Monday, May 24, 2010

Challenging Assumptions and Seeking the Different

Over the last month, I've been reflecting on how I've felt about being part of the atheist community. I've expressed my frustration with Minnesota Atheists because of the use of ridicule in articles in their newsletter which artificially create an isolationist community which is enforced by an undercurrent of anti-religious sentiment. My hope for the community is to move beyond that. I am tired of atheists pulling quotes out of the Bible to show Christians how ridiculous their scripture is. I know the intention is to wake Christians up, to get them to realize how foolish their beliefs are and to get them to leave their faith, but maybe that isn't even the intention. Maybe it is out of frustration, or a sense that because since leaving religion, an atheist will usually feel more free and atheists want that same feeling for others. Others may want to convince religious people to become atheists because they see harm in participating in a religion which accepts magical thinking and if anything is possible through Christ Jesus, Christians won't worry about planning for the future, educating their children, seeking treatment from doctors, etc. I think I have held all of these intentions at one time or another.

I am frustrated because I hold the assumption that most Americans believe that this country was founded as a Christian Nation. When I've spoken with Christians who hold this view, their assumption is that atheists want to remove religion from the public square, which is offensive to them because they see that act as limiting their freedom of expression, even if that freedom of expression is forced on others. I'm frustrated because I would like more people to realize that the separation of church and state is good for both sides, but the way the issue is framed, is that it is used for atheists to suppress Christians.

I am also frustrated when I read stories about parents who, for religious or cultural reasons, refuse to treat a child's diabetes or other easily treatable ailment. An organization like Children's Healthcare is a Legal Duty should not be unnecessary. I've frustrated over this situation as well, because on one hand, child neglect appears to be rare in this country, although one death is too many, and on another is the desire to allow for religious expression and practice. Can a 14 year old child refuse medical care because they would rather receive herbal treatment for cancer because this is what his religion tells him to do? An 18 year old? Should our society force medical care on others and is that even practical? Wouldn't people just keep their children in hiding and do they already? Do people support religious exemptions for vaccines also support federal funding for Christian Science prayer rooms? I think my frustration comes from my perspective. I don't think that a Christian would listen to me if I tried to convince him or her that seeing a physician is better than prayer, if that Christian were refusing medical treatment, simply because I am an atheist. I would think that the better approach would be to have people from the Christian community respond. I might be too optimistic about this effort because it would be easy for an adherent to dismiss anyone who doesn't think the same way they do.

I attended at event sponsored by the Saint Paul Interfaith Network which focused on designing successful dialogue between people who have very different opinions. During the presentation, which was made by Bob Stains of the Public Conversations Network. One of the things which stuck out, was a presentation on how a community becomes fractured and the kind of behavior people on each side exhibit. In this presentation, a slide went up with the kinds of behavior and language people on split sides of an issue use, which resonated with me more, because I felt like this showcased my frustration with the unwillingness of atheists to have meaningful dialogue with religious people. We = good, right, wise, virtuous, victims, similar, has the facts, are straightforward. They = bad, wrong, foolish, evil, persecutors, are all alike, use emotion, are sneaky.

I know my opinions will change, but my assumption now, is that trying to foster reasoned dialogue, especially among people who disagree, is a better means of gaining support for issues like the separation of church and state and how to protect an individuals freedom of expression without violating any one elses freedoms.

Even within the atheist community, there are sides which are become isolated and splinter. I think this is true in many communities, but I assumed that atheists would be better at being able to use reasoned dialogue amongst each other, even in cases where there is disagreement. If I criticize the actions of atheists, people have an assumption that I am not an atheist. If I write about my experience in the atheist community, it is written off as being too isolated of a community and not representative of the whole. If I express frustration with people who obviously want to make atheists a more respected group of people in the community but are acting in a way which is counter to their goals, whether they state their goals or not, I am seen as a censor. The assumption people make, is that I don't want atheists to speak up when a religious person does something harmful, or when the leadership of a religious organization supports a discriminatory policy because I don't think its useful to make a list of excuses Christians give for the "horrible behavior of their God," or attempting to engage in theodicy arguments.

There are plenty of atheists who are anti-religion who have reasons to disagree with my opinions. My frusturation comes from people who want to build a community of atheists who are seen as positive contributors to society and fail to see the consequences of events like a Debaptism, a $6.66 spaghetti dinner, a presentation which made the case that religious thinking has led scientists astray and public presentations about atheism which make the case that it is foolish to believe in a God. I'm frusturated because the people who run the organization seem ignorant to these consequences. "I should be able to express myself without worrying about who I'm going to offend," is a sentiment I've heard if I raise concern over the use to ridicule in particular. I have little concern whether someone is offended or not, but I am concerned if someone is offended by an offence because he or she isn't willing to understand what he or she did to cause offence in the first place. I also don't like it when people act how they would like to act, then are surprised when someone thinks what they did was wrong. Then there is a shaming of the shaming, or the apperant censoring of the censoree. No one is free from criticism and not all people who don't have a beleif in a god are the same. Don't pretend that you can't possibly understand why someone would find your action offensive and react by isolating yourself. Have a greater understanding of your motives for acting. If the reaction to your actions was unintentional, try to find out why. Should I censor myself around people who are religious? I wouldn't call it censorship, but I try to consider what outcome I would like to see before I act. When I haven't done this, things haven't ended well.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

My atheist journey

Having been frustrated with the organized atheist community, I thought I would write about my short experience to show why I have the opinions I do.

I came out as an atheist on accident. If I hadn't done so, I likely wouldn't have gotten involved with organized atheism. I had read "The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins and "The End of Faith" by Sam Harris, but didn't feel like I needed to find a community of people who thought the same way i did. My family is religious, but it wasn't a big deal to answer my mom's question of, "Did you find a church to go to?" with, "No."

Because I did come out and my mother didn't take it too well (She didn't speak to me for six months, of course, I also blamed her and other liberal religious people for 9/11 because of what I read in Sam Harris' book), I started searching for a group of atheists. Jeannette was going to the U of MN at the time and there was a campus group of atheists. I ended up watching a debate with Dr. Robert Price about the resurrection of Jesus and saw a former teacher from high school there. He was one of the most respected teachers and I felt that if he was an atheist and showed up to other events, I just might find an atheist community.

Over the next few months, he and I would bump into each other at meetings and lectures. I had started to go to Minnesota Atheist events, caring less about what the topic was about, then about meeting people. The problem, was that this community only met once a month and people didn't talk to each other much. If this former high school teacher hadn't also been showing up, I probably would have given up on going to meetings because I didn't feel like I fit in yet.

One of the reasons why I was looking for a community, was because I wanted to hear from other atheists how they dealt with family issues. I was planning on getting married in a year and a half and would have to manage tense situations with family members who wanted me to get married in a church. I did get help from people in Minnesota Atheists and the Humanists of Minnesota with where to hold the wedding and had a recommendation of who could officiate. But I still felt like I was on the own with dealing with my family. Events I went to focused on whether God existed or about why Christianity was so wrong, especially the Bible. While the presentations had interesting speakers, I didn't feel like I was part of a community by going to these type of meetings.

What events did I like the most? I remember meeting Lori Lipman Brown who was a lobbyist in Washington working for the Secular Coalition of America. Her presentations were inspiring. She got me to see a value in forming a community of atheists to fight for the rights of the nonreligious as more of a civil rights issue. I was raised in a religious family and didn't have to face discrimination through school, but I heard about people who did and felt like this was a worthy cause to get behind. I also liked going to the Day of Reason because I felt like it was an effective way to present a positive message about the separation of church and state. What I really wished, was that religious leaders would join the Day of Reason, but could understand why they might not feel welcomed.

Over the next few years, I was involved in the leadership of Minnesota Atheists. I wanted to give back to the community because I wanted to fix some of the things I didn't like about my experience, mostly making new members feel welcomed and to encourage more family friendly events. I wanted to try to get people who were like myself involved in the atheist community in order to support efforts of other groups like the SCA and to encourage others to support the separation of church and state. I didn't have to try to attract people who were in a similar situation as myself, people who were searching for a community, because MN Atheists is easy enough to find, I wanted to reach out to people who didn't have a need for an organization and encourage them to join and support the issues which were important to me.

The problem I found, is that for people to join an organization, they have to be more or less self motivated. A group like MN Atheists is great for people who feel harmed by religion. The positive outreach efforts, like highway cleaning and supporting gay rights by appearing at GLBT festivals is enough to get some people curious, but I saw people get turned off by the focus on religion. Over time, it started turning me off as well.

I think it is easier to form a group of people around the harm of religion then around some sort of secular ethical club. The humanists get close to this idea, but there are vocal opponents to the label of atheist among the humanists which makes that community unwelcoming at times. This is where my frustration is coming from. I think it is possible to have a community of non religious people who are concerned about societal issues, humanitarian efforts, local community support, volunteerism, doing good, etc., without the literal biblical interpretation games, the strawmen arguments atheists make amongst themselves, the anti religious rhetoric, the isolationist attitude which discourages work with religious leaders when it makes sense. It is easier to have a group form around a lack of belief then around some sort of "do good" group, which is why I'm satisfied, for now, with volunteering with different groups here and there, supporting causes which have meaning for me. I know I pissed a lot of people by criticizing the behavior of certain atheists. My criticism comes from my frustration from not being able to find a community of people who share the same values I do. It is similar to the frustration I felt after coming out as an atheist. I know there are other people who think the same way I do, but there won't be a community formed out of this frustration.