hours hanging around waiting our turn to get into the parade was spent in fairly close quarters with these religious groups.

Which posed an etiquette/ ethics conundrum: How can I be civil and friendly with religious believers -- particularly believers who are actively representing their beliefs -- while maintaining my integrity about my atheism? The basic principle -- respecting people and treating them with courtesy and dignity, while retaining the right to criticize and even disrespect ideas -- is a straightforward one in theory... but how does it play out in practice?

I'm going to be very clear right now: I'm speaking here only for myself. I am not speaking for any of the organizations hosting the atheist contingent in the Pride parade, or for any of the other participants in it. The thought processes and decisions I'm describing here are entirely my own.

Pride 7 David So here was the situation. Many of the people in the religious contingents wanted to be friendly and make nice with the atheists. Many folks smiled and gave us the thumbs-up; when their contingents were moving past us on their way to filing into the parade, many of them cheered and applauded us. Some even made more overt gestures: one woman from the gay evangelical group came over to talk with us about David Byers' "Leviticus Says... Crazy Shit," sign, and how much she agreed with it, and how those bad homophobic right-wing evangelicals were getting God's true message totally bolloxed up, and how in the end it was really all about love.

Nice, right?

Yeah. See, here's the problem.

In the last several years, I've gotten into many, many conversations with progressive, tolerant, ecumenical religious believers about atheism. And in my experience, their tolerance for atheists dries up fast when we actually start discussing atheism. Once they find out that atheists don't agree with any religion -- even theirs? Once they find out that we are, in fact, familiar with the progressive and accepting versions of religion, that it really isn't new to us... and that we still don't believe? Once they find out that the reason we're atheists isn't because we think religion is hostile and ugly, but because we think it isn't, you know, true? Once they find out that most atheists' attitude towards progressive ecumenical religion is, "Yeah, it's less bad than the hateful, bigoted right-wing bullshit, but it still lends credibility to the idea that it's okay to believe whatever you feel like without any good evidence to support it -- and most importantly, it's still just flat-out wrong"?

Once they find that out -- the pro-atheist Kumbaya hand-holding dries up in a hurry.

Seal of approval It's not a facade or a fake, exactly. I think the believers are sincere about it. It's just not very closely examined. In many cases, they've never really talked with atheists about our atheism. So they make assumptions about what we think of them... assumptions that are generally not true. They assume that we're as uncritically accepting of progressive ecumenical religions as progressive ecumenical religions are of each other. They assume that our opposition to religion is simply opposition to the bigotry and hatred of the more conservative versions of it... and not opposition to the whole idea of belief in invisible supernatural entities. They assume that their particular beliefs get the Atheist Seal of Approval. And when they find out that they're wrong... then the "Thumbs-Up For Atheism" attitude tends to disappear into the mist.

And it was very hard to see the smiles and the applauding and the thumbs-ups at the Pride Parade, and not remember all those conversations. It was very hard to see the smiles and the applauding and the thumbs-ups, and not think, "I know how this conversation ends up." It was very hard to see the smiles and the applauding and the thumbs-ups, and not think that ultimately, it was bullshit.

I didn't want to get into an argument. Or rather... I did want to get into an argument. Very much so. When the woman who was trying to make nice with us said that the homophobic religious right had gotten God's message all wrong, I absolutely wanted to ask her, "Okay, so you think the homophobic religious right is getting Christ's message wrong. How do you know that you're getting it right? What reason do you have to think that you, personally, know what Jesus really meant, and that all these other jackasses are getting it wrong? They cherry-pick scripture to support their position; you cherry-pick scripture to support yours -- how do you know that your cherries are the ones Jesus would approve of? Oh, and while we're on the subject: What evidence do you have to believe that Jesus is the divine son of God in the first place? Are you aware of how laughably unreliable the New Testament is as a historical document? Are you familiar with the arguments that the historical Jesus probably didn't even exist, and that the case for him being the divine son of God is a total joke?" I was kind of dying to get into it, if you want to know the truth. I was chomping at the bit.

Pride 3 Greta But I also felt like it would be inappropriate. This wasn't the time or the place. This wasn't a debate, or an editorial, or an atheist blog comment thread. This was the Pride Parade. A time for celebration -- not a time for divisiveness. And besides, the reason I was there to put forth a positive representation of happy, joyful, queer-positive atheism into the LGBT community... not to get into a pissing match. So I smiled weakly, and mouthed non-committal vaguenesses, and escaped from the conversation as gracefully as I could.

Which still made me feel churlish. When people are extending a "We're all brothers and sisters" hand, it feels churlish to shrug and reply, "Yeah, not so much."

The same thing happened when the religious contingents and floats went by us and applauded. I felt like they were saying to us, "Sure, we believe in God -- but we're not like those other bad religions! We think atheists are great! Don't you think we're great, too?" I felt like they were asking us for the Atheist Seal of Approval. I felt like they were expecting us to applaud them back. And I felt churlish for not doing so.

No_Religion.svg But you know what? I can't applaud religion. I just can't. I think religion is a flatly mistaken idea about the world. I think it's an idea that, on the whole, does significantly more harm than good. I'm devoting my writing career to persuading people out of it. I can be friendly and respectful with the believers... but I'm not going to express my approval for the beliefs.

And in a culture -- like progressive LGBT culture -- where uncritical acceptance of different religious beliefs is part of the standard etiquette, I don't know how to maintain that integrity without coming across as pissy, intolerant, and churlish.

Atheists talk a lot about the parallels between the LGBT movement and the atheist movement. I talk a lot about it myself. But I think we need to remember that, for all the parallels between the two movements, there are some important differences. And one of the biggest differences is this:

There is nothing about saying, "I am queer," that implies, "You are mistaken to be straight." But there is something about saying, "I am an atheist," that implies, "You are mistaken to believe in God." Coming out as queer is a subjective statement about what is true for you personally. Coming out as atheist is an assertion about what you think is objectively true about the external world. When we come out as atheists, we're not just saying what's true for us. We're saying what we think is true in the world. And by implication, we're saying that people who disagree with us are wrong. Even if we're not actively trying to persuade people out of religion -- heck, even if we don't care whether people believe in religion -- we're still saying that we think religion is wrong.

We need to cop to that.

Don't believe in god billboard We need to acknowledge that, for atheists, coming out is different than it is for queers. We need to acknowledge that, for atheists, even the gentlest, least- confrontational, "Don't believe in God? You are not alone" forms of coming out are, in fact, still confrontational. Not just because people don't want to hear it; not just because the conventional etiquette demands that we not say it. Because it is. Because we're telling people that they're wrong.

I think we need to accept that. And I think we need to take responsibility for it.

There's probably no god There are a lot of different ways for us to say it. We can say it in gentle, diplomatic, "You can be good without God" ways. We can say it in snarky, in-your-face, "You know it's a myth" ways. We can say it in bald, statement-of-fact, "There's probably no God" ways. There is room for both confrontationalism and diplomacy in this movement, and in fact the movement is stronger with both methods than it would be with just one or the other.

But I think we need to accept that this is always going to be a difficult topic. I think we need to accept that being honest about who we are and what we think is always going to ruffle some feathers. I think we need to accept that ruffling feathers is not the worst thing human beings can do to one another. It's not even in the Top Ten. And I think we need to accept that being out as atheists, and maintaining our integrity as out atheists, may always be seen -- and feel -- a little bit churlish.

Because it is.

That's just going to have to be okay with us.


Recent Entries Filed under Living:

Leave a comment

We want to know your opinion on this issue! While arguing about an opinion or idea is encouraged, personal attacks will not be tolerated. Please be respectful of others.

The editorial team will delete a comment that is off-topic, abusive, exceptionally incoherent, includes a slur or is soliciting and/or advertising. Repeated violations of the policy will result in revocation of your user account. Please keep in mind that this is our online home; ill-mannered house guests will be shown the door.


Christine | July 1, 2011 3:26 PM

Greta, I always enjoy your writing and have ever since we were both on the masthead of Spectator during the day. If I may make a few observations, I hope they are taken in the friendly spirit intended.

#1. Believing there is no God is still a form of faith.

#2. Anyone — and I'm speaking about people of *any* faith — whose belief system rests on others agreeing with them, has no true faith.

#3. Most crusading true believers are trying to convince themselves just as much as they are others about the rightness of their beliefs.

#4. There is far more to the universe, to reality, than meets the eye or can be perceived in any tangible form. Making any kind of pronouncement based on limited information is a bit presumptuous.

For myself, I believe in God in the Creator sense, but I have absolutely no use for religion. At its best I believe religion is a human-created attempt to define the undefinable and draw some comfort in the face of the hardships and fears of life. At its worst it is a con game designed to extort money from and control other people, to gain power over them. If what someone believes makes them happy and hurts nobody else, more power to them. But to the AFAs, and NOMs and Westboros, I cheerfully dive in fangs bared when the opportunity presents itself.

BTW, one of my favorite quotes about Faith is from Matrix Reloaded.
Locke: "Damn it, Morpheus! Not everyone believes what you believe."
Morpheus: "My beliefs do not require them to."

"#1. Believing there is no God is still a form of faith."

No, it isn't. This is a common misunderstanding of atheism -- but it's very much a misunderstanding. For most atheists, atheism is not the absolute, 100% certain conviction that there is no god. It is the provisional conclusion, based on the best currently available evidence, that there is almost certainly no god, that the god hypothesis is unsupported by any good evidence, and that unless we see better evidence, we're going to proceed on the assumption that there are no gods. Not believing in God is no more a "faith" than not believing in unicorns, fairies, Zeus, or Santa Claus.

"2. Anyone — and I'm speaking about people of *any* faith — whose belief system rests on others agreeing with them, has no true faith."

Atheists' "belief system" -- and I put that phrase in quotation marks, since atheism is a provisional conclusion and not a belief system -- does not rest on others agreeing with us. However, many of us do see religion/ belief in the supernatural as a valid subject for public debate. In many other arenas -- science, politics, medicine, philosophy, ethics, art, etc. -- if we disagree with people, we try to persuade them that we're correct. Why should religion be the exception? Religion/ belief in the supernatural is a hypothesis about how the world works and why it is the way it is. If we think it's mistaken, why shouldn't we debate it, just like we debate any other hypothesis? Especially if we think it's a mistaken idea that, on the whole, does more harm than good?

In any case, I don't know of any atheist who thinks "true faith" is a good thing. That's your phrase, not ours.

"#3. Most crusading true believers are trying to convince themselves just as much as they are others about the rightness of their beliefs."

Really? On any topic? LGBT activists, feminists, environmentalists, prison reform advocates... all of these people are "trying to convince themselves"? It's not just that they think they're probably right, and that the opposing position is not only mistaken but harmful? And if it's okay to "crusade" on these topics... why is it so wrong for atheists? Again, why should religion/ belief in the supernatural be the exception?

"#4. There is far more to the universe, to reality, than meets the eye or can be perceived in any tangible form. Making any kind of pronouncement based on limited information is a bit presumptuous."

Every single atheist I know agrees with the first part of this. But that's not an argument for God or any sort of supernatural entity or force. "We don't understand everything" does not equal "God or the supernatural exists." And we make pronouncements based on limited information all the time. We always have limited information; we nevertheless come to conclusions about the world. We have to in order to function. Is it "presumptuous" to conclude that the Earth orbits the sun, or that germs cause disease? As long as we're willing to re-consider our conclusions if new evidence contradicts them, coming to provisional conclusions isn't presumptuous -- it's entirely reasonable.

Again, you're assuming that atheism is an absolute, unshakeable, close-minded faith that there are no gods. And that simply is not the case. I encourage you to talk some more with atheists about what they think and why before you jump to more conclusions about us.

I won't bother arguing Atheism. It's honestly a tough argument. I can understand your logic, but you can't understand my belief. So we'll drop it.

But here's my issue. You talk about your integrity as an atheist. And if I'm reading this correctly, it would seem that your integrity as an atheist is only going to be truly intact if you do your best to convince others to come to the same conclusions that you have.

It's my opinion that Gay Pride isn't just about celebrating homosexuality. In fact, I think that it's not about celebrating homosexuality at all, it's about celebrating the fact that despite enormous opposition we're still standing. It's also about celebrating our differences, and proving to ourselves that we can be so different and still call ourselves one community, still hug each other without reservation. It's about respecting and caring enough for one another that we don't try to change each other the same way that others try to change us.

If you can't see a religious person without thinking of their hopeful conversion to godlessness, I'd review your feelings on diversity, honey. It's fine that you disagree with people of faith, but you could at least be respectful about it. Is "live and let live" truly so antithetical to the atheist worldview?

Christine | July 1, 2011 9:04 PM

#1. If you are Not "absolute, 100% certain conviction that there is no god" then why are you "devoting my writing career to persuading people out of it" with such fervor? If some people have a belief in a Creator that doesn't involve hurting anyone else, then why is it so important to persuade them out of it. I don't understand that at all.

#2. Actually, I was addressing this more toward fundamentalists who try to convert people to their god, but I guess it could also apply to an atheist who preaches atheism with evangelical fervor.

#3. I apologize more not making it clear that my reference to "crusading true believers" was specifically in the context of religion — or anti-religion

#4. "We don't understand everything" is also not an argument that God doesn't exist. However it is a good argument for allowing others to find peace in a belief system that makes sense to them, provided their belief system doesn't hinge on harming others.

Hello Greta,

It is great that the atheists are marching in Pride. I feel it's important to balance out the LGBT faith crowd with people who choose not to believe in God or a higher power.

Although I do not normally label myself atheist (normally I consider myself non-religious or agnostic), I could be considered one by your definitions. I do not believe in God, I do not feel that God is the most reasonable explanation for things and I find the idea of God too hierarchical for my taste.

However I am bothered by your need to convert people to your cause. This reminds me very much of my experiences with conservative evangelical Christians who insist that they have the whole truth, that you are wrong, and that you must believe what they do, and accept Jesus in your heart, etc etc.

I don't see this same fervor with the open and affirming churches. They generally don't preach at you or tell you you're wrong because you don't go to their church. Do you really need to preach at them?? If they feel that their faith helps them do good works in the world, what harm is there in that? I'm interested to hear your ideas ---

John R. Selig | July 1, 2011 6:59 PM

Excellent column Greta,

I always find it ironic that people of faith have see no problem with God being shoved down thr throats of society ... "One Nation Under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, "In God We Trust" on our currency," prayers at public gatherings ... assuming that everybody believes in God. However, when atheists express disdain for this all of a sudden we become the unreasonable ones.

This is an unwarranted assumption. I know many theists who believe that that "under God" phrase does not belong in the Pledge of Allegiance. I'm one of them.

This phrase was added to the Pledge to politically placate the majority of Americans (Christians) who do not accept the total separation of government and religious thought -- and unfortunately, the SCOTUS is too chicken to declare it unconstitutional.

"if I'm reading this correctly, it would seem that your integrity as an atheist is only going to be truly intact if you do your best to convince others to come to the same conclusions that you have."

George: You are not reading this correctly.

Nowhere did I say that, in order to maintain my integrity as an atheist and an atheist activist, I would have to try to convince others that atheism is correct. What I said was that, in order to maintain my integrity as an atheist and an atheist activist, I cannot applaud religion, or pretend that I think it's great. Not even progressive, gay-positive religion. I said that, in order to maintain my integrity as an atheist and an atheist activist, I can't pretend that all those conversations with progressive believers, who said they thought atheism was great until they actually found out what we thought, had never happened. And I said that inherent in the act of coming out as an atheist is the implicit statement that we think religion is mistaken... even if we're *not* actively involved in trying to persuade people out of it.

"However I am bothered by your need to convert people to your cause."

vivian: And I say yet again: In many other arenas -- science, politics, medicine, philosophy, ethics, art, etc. -- if we disagree with people, we try to persuade them that we're correct. Why should religion be the exception? Do you think it's bad for LGBT activists, feminists, environmentalists, etc. to try to "convert people to their cause" -- i.e., engage in public debate about their ideas, and try to persuade others that they're right? And if not -- why should religion be off limits?

Thumbs up, Greta. I read your post on your blog and it's interesting to read the responses here. I like your point that belief in supernatural things, which is often a part of religion and spirituality, can be discussed, debated, and challenged just as much as any other idea. We're not used to that sort of thing here in the States. To do so is considered persecuting (from the right) or being culturally intolerant/insensitive (from the left). I've had both opinions in my life as a fundamentalist Christian and then as a progressive Christian. As you so rightly pointed out it's possible to both be tolerant AND challenge and debate - kind of how it can be with other issues.

As fascinating as usual, Greta.

One woman from the gay evangelical group came over to talk with us about David Byers' "Leviticus Says... Crazy Shit," sign, and how much she agreed with it, and how those bad homophobic right-wing evangelicals were getting God's true message totally bolloxed up, and how in the end it was really all about love.

I get how that could be annoying. In fact, depending on exactly how it was done, it could be exceedingly irritating. In fact, I've met very few religious people who actually "get" atheism and are comfortable with it. One real-life friend, who's comfortable that her sons are atheists, and a few at Slacktivist and The Slacktiverse.

TRiG.

Dan Massey | July 1, 2011 10:24 PM

It is one thing to be an atheist and something else to be an evangelist for atheism. They are not equivalent. I say to atheists what I say to all true believers--You have faith, fine, then have it to yourself. In other words, I don't care what you believe and accord you no right to inquire into my beliefs. You fish on your side of the lake, I'll fish on my side of the lake, and nobody will fish in the middle (unless they're there to have sex, say).

Most "people of faith" think of atheists as failed human beings who have no place in the divine universe. They fail to realize that the value of an individual to the universe is determined NOT by who they are or what they believe, but by WHAT THEY DO WITH THEIR TIME. Atheists and "believers" alike are capable of feeling love, living truth, doing good, and making beauty. Both are able to understand and enjoy these great ideals of life, whether they believe in a G-O-D or not. In any case, the believers al believe in different G-O-Ds just as the atheists don't believe in different G-O-Ds.

It's well time everybody forgot about G-O-D and got on with the worthwhile things of life and living. I have a bit more to day about this at http://www.venusplusx.org/columbia/?p=1226

I recently got into a "pissing match" with an atheist commenter here at Bilerico. What I found offensive was not his atheism, but the fact that he had to insult others because they were not atheists, too.

One problem with discussing this issue is that people have different definitions of the word "faith". Many people, including many atheists, think of "faith" as some perceived truth that one believes without evidence. That is not my definition. My definition of "faith" is the ultimate viewpoint of existence that one forms in order to explain our existence and/or give our lives, individually, some mechanism of meaning. Under this definition, "faith" has little to do with evidence or lack of evidence -- it is a deep mental/psychological process intrinsic to the development of the adult human mind, the conclusion(s) one constructs about existence, with or without evidence.

"Faith" also has to do with what internal truth we are willing to trust. In order to give our lives meaning, we have to have certain truths that we are willing to accept, or trust, as ultimate. This investment of trust is what "faith," theistic or not, is all about.

Under this definition, atheism is definitely a mechanism of "faith". Atheism is (or I should say, can be and usually is) a meaning-making mechanism, just the same as theism can be and often is. Since you think "faith" is so terrible, you can't wrap your mind around this approach because you've got too much ego invested in the "rationality" of your position. Your objection to "faith" is clearly as much emotional as it is rational.

But the bottom line is -- I don't care. I don't care if you are theist, and I don't care if you are atheist. I do care when anyone, theist or atheist, pressures me with evangelical arguments that I do not find to be welcome. To me, the fundamentalist Christians can fuck off. And so can the fundamentalist atheists. I'm not being ugly, I'm telling the world that I don't need other people dictating to me what I have to think. And if you think I'm wrong, that's your problem, not mine -- and, just like the evangelical Christian, you better not try to make it my problem.

The atheism I read in this post has an element of arrogance that I find very off-putting. You are claiming to have the "one absolutely correct, unquestionable Truth" just like the evangelical Christians do. You claim that your "integrity" is compromised if you allow the other person to be who they are and think what they think -- but what another person is or thinks has nothing to do with your integrity. You either have integrity all on your own, or you don't.

So ... my best, humanistic, lovingly-kind, brotherly/sisterly advice to you is: Work on not caring what other people believe. Just agree to disagree. And accept that the person in front of you is a product of the creative forces of the Universe, whether such forces involve a God or not, just the same as you are; and that they have a right to the intellectual products of their own brain just the same as you have a right to yours.

Peace.

You know, there's a point I keep making here, a point I've now made more than once... and so far, none of the people arguing with me have addressed it. I'm going to make it one more time, and then I'm going to give up.

Dan: "It is one thing to be an atheist and something else to be an evangelist for atheism. They are not equivalent. I say to atheists what I say to all true believers--You have faith, fine, then have it to yourself."

A.J.: "I do care when anyone, theist or atheist, pressures me with evangelical arguments that I do not find to be welcome... Work on not caring what other people believe. Just agree to disagree."

And once again, I say: Do you apply this philosophy to any other type of idea? Do you say that people are being "evangelical" and "pressuring" when they try to persuade others that string theory is correct; that diabetes can sometimes be managed with diet and exercise; that same-sex marriage should be legal; that human carbon emissions are contributing to global warming and we ought to take steps to reduce them? Do you always think it's such a terrible, intolerant thing to try to persuade others that our ideas are probably correct and their ideas are probably mistaken?

And if not -- then why is religion an exception? Why should religion, along among all other ideas, be exempt from the kind of criticism and debate and examination of evidence that we heartily engage in about other sorts of ideas? Why should religion, alone among all other hypotheses about how the world works, get a free ride?

I will say again: At no point in the Pride Parade did I try to actively persuade anyone that religion was mistaken. Except, of course, to the degree that simply being an out atheist was an attempt to persuade others that religion is mistaken. I felt it would be inappropriate to do so in this venue, and I made a point in this piece of saying that. But I reserve the right to do so in other venues. I think religion is a mistaken idea about the world -- and for that reason alone, I think it's valid to criticize it -- and I think it's an idea that, on the whole, does more harm than good. And I reserve the right to criticize it, just like I would criticize any other idea that I think is mistaken and doing more harm than good. I am not claiming to have the "one absolutely correct, unquestionable Truth." I am simply making a case for why, on this particular issue, I think I'm probably right.

And if you can't give me a good reason why I shouldn't -- why I should feel free to criticize people's scientific ideas, political ideas, philosophical ideas, etc., but should keep my mouth shut when it comes to people's ideas about the existence of a supernatural world -- then I don't see any reason why I should take your criticisms to heart.

Greta,

I don't know you all that well, and I'm not interested in the usual pissing match that happens here. Reminds me of other pissing matches that, in the end, come down entirely to personal opinions based in something other than fact. Mac vs Windows, iOS vs Android, Transsexual vs Transgender, etc.

However you make a statement in this comment that I am personally interested in some clarification regarding. Not for the purpose of arguing some obscure point, but because colloquial language is horrifically imprecise and I'm a pedant and I like to understand with greater clarity things other people say.

You state:

I think religion is a mistaken idea about the world -- and for that reason alone, I think it's valid to criticize it -- and I think it's an idea that, on the whole, does more harm than good.

Can you expand on what you mean by "religion" in this statement. It is not clear by context what you are referring to.

"Religion" is a word that does not encompass all that is related to faith, and carries with it an underlying requirement of structure and organization, though that may composed merely of traditions and such.

It does not include all religious beliefs, either, and even the notion of "religious beliefs" does not, inherently, cover all that may be involved in the particulars of answering the underlying question of is there a first cause that possesses sentience (a question which, at this point, can only be answered on the basis of belief, regardless of the answer being yes or no or something else).

Which I explain in order to act as a means of showing that I am unaware of the particular meaning you use the term in.

Thank you.

Wonderful piece, as usual, Greta.

If I had a dime for every time I was told that my strong atheism was just another kind of faith, I'd be a rich woman.

It seems to me the huge majority of people who need to believe in supernatural entities and occurrences - even the nice, progressive ones - are unable to wrap their minds around the concepts inherent in not having faith.
It is not churlish to look at the world as it is; and you are indeed being integrous.

I cop fully to saying religion - yep, all of them: why would yours be right and all the others not? - is wrong and that there almost assuredly is no god.
With the odds on there being a god(s) so small, I live my life as there definitely is none, and when empirical proof of god is presented to me, I will change my mind.
Needless to say, there won't be.

Keep on speaking the truth. I know you will.

Do you say that people are being "evangelical" and "pressuring" when they try to persuade others that string theory is correct; that diabetes can sometimes be managed with diet and exercise; that same-sex marriage should be legal; that human carbon emissions are contributing to global warming and we ought to take steps to reduce them?

There is an appropriate time and place for such discussions, and it isn't Pride. Argumentative monomania is extremely rude regardless of the topic and position being imposed.

Desiree: "There is an appropriate time and place for such discussions, and it isn't Pride."

Which is exactly what I said, in this very article. Quote: "But I also felt like it would be inappropriate. This wasn't the time or the place. This wasn't a debate, or an editorial, or an atheist blog comment thread. This was the Pride Parade. A time for celebration -- not a time for divisiveness. And besides, the reason I was there to put forth a positive representation of happy, joyful, queer-positive atheism into the LGBT community... not to get into a pissing match."

If you're going to accuse me of rude monomania, can you please address the points I actually made, and not ones I didn't?

Yes, Greta Christina, your point does merit addressing.

As I said before, the debate or discussion has to be welcome to both parties. Sometimes I am willing to discuss a worldview alternate to my own, and sometimes it would be a distraction, annoyance, imposition, etc. This is also true of discussions about string theory, global warming, gun control, abortion rights, taxing the rich, welfare benefits, too many drag queens or leather jock straps at Pride festivals, and about any other unresolved topic I can think of.

However, you are right to some extent on one thing -- religion is one of those touchy subjects that many people don't want to talk about at just any old time. (Discussing face-to-face their personal sex lives, personal hygiene, and how they manage their money might be similar touchy face-to-face topics.) So people have to have their antennas up about when to discuss and when not to. Thus, it is indeed correct to say that religion is in a special category -- but it's not the only sensitive subject in that category.

We also need to mention historical aspects -- throughout the ages, people did not wage wars and inquisitions regarding mundane subjects such as dietary preferences (usually) or what to watch on TV -- but they have about the touchy subjects, and one of the most common, perhaps the most common, historical reason for war has been religious differences and the politicization of those differences. There have been so many religious wars that the "touchiness" of religious discussions has been etched into our awareness.

America has attempted to minimize such conflicts via the separation of church and state approach. But even so, there always has been, and probably always will be, a certain tension about when and how religious matters are to be discussed in the public arena and when they shouldn't. Moreover, only a subset of people have the objectivity, self-containment and maturity to discuss such matters in a totally cool, civilized manner, no matter what views get expressed.

So the frustrations and tensions you feel, to some extent, are not at all unique. To some extent, they come with being an American, or a member of any pluralistic society. There is no resolving or eliminating them -- all we can do is learn the skills needed to live with them.

Fair enough, Greta Christina?

You said that you felt it wasn't an appropriate place for evangelism, but you also said that you consciously chose to be rude towards non-atheists at Pride because being nice to them would "violate your integrity" by expressing tacit approval of religion. What you're basically saying is that you feel entitled to make religious groups feel unwelcome at social events which have nothing to do with belief systems because your atheist beliefs demand that you be actively disrespectful of the theist beliefs of others.

I don't think there's any difference between theists who harass me for not believing in their concept of divinity and atheists who harass me for not believing in their concept of no divinity. Both are equally inappropriate.

She did not say she was rude at Pride and made people feel unwelcome. She said she swallowed her objections, smiled, and did not argue with the faith advocates even though she disagreed with them. Did you even read the post?

Yes, she did:

The same thing happened when the religious contingents and floats went by us and applauded. . . I felt like they were expecting us to applaud them back. And I felt churlish for not doing so

Her entire post is about feeling upset that religious groups are included in LGBT events because she thinks that being tolerant of belief systems that contradict her own "violates her integrity" and she's not sure how to "politely" insist that religion is evil and shouldn't be tolerated while at the same time respecting the venue.

So not returning applause in a parade setting is rude monomania now? When she said that in person, in direct conversations (where any interaction had much more impact), she went out of her way to be nice to them and not get in their face? Frankly, I doubt there's anything she could have done or said that you would not have interpreted as rude fundamentalism.

But you were "chomping at the bits". What does that say about your intent, your deep desire to proselytize. "It is one thing to be an atheist and something else to be an evangelist for atheism. They are not equivalent. I say to atheists what I say to all true believers--You have faith, fine, then have it to yourself."

Aren't some here saying to you "Then have it to yourself".

Do you say that people are being "evangelical" and "pressuring" when they try to persuade others that string theory is correct; that diabetes can sometimes be managed with diet and exercise; that same-sex marriage should be legal; that human carbon emissions are contributing to global warming and we ought to take steps to reduce them?

There is an appropriate time and place for such discussions, and it isn't Pride. Argumentative monomania is extremely rude regardless of the topic and position being imposed.

Then it's a good thing that a blog post and a Pride parade are not the same thing.

I'd be uncomfortable around religious organizations (which are mostly Christian) at a Pride event because they are associated so closely with organizations that oppress me. They are using the exact same source material, they just ignore different parts of it than what the religious right does. And all Christians have to ignore some part of the Bible as the thing is self-contradicting. There is also that a religious gay man has more privilege, whenever my lack of belief is brought up, I have the need to defend it, he does not have to defend his belief in most circumstances.

So it seems to me that what you're saying is that for LGBT people for whom a religion is part of their identity, they're supposed to either be silent about it or renounce it entirely. As a Pagan, the idea that all religious traditions are similar, or have similar religious privilege structures built into American society, seems depressingly simplistic (and need I say, wrong).

I don't care about approval. I want for people's first instinct and desire to NOT be 'try to win the fight with people who are fundamentally on my side,' with a side of 'you are intellectually/morally/both inferior because you disagree with my view of how reality is supposed to operate.' In some senses, it might be easier if you could literally just settle a question of religious identity by running a truth table - but the fact is that if your first instinct is to tell people that their religion is wrong, you are still doing exactly what the religious right is doing - passing judgment on an identity and finding it wanting because it disagrees with your desires.

What I'm looking for is assurance that my "ally" is not going to slip a blade into my back when I'm not watching them.

It is incredibly dishonest of atheists to constantly make bait-n-switch arguments based on the tacit assumption that all religions are equivalent to Christianity.

You cannot honestly claim that you have "rationally refuted" all religions until you have considered the individual merits of every interpretation of every religion. . . not just mainstream evangelical Christianity. Nor does the assertion that all religions are privileged stand up to even basic scrutiny. In the United States, only Christianity is actually privileged.

The comment you're responding to made it explicitly clear that they were speaking of Christian sects. They didn't engage in any bait-and-switch of the type you're describing, yet you spun their comment into several strawman arguments. You call atheists dishonest (for an argument no one made), but you've misrepresented people's arguments several times in this thread.

I am referring primarily to the original post, which jumps back and forth between talking about religious believers in general, talking about "progressive, tolerant, ecumenical religious believers", and talking about Christians as if all three of these groups are exactly equivalent.

I never said anything about rationally refuting all religions (or refuting any religion). Even here is an example where I am being asked to defend my atheism when a pagan is not asked to defend her paganism. That is exactly why I am saying theists have more privilege. Yes, Christians have the most, but that doesn't mean other religious people don't have any.

This afternoon I was confronted at a family gathering with a label on a garbage can reading, "Food scraps, Paper plates, Pagan philosophies." And found myself explaining to two separate relatives at two separate times WHY I was a Pagan.

There is no such thing as a blanket "religious privilege."

Exactly. The UU Minister at the church I go to told a story during one service about how when he was doing an event at a local college how he met a student who told him she had been disowned/cut off from her family for being Wiccan. Trying to claim your belief system is the most persecuted/least privileged is a losing battle. Can Atheists claim that they currently have to face the protests that were brought against the Ground Zero Mosque?

And yes I just called Atheism a belief system. If you really want to adhere to a system of non-belief, try agnosticism. Absence of proof is not proof of absence.
-Jeremy

And another post that is asking me to justify my beliefs, this is just funny.

If I wanted you to justify your system of beliefs, I would have asked you to. I am by no means holding my breath that Atheists will suddenly come up with some brilliant argument or piece of evidence that will convince me that their position is absolutely right and all the other religions are wrong.

I simply asserted that atheism is a belief system. It makes a claim (there is no God/deities) which cannot be supported by rationality or Science. But then, like Socrates, all that I know is that I know nothing else.

If you really want to be intellectually honest, at least learn the limits of scientific inquiry. Science cannot prove something does not exist. Search the whole world over, never finding a purple cow, would that prove that they don't exist?
-Jeremy

Stating that atheism is a system of belief is not demanding that you justify said beliefs -- merely pointing out that they exist.

Greta Christina,
It's surprising to me how much hostility your post has garnered from people of whatever kind of faith. I'm a bit further along in understanding what atheists go through.

From having once been an atheist, I have a certain respect for atheists and their thinking, and some empathy for the problems coming their way. It surprises me, for instance, that Gay-Straight Alliances can be allowed in high schools after a time but that those same schools can take a hard, unyielding line on atheist clubs.

For years now, I've noticed atheists not being included in many things, often via implicit assumptions of spirituality or religiosity. Some of these can be actively harmful, especially in therapeutic or helping profession settings.

The accomodations and battle around Alcoholics Anonymous are illustrative. A.A. seems to have been SLOWLY developing ways of including atheists, in some cases explicitly. Which I think speaks to the increasing assertiveness of atheists. This I think is extremely important, given how crucial recovery can be for those who need it.

Greta Christina, your writing at times does at times sound as though it comes from a willingness to push arguments on people who don't want to hear them and who have not been conversationally disrespectful to you or others.

However, if someone is putting their religiosity out there in a way that assumes everyone shares that or that marginalizes those who don't, they aren't being conversationally respectful, and deserve to at least be informed that atheists exist and that you're one of them.

And if they use underhanded arguments to try to belittle you or your atheism, as some here have, then their beliefs become fair game, to criticize or debunk as one sees fit.

Greta Christina,
The other things that surprised me was your account of how almost no one of the gay faith people in the march seemed to fully understand what atheism is, and that most of them appear to have held the assumption that atheism is only against the "bad" (socially reactionary) religions. How is it that people are so clueless?

For the record, I was an atheist of sorts roughly between the ages of 23 and 45 -- I described myself as "a philosophical agnostic and a functional atheist." That was my way of saying that I lived without concern about the possible existence of a Supreme Intelligence, but philosophically I acknowledged that there is no more evidence that God does not exist, than there is that He/She/It does.

In my mid-40s, to give you the short version, I realized my internal life works better if I believe in a supreme force that is ultimately beneficent. (Clearly, God is not beneficent in the way humans would want God to be -- otherwise, earthquakes, tsunamis, degrading poverty and children dying of horrible diseases simply would not happen.) Life requires some type of faith ... so why not pick the faith that works best for you? This is "arbitrary" but the fact that it results in my life working better is a form of evidence I consider to be just as valid as physical evidence might be.

Even today, I feel the answer to the question, "Does God exist?" is both YES and NO: He certainly does not exist in the same sense that you and I exist as material beings -- yet God as Ultimate Intelligence is a useful concept, at least it is to me. My theist belief today is something I have actively chosen and is far more functional and flexible than the passive doctrinal brainwashings I vomited out in my 20's.

BTW, if anyone sees arguments I have presented as "underhanded" I want to be called on it specifically -- and don't be shy about it.

Greta I enjoyed reading your post.

jimtoevs@yahoo.com | July 2, 2011 11:30 PM

Greta,

In expressing your belief that everyone who believs differently than you is "wrong", you are in my opinion joining the ranks of the fundamentalists, albeit the athiest fundies.

Fundamentalists of all religous and non-religious (ex. patriotic or nationalistic) groups are on the very slimey slope of often eventually forcing their beliefs on those who disagree with them.

I applaud your passion and your devotion to your cause. I will feel more comfortable with you when you acknowledge that. while you firmly believe that you are right, you also acknowledge the remote possibility that you are wrong. And, regardless, that you would defend to the death, my right to disagree with you.

What part of "I am not claiming to have the "one absolutely correct, unquestionable Truth." I am simply making a case for why, on this particular issue, I think I'm probably right. (that Greta wrote in response to A.J. above) do you not understand? That kind of response is similar to stating: "On the issue of same sex marriage, that it is a right that all people should have, I think I'm probably right."

When you make a blog post about how you restrained your contempt for the people around you in a public setting, don't expect me to admire your restraint. It's the thought process of contempt that is the point and the problem.

Evangelical atheists like Greta are using the same logic as Christian fundamentalists; just replace "sinner" with "delusional idiot". It's "tolerance equals endorsement, how dare you compel me to endorse something I disagree with!"

As I tried to explain to Greta Christina above at JUL-2-12:53PM, there is a paradox here that cannot be resolved -- tolerance is not necessarily approval, yet tolerance that is not taken on with social grace is not truly tolerance. I'd call this the "paradox of tolerance." Greta needs to get over the notion that "maintaining our integrity about our atheism" requires that we constantly object to the expressed viewpoints of others. On the other hand, there usually is nothing wrong to say pleasantly and respectfully, "Well, I'm glad to know how you view this yourself, but without disrespect you know I look at things quite differently." Even so, you are not necessarily saying you respect their viewpoint (indeed, maybe you find it contemptible!), you are saying you respect their freedom to think as they see fit.

Theists already know that atheists deagree with them, and vice versa. There is no need for us to continually treat each other like idiots. (That is to say, if you really do think the other guy is an idiot, you still have the power to keep it to yourself.)

As LGBT people live openly more and more, the people who believe that homosexuality is immoral experience the "paradox of tolerance" in a different context: "How do I work harmoniously with my gay co-worker(s) without tacitly betraying the tenets of my Pentecostal faith?" As long as they look at it as "betraying my faith" they are painting themselves into an impossible corner. The socially pragmatic thing to do is consider willingness to work with gay co-workers as an aspect of professionalism in the modern world. (Their Pentecostal pastor might tell them differently, and may even indeed brow-beat them for "not standing up for Jesus" -- we can only hope they eventually figure out it's time to go find a new pastor.)

Again: Do not attempt to resolve this paradox. That is impossible. Instead, learn to live with it.

By the way: This entire thread shows how so many of us struggle with the true meaning of tolerance. And I respect that, too, because there are times that finding the right balance just ain't easy.

I am glad I am not an Isreali diplomat having to negotiate over issues dealing with Hamas -- How do you deal "tolerantly" with people who explicitly admit they intend to kill you, your family, and most of your race, then wipe your country off the face of the Earth?

Om Kalthoum | July 3, 2011 6:48 PM

Some people seem to be always itching for a fight, amirite?

Om Kalthoum | July 4, 2011 8:46 AM

Happy Independence Day, m'dear.

Bill Perdue Bill Perdue | July 5, 2011 7:50 AM

Politically speaking and from a historical perspective cults and cultism have always been tools of governing groups in their fight to hold on to their privileges and wealth.

For instance, the origins of modern racism in this country and elsewhere can be traced to attempts to justify the slave trade using references to the 'children of Ham' as justification for the horrors of slavery. christers in the South and middle states were loyal defenders of the enslavement of Africans. After the Civil War and the betrayal of Reconstruction southern baptists were one and the same as Dixiecrats and the Klan.

After racism became publically unpopular, but more deeply and institutionally rooted than ever, the redneck cults and the roman cult decided to retarget on our GLBT communities. Since that's happened violence against us has become more systematic and vicious - in US controlled Iraq and shiite Iran it claims thousands of lives. That may spread soon to Uganda if Obama BF Warren has his way. The difference between the crimes of islamists, christers and judaists is in what they can get away with doing to us, not what they want to do to us.


In Germany catholic and protestant cults were active and full supporters of the Nazis' murderous anti-Semitism.

In Africa the christer colonists imposed their religion on Africans to justify colonialism and the theft of land, resources and slave labor. Desmond Tutu described it this way: “When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said, 'Let us pray.' We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land.”

Most religions and governing classes rely on the family as a mainstay of economic production and historically have subjected women and children to lives of unpaid labor and harsh treatment by men.

There are untold thousands of other examples in history. The only conclusion we can draw is that virtually all cults and many cultists are our sworn enemies. Wars, plagues and cults are humankinds greatest tragedies.

• To help make the cults even more irrelevant we should fight to tax them at the same rate as other fantasy producers like Disney and Industrial Light and Magic.

• Their schools, universities, hospitals and other venues should be secularized to prevent the rape of children.

• Interference by the cults in civil matters like marriage and divorce should be criminalized.

• Cult support for racism, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism as well as anti-LGBT bigotry and misogyny should be forbidden by law because it creates violence. It's a question of peoples lives vs freedom of bigotry.

cyberdraco | July 5, 2011 9:59 AM

I agree with Bill Perdue 99%. Why not 100%? Because 100% is illusory.

I feel I must help the LGBT community because I AM an atheist(sorry, I'm a non-gay). I did not care for anyone else's freedom or pleasures while I was 'god searching'. Only when I felt confident >95% that this is the only self-aware life that I will ever have, that it is mostly far better than many current peoples lives, and certainly way better than my ancestors, did I want to use my life to help others.

To me religion, ie, having to believe or do some ritual(s), is a selfish crutch. Especially the monotheistic concerns of personal and eternal paradise.

There really isn't a 50/50 when it comes to beliefs, you either do belief in the Abrahamic God or you don't.