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Sensitivity Straining

In the past, I’ve made light of a concept I find absurd: the notion of atheist discrimination and persecution. It’s absurd generally, but especially in a mostly free country like the United States. I’m aware that in less free, more religious countries, an individual’s atheism is a brave, dangerous choice. I’m also aware that in some cases, atheists publicly speaking out against religious atrocities has led to threats, violence, and murder, which is why a handful of atheist critics choose anonymity. I think, when I’ve mocked the idea of “atheist discrimination” in the past, I’ve made that distinction clear.

However, until recently I’ve never taken the time to properly think through the notion of atheist discrimination in the U.S. One reason it always strikes me as laughable is because it’s always couched in terms of government and employment. Although it obviously happens, it is neither appropriate nor legal for government officials to discriminate on the basis of their (or your) religious beliefs. The same goes for employers. So naturally, I think it’s silly when I read articles complaining that the U.S. military “discriminates” against atheists (they don’t). I think it’s equally silly when government discrimination is painted with the same brush as private discrimination, as when the Boy Scouts of America disallow atheists. That’s their choice and their right as a private, Christian organization. You want an atheist scouting organization? Start one.

What is both more concerning and upsetting to me than the vague notion of unprovable discrimination by unseen forces is the very real human cost of atheist discrimination.

A few weeks ago, I watched a video of a lecture given by an atheist activist, Katie Kruse. The video is 46 minutes long, but I’d recommend watching it if you feel the way I do. The lecturer, Katie Kruse, explains how her experiences as a missionary in China led to her loss of faith. In order to do justice to that, she explains her entire faith journey, from a childhood as an evangelical Christian to a young adulthood obsessed with learning the roots of the faith, to her missionary work and subsequent loss of faith, and finally, to the aftermath of “coming out” as an atheist.

I understood the journey. I know people like Kruse who haven’t lost their faith, so the early story was familiar. The atheists and agnostics I know are of a stock that never started out particularly religious; it was foisted on them by parents, but they never bought in. Some feared the consequences of their parents (or others) finding out; some tossed it back in their parents’ face as a form of rebellion. I’ve even read accounts of religious folks who faced dire consequences for abandoning their faith (even Scientologists), although I’ve never personally met any.

What resonated with Kruse’s story was the particular challenge of continuing to live in a world she had built around evangelical Christianity. In many of the accounts I’ve read, people are either excommunicated, or they’re forced to flee a brutal regime; in both cases, they mostly lose contact with the loved ones who wouldn’t necessarily understand what had changed or why. Kruse stayed where she was. She had to reckon with family and friends who would, at best, struggle to understand the shift in point of view. As someone whose biggest frustration is being misunderstood, this hit me hard.

Most important was the empathy. Kruse’s lecture dissects the American evangelical mentality without resorting to the very, very easy (and tempting) strategy of open ridicule. I’ve certainly made my share of smartassy comments about the intelligence of evangelicals, but I do try to limit my open mockery to specific people with terrible ideas (such as Reza Aslan and Ted Cruz) tied to their faith. I’ve said, more than once, that people are free to believe any stupid thing they want, as long as they don’t hurt others because of it.

This perspective is borne of my own empathy. I don’t think it’s up to me, or anyone else, to decide what others believe. It’s up to them. Kruse, in her lecture, brings up a difference that I think I’ve hinted at without ever consciously articulating: substitution thinking versus transformation thinking. In discussing her missionary activities in China, Kruse observes that the ideological primacy of the state made locals easy pickings for conversion; they merely substituted the worship of an authoritarian state for the worship of God. Kruse argues that “substitution” is a missionary mindset, which makes sense because ultimately, missions are a numbers game: convert as many as possible.

This has always been the way new religions develop. The challenge laid before blossoming new faiths is to distinguish itself from the old guard without truly disrupting the status quo, thereby alienating possible converts. The Romans, most famously, adapted the “culturally superior” mythology of Greece into their own brand of polytheism (centered around twin founders Romulus and Remus); later, in a vain attempt to compete with the explosion of Christianity, the god Sol Invictus was invented by comically hollow imperial decree. The myth surrounding Sol Invictus, a sun god who ruled over all the other gods, cribbed from Egypt, Syria, and Palestine (including Christianity) in order to appeal to the broadest base of its conquered masses. The goal was obvious: all you have to do is substitute your one true god with our one true god. (When that didn’t work, Emperor Constantine simply decided to convert himself (and, in many ways, the entire Empire) to Christianity.)

While most think of shrewd politicking and polytheism at the mention of Ancient Rome, the monotheistic Abrahamic faiths were not immune from similar politics of convenience. It’s hard to authoritatively trace the origins of Judaism, but many Old Testament stories have been shown to have much in common with Sumerian myths, and a number of Old Testament scholars have come to believe Yahweh began as one of many gods worshipped by Canaanites, and that the ancient Jews split off as a small sect worshipping only one of the gods. The differentiation: monotheism. The substitution: “You already worship this god as one of many. All we’re asking is that you consider our belief that this one god is all-encompassing.”

More famously, and with relatively more documentation, Christianity emerged as an alternative to both Judaism and Greco-Roman paganism. It came along at the right time, shortly before a devastating revolt that destroyed the Temple and most of Jerusalem. It was easy for Jews to substitute the benevolent figure of Jesus for a God who had seemingly failed to protect His Chosen People; it was even easier when the gospels’ polemics “foreshadowed” this seemingly apocalyptic event (the fact that each of the gospels was written in the decade after the Jewish Wars allowed their authors to more pointedly make the case for Jesus) by railing against the increasingly corrupt, increasingly Hellenized Temple leaders; and still easier when the Christian canon relied heavily on the Hebrew Bible and the notion that Jesus was the Jewish messiah, concepts in which Jews already believed.

A similarly apocalyptic event, the eruption of Vesuvius, split Romans in its significance: it was clear the gods had punished them, but was it their failure to embrace the One True God and His Messiah—or was it their failure to stamp out this false religion? (Among other things, Romans authorities intensely persecuted Christians for their adamant refusal to sacrifice to Roman gods, a compromise Jews made at the insistence of Temple leaders in order to maintain peace.)

Perhaps most notoriously (at least in this day and age), Islam attempted to blend existing Arabian polytheism with Muhammad’s almost comically confused understanding of Judeo-Christian teachings. Muhammad himself, as well as later scholars, mostly shrug off the ocean of differences between faiths as a failure of Jews and Christians to understand God’s message, hence the need for Muhammad to correct the errors. Yet numerous Islamic customs, practiced to this day, stretch back to Muhammad’s crafty substitution of Allah (which some scholars argue was an existing moon god worshipped by Arabs, although others make the more convincing case that this is an Arabic corruption of the Hebrew word for a lower-case pagan god, “Eloh”) for the many existing pagan gods.

This blend is most evident in the practice of the hajj, which developed from an existing Arabian custom of making pilgrimage to a big box of unknown origin, pockmarked with a black stone of even less known origin (possibly a meteorite) and considered a holy site in Muhammad’s time. Muhammad simply told his followers that Abraham and Ishmael built the box, validating the existing tradition of pilgrimage and circumambulation while invalidating the numerous false gods other Arabians used the ka’aba to worship. Muhammad’s legendary first act after conquering Mecca was to destroy the 360 idols left inside the ka’aba, an act that has thankfully lived on among certain followers.

Even the more “modern” religions use these methods: Mormonism claims to be an offshoot of Christianity, like Islam a “correction” of a corrupted message. Joseph Smith manages to simultaneously stand beside and substitute Jesus. The Mormon canon substitutes the vagueness of the New Testament with almost comically specific teachings and prophecies. Even Scientology, the silliest of all the relatively popular religions (it really is a close race, though), uses substitution. At the end of the day, it’s a relatively modern sci-fi spin on classic myths, with an extremely thin veneer of pop psychology and quasi-medical factoids. Names like Scientology and Dianetics say it all: they sound like real science, but they’re just nonsense words. L. Ron Hubbard’s sort of substitution must have been very appealing in its time, when the atrocities of the Nazis—themselves masters of substitution thinking—appeared to have much in common with the clinical impartiality of modern medicine.

The main reason atheism struggles to gain a foothold in public acceptance is simple: atheist evangelists want to either substitute “something” for nothing, or “something” for science. Both are unacceptable substitutions for even moderately religious people. This is why Kruse makes the only reasonable argument, that atheists should focus instead on transformation, on how people think rather than what people think. This emphasizes the role of psychology and philosophy in people’s lives.

The value Kruse provides, even above more famous atheist thinkers like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, is that she understands what they don’t. A huge chasm exists between the way they think and the way the devoutly religious think; in the middle of that bell curve lay most of humanity. (I am not, by implication, considering Harris or Dawkins “atheist fundamentalists,” because there is no such thing.) The main conflict is in how these extremes think. Harris and Dawkins often come across, to me at least, as if they can’t fathom why anyone would delude themselves with religion. The devout don’t feel threatened by the likes of Harris and Dawkins; religious apologists do, with good reason. The devout, instead, look at these prominent atheists as pitiable, as deluded by their science and “rationalism” as they claim the religious are by their gods and holy books. Neither can understand the other, which is why atheist commentators tend to preach to their choir.

One reason I’ve started writing about atheism is because, as I’ve said, I’ve unconsciously seen the need for transformation thinking. Most of what I see out there is substitution: how can anybody believe God exists when modern science has erased the need for it? I know at least two fairly religious people who would associate a statement like that with Nazis, not secular humanists. Prominent atheists are befuddled whenever “theists” or “religionists” respond to their criticism with the suggestion that atheists merely worship science. This is because they can’t understand the substitution they themselves advocate, while the religious can only understand the substitution of one form of worship with another. It takes more to transform a mind than poo-pooing ancient calls to arms, stories about talking donkeys, and inconceivable punishments for unforgivable criminal behavior, substituting “because God” with “because science.”

Kruse, as a former evangelical Christian, refuses to condescend as some atheists do. She may end up completely disagreeing with everything I write here, but I sort of felt a kindred spirit in terms of understanding the religious mindset while emphatically disagreeing with it. She would certainly understand better than I do; for all the cranky atheism I espouse today, I really only embraced it after reading Atlas Shrugged a couple of years ago. Before that—my own experience in transforming thought—I often considered myself an apathetic agnostic.

Sometimes, though, I felt a deep longing. I have always had a decent number of religious friends, some of them scarily devout. There were times when I yearned for the comfort and security religion seemed to provide them, but I just…couldn’t…believe it. Atlas Shrugged‘s John Galt speech, while infamously long, is a surprisingly succinct summary of the moral and ethical failings of religious thought, especially Christianity. (Among its failings is the tendency toward substitution: worship of political leaders and/or the state and/or ideology and/or anything, instead of letting go of the archaic symbol of a shepherd and his flock.) That book was the final nail in the coffin, for the sole reason that it urges individuals to reconsider how they think rather than telling them what to think.

But I’m not an activist, and nobody reads this blog, so I face no discrimination, whether it’s here in the comments or out in civilian life. I live by what I like to call the Platinum Rule, an upgrade to the musty old Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have done unto you, and try not to expend thine energy on those who do not follow this rule, because many others are dicks.” Do I like it when others impose their religious beliefs on me? Fuck no, so I’m not the guy who goes to work or family parties and tries to talk everyone into atheism. I very occasionally discuss religion with very close, trusted friends; more often, I discuss it with luvvvers, because it’s fairly important in that context.

Should I, instead, rage against the insensitivity of an aunt who sincerely says, “God willing,” because THERE IS NO GOD YOU FUCKING IDIOT? Should I argue with my boss when he takes the day off for Yom Kippur (or should I pretend to be Jewish so I can take the day off, too)? When a good friend tells me that Jesus has not inspired her to write, should I shake some sense into her? Some might answer all three questions with “Yes”; I disagree.

Whether I like it or not (author’s note: I don’t like it), religion comforts people, and I have neither the right nor the desire to impose my atheist values on them. This goes back to empathy: why would I want to disrupt anyone’s source of solace, just because I disagree with it? So yeah, I’m the kind of atheist who says “Bless you” when a person sneezes; the kind who sings “Ave verum corpus” at funerals; the kind who will occasionally sit through a Sunday church service and actually pay attention. Because “Bless you” is a totally meaningless act of politeness, singing depressing songs at funerals (regardless of their religious content) shows I care, and playing with my iPhone while a person is addressing me (even if I’m one in a large group and thoroughly disagree with the speaker) is rude. If I sneezed, died, or gave this blog post in the form of a public speech, I would want the courtesy of politeness and compassion from others. That’s the Platinum Rule. I’m never going to be the guy blustering about what an idiot everyone is for not rejecting their religion.

I have no qualms with thinking less of a person—even friends and loved ones, no matter how bad that sounds—for holding certain stupid beliefs, but that doesn’t mean I have the right (or desire) to impose my beliefs on them. I’m cool with anyone as long as they aren’t forcing me to substitute my own thoughts for theirs. Even a priest on the pulpit isn’t forcing me to do a goddamn thing; he’s trying to sell me on his ideology, not threatening bodily harm because I’m not buying it.

But I certainly have loved ones who impose their values, either by the assumption that everyone must feel exactly the same way as they do about God and Christ—or worse, because they assume we don’t, but they’ve decided we all need to. It’s not a violent imposition, but it is an imposition. I have a friend who was elated when I told her I started doing yoga and meditation; both were entirely about managing anxiety, but she referred to this as a “first step” toward finding faith—not necessarily her beloved Jesus, but some kind of faith. That’s a small but clear imposition: she took what I told her and substituted her beliefs. This “knowledge” made her feel better, more secure… But it was bullshit, and I called her on it, and she didn’t buy it, so we never spoke about anything even tangentially religious again.

Should I have, instead, made her an enemy?

This is why I have not faced “atheist persecution” on even a minor scale. I don’t talk about it with others, and when conflicts arise, they are handled civilly (if somewhat passively). I also have the luxury, mentally and emotionally, of simply writing off the most imposing of my religious family members. It’s very, very easy for me to never see them again, and it’s even easier to not think about them. I haven’t been especially close with anyone in my extended family—where all the religious outliers are—in at least 15 years. My parents aren’t religious, my sister and her husband aren’t religious, the people in my extended family I actually like aren’t religious… Everything’s coming up Bates!

People like Katie Kruse, though, live in the same country of “religious freedom” but lack the same luxuries that I do. It kind of makes me feel like I’ve been an asshole…especially the part where she mentions, in passing, that she is “limited in [her] influence over [her children].” I don’t want to make up a backstory from whole cloth, but I can imagine a number of scenarios for why that is the case. I infer that her kids are being raised as evangelical Christians, and as she says, all she can do is sow the seeds of inquisition (not that Inquisition!) and introspection and hope it’s enough to transform them.

I hope so, too. That type of thinking, not condescension and substitution, is what will change the way the world sees religion.

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