Posts Tagged ‘ tolerance ’

A Guide to Disbelief


Recently, a woman named Deborah Mitchell got a lot of attention on’s user-created iReport section. Her blog describes her difficulties in dealing with overzealous Christians who think her choice to raise her children without religion is “wrong.” She found their constant assurances that they were praying for her to be condescending, if not demeaning.

If she was expecting apologies after her lament at CNN, she was probably disappointed. Though she did receive many expressions of gratitude from nonbelievers like herself who had faced the same difficulties, she was also attacked by many of the posters, some of whom even complained that simply by expressing her religious beliefs–or lack thereof–she had violated CNN’s terms of use for the iReport section.

This fruckus comes after a fair amount of coverage was dedicated to the fact that newly elected Congresswoman Kyrsten Sinema was one of the few members of Congress in history who espoused no particular religion. Though her identification as a non-believer was initially greeted with great joy by many secularists, there was some souring of the tone when she distanced herself from the label “atheist.”

Many nonbelievers prefer to identify themselves as agnostic or some other label, not because they really harbor much suspicion that there could be a god, but rather because the term “atheist” tends to have a lot of negative stigmas. Many believers seem to feel as though their beliefs are being attacked by the mere presence of an “atheist,” and respond accordingly.

Indeed, many high-profile atheists like Richard Dawkins have garnered attention for doing exactly that. Dawkins even earned a South Park parody after the publication of his 2006 book The God Delusion. (The creators of the show are themselves nonbelievers, but objected to Dawkins’ attempt to proselytize in the name of atheism.) Similarly, the group American Atheists responded to religiously-themed advertisements by erecting billboards reading, “Keep the merry, dump the myth.”

In Deborah Mitchell’s essay at CNN she gives seven reasons why she rejects religion. The reasons are not about burden of proof, or the tenants of empiricism. Instead, she goes on the offensive, describing why she thinks religion has a negative impact on children. This, though, is precisely the kind of intolerance that she describes as the precursor for her speaking out. Her characterizing the Christian god as “not fair” and faulting god for “teach[ing] narcissism” is just as intolerant and belligerent as a Christian telling her, as many did, that her children needed god in their lives.

Beyond that, though, I wonder: Why? Why bother?

Most Christians do not feel the need to validate their beliefs by attacking the tenants of Buddhism. Muslims shouldn’t feel the need to explain to others why their families don’t need Vishnu in their lives. Many nonbelievers think rationalism demands they attack, but the tenants of another “ism” are more important in this context.

Pluralism demands that we respect each other’s boundaries. So we nonbelievers should. The trick is that believers also need to respect that about us as well. I doubt the people who went up to Mitchell bug their Jewish friends and coworkers the way they did her about the way she was raising her family. Atheists are treated in many corners with the same sort of suspicion and prejudice that most minorities have had to face at some point in their history in America. The difference is that atheism is invisible. So unlike ethnic or religious minorities that have entered the nation, faced the hardships of discrimination, and finally asserted their rightful place in the tapestry of our many interwoven cultures, atheists often go unnoticed. Many, in fact, deliberately keep their heads down–avoiding discussion of their beliefs in order to dodge the stigma.

Even though Mitchell may have crossed the line into intolerance, more nonbelievers need to step up and speak out. People who live their lives without any supernatural beliefs need to assert our role in society–to demand that the believers around us treat us and our beliefs with the same respect they do members of other faiths. We don’t need obnoxious, antagonistic billboards to accomplish this feat. We can engage our neighbors of faith respectfully, demanding that they grant us the same rights of conscience that we afford them in our pluralistic society. That starts by not sidestepping the issue with statements like “I’m not really religious” when most of us know that the honest thing to say would simply be, “I don’t believe in anything supernatural.”

That would be something more akin to the American Atheists’ less-objectionable billboard, “Are you good without God? Millions are,” that lays claim to our right to be who we are without treading on anyone else’s spiritual toes.