Oh man, I was listening to the Skepticality podcast, and they opened by playing this news clip about the Charlotte Pop Festival donating its proceeds to the Richard Dawkins Foundation. And let me just say this video is comedy gold.
It’s hard to say what was the funniest part: The way they tried to make a big deal out of the fact that possible atheists might strum guitars in front of your innocent children, the ominous shots of the word “atheist” on a web site as proof that they are out there and they don’t even hide themselves in shame, the blatant disregard for the idea that promoting science and reason is a legitimate cause, the word “evolutionist” being trotted out as if that denoted a religious stance—there’s so much to choose from. I think, though, the thing that really jumps out me the second time I watch this is the interview they did with the woman who didn’t believe in not believing. How does that work exactly? Does she not believe that atheists exist? Or does she not believe that we don’t believe?
I kid. I know what she means. The word “believe” is one that needs to be banished from the English language for at least a decade, and then we can revisit the subject and perhaps rerelease it to the public on the grounds that they learn to use it accurately. Because right now, the word “believe” is used to mean all of the above:
1) Accept on faith.
2) One’s willingness to accept actual evidence.
3) One’s approval of something’s existence.
These meanings come into direct conflict, and confuse the issue. For instance, when a believer—a faith-based creationist especially—says that someone “believes” in evolution, they are using meaning #2, but they are implying that it’s meaning #1, and that all things are equal and god invented antibiotics so they can take them while not “believing” in evolutionary theory, even as medicines developed from understanding it keep them alive. But #3 is gaining traction in colloquial American English, and that shit needs to stop right now. I am usually not a language nazi, but whenever I hear someone say, “I don’t believe in abortion” or “I don’t believe in atheism”, I want to ask them if they hear themselves denying that these things even exist. In the first example, one does have to wonder why people who don’t believe in it want to ban it, since usually we don’t need to outlaw things that don’t exist. Obviously, what they mean is, “I don’t approve, but I don’t want to have an argument about it because I know I’m being an asshole, so I’m going to invoke the language of faith because I know that it’s considered bad manners to criticize someone’s faith to their face.”
The other part of this woman’s interview that I found hilarious was that she invoked what’s become a right wing article of faith that I’m going to dispute here and now: That people with progressive or rationalist opinions incur a special responsibility to keep those opinions to themselves, and never use art, comedy, or music to express their opinions, and especially never express opinions in forums where fragile wingnuts might be exposed and have their “beliefs” questioned. Which is what she was saying when she said that no one should express an atheist opinion on stage while singing. What if their lyrics are atheist, lady? It does happen.
I’m sure that many people who would trot out this whole line about how atheist musicians shouldn’t express their opinions on stage would claim that they hold everyone to the no-opinions standard equally. This, of course, is a lie, and John J. Miller aptly demonstrated with his Bono-should-shut-up-praise-soldiers mixed views on this matter. I guarantee that this woman would have no objection to someone singing about their faith in Jesus, or blessing the audience, or pattering about their love of the Lord between songs. It’s only rationalists who incur this special obligation, because we’re a minority and because we have the not-full-of-shit advantage, so it feels a little unfair to subject fragile believers to atheist sentiments. Part of it is no doubt that not many atheists are going to suggest that religious believers are obliged to keep their beliefs out of their work. We’re not as likely to be ruffled by mere exposure to the contrary opinion, because if that were the case, we’d go mad from the constant, non-stop offense. When I see such overt fear that atheism is catching, I’m forced to conclude that the people experiencing that fear are scared to death that if they think about atheism for a minute, their fragile belief in god will collapse. Hey, maybe it will. But that’s not such a bad thing, since you get to sleep in on Sundays, and god can’t punish you because he doesn’t exist.
What was really kind of an interesting feeling for me watching this video is the visceral experience of being fear and loathed for not believing, which is—believe it or not—something that doesn’t penetrate my psyche very often. In fact, watching this video, I gained a new sympathy for atheists who are fighting against oppression. I don’t, as a general rule, feel oppressed as an atheist. Which isn’t to say that I don’t think religious freedom is very important, of course. But I don’t experience someone trying to put prayer in government-sponsored spaces as a direct assault on my rights in the same way that attempts to ban abortion or restrict birth control feel like they spring from overt misogyny. I hear/read other atheists talk about fearful situations involving coming out, and while I believe them of course, I’m always mildly surprised. I’ve never felt cold-shouldered or looked down upon. But watching this video—seeing the hate and fear emanating off practically everyone in it for these nebulous atheists they’ve been trained to hate and fear—I get it. I can see why telling these asswipes would be scary.
It occurs to me that I grew up quite privileged not to be raised religious. I think there’s basically two kinds of American atheists: people who had to throw off the shackles of religion, and people who never really faced any pressure to have faith. I grew up in a Bible-thumping area, and most of my friends back then were mainline Christians deeply involved in their churches (I went to a lot of youth groups), and so I got some subtle appeals from friends and overt Bible-thumping nuttery thrown in my face, but my actual family is basically irreligious, though officially tied to the Episcopalian church. I think I may have even been baptized, but now that I think about it, I have no idea. Atheists Episcopalians, I’ve since learned, are surprisingly common. Not that I’m outing anyone—I have no idea what most of my relatives think, barring the few that have been wooed into some kind of evangelical faith. But that’s the point. I have no idea. I’m sure most of them are agnostic, or apathetic agnostic. Religion came up for us mostly in two contexts: 1) Marveling at/mocking some of our crazier fundie neighbors and 2) Complaining that church is boring on those occasions when you get roped into it. A subset of #2 really deserves a category of its own for those of us that live in predominantly Catholic areas: fearing that any Catholic wedding you’ve been invited to is going to involve mass. Luckily, this isn’t as common as it used to be.
But you run across a lot of atheists for whom political involvement in promoting secularism is a very personal cause, and that has never had emotional resonance for me. I only really got political about it for the same reason Richard Dawkins did. In fact, it’s almost identical—always had a sense that religion was kind of stupid (not that religious people were, though—it’s obvious that very smart people can hold dumb ideas), but the rise of a powerful religious right in America politicized me on this. Reproductive rights are an especially important aspect, because the arguments against women having them all have an end game that’s religious, because there really aren’t good secular arguments for making women second class citizens. But now I think I have a better grasp of what it must feel like to be hated and feared just because you don’t believe in any gods, and why that makes the secular cause feel very personally important to a lot of atheists.