This excellent post by Greta Christina on why atheism is inherently confrontational did a good job of summing up why I felt acutely uncomfortable at times in my recent class environment. It was a class on sexuality, not religion, but the teacher was a Christian minister, and Christianity or theism in general did come up a number of times. While I enjoyed both the class and the professor very much, I had several moments of squirming in my seat thinking, “I wish I could say something to this… but I have no idea how to say what I am thinking without making this an intense, defensive discussion of theism and atheism.” So I kept my mouth shut.
I am not a particularly confrontational brand of atheist (although I am marrying one, in case you hadn’t noticed.) I pretty much never start discussions of theism, although I am happy to engage in them if somebody else does. With most people I encounter, I am more interested in maintaining harmonious connections than I am in expressing my thoughts and beliefs fully. Maybe that’s a weakness — I don’t know.
What I do know is that expressing my thoughts and beliefs openly, with many people, stands in direct opposition to maintaining harmonious connections. When I was a Christian theist, and engaged weekly in debates with two friends (one was an atheist, one a weirdly self-defined agnostic), I was explaining to them why I couldn’t date an atheist. I said, “Because he thinks I’m delusional.” I didn’t say this in a defensive or injured way; it was a simple statement of fact. I thought that I had a personal relationship with a being that he did not believe existed. That’s pretty delusional. To claim otherwise, for either of us, would be to deny the reality of my faith; to lessen the import of what I believed. Because my belief was in a real, absolutely existing God, not a God that could be “true for me” but not for someone else. For someone to say, “If that’s true for you, that’s great” was to mentally diminish my concept of God and then hand it back to me as a peace offering. To which I could only say, “No thanks.” I can coexist peacefully with people who I think are glaringly wrong on any number of important topics, but to diminish the importance of this topic was then, and is now, insulting to me. Anyone who didn’t believe that my God existed was in fundamental disagreement with me, and had to account in some way for the cognitive errors that gave rise to my belief. Anyone who pretended otherwise, I felt, did not fully respect my beliefs.
Now on the other side of the table, I can at least say that I give believers the same respect I wanted from atheists when I was a believer. I won’t mentally diminish their beliefs just to spare myself the discomfort of thinking, “but I think that’s wrong.” Depending on someone’s perception of God, of course, I may have very different assessments of the cognitive errors that lead them to believe something I think is untrue, but the socially uncomfortable fact is that I do think they’re wrong. I don’t go around telling them so: I realize most people don’t share my love of debate, and many of them, unlike Christian Ginny, might prefer a “If that’s true for you, great!” than an earnest confrontation. (If you recognize that I am a person who’s passionate about truth and loves philosophical argument, but has an almost pathological aversion to making people uncomfortable or unhappy, you will perhaps understand why most of my intimate relationships are with people who enjoy confrontation and debate.)
So what am I supposed to do? I hold an unpopular belief: a belief that some human beings, excellent and wise and moral and educated in many respects, are wrong about something important. I can’t talk about my perspective on religion without saying “That God/Goddess entity you believe in? The one that provides comfort and meaning and a sense of love and belonging to your life? I don’t think it exists.” That’s what it means to be an atheist, and I don’t know how I can talk for more than fifteen seconds about being an atheist without exposing that.
There are times and places where I feel doing that is worthwhile; specifically when I’m in a forum where intellectual debate is part of the goal, or where I am on the receiving end of a challenge. But in most social gatherings I prefer to hold my tongue, or to say quickly, “Well, I”m an atheist” and change the subject. And in this class, where we already had to cover too much information in too little time, I didn’t feel it was right to derail the conversation with a discussion of theism and atheism. (Also, of course, there’s the fact that the Christian minister was the person giving my grades. I really don’t think he would have been unfair or discriminatory, but people can surprise you in that way.)
So I kept silent, and I still didn’t know whether I did the right thing or the wrong thing.