Let’s make some noise

This post was originally published on this site in April 2010. Seven years later, a lot of the specifics of my everyday life are different, but I still believe that existing in public as an atheist is not the aggressive attack many think it to be.

I’ll admit, sometimes I get a bit bashful about the atheist bus ads and the atheist billboards. Maybe, I think sometimes, it would be better if we just stayed quiet and kept our personal beliefs to ourselves. There’s no need to get up in people’s faces about it. Nobody’s pushing religion in my face every day… right?

And then I remember, and I’m shocked that I ever could have forgotten. I want to put this out there so others can read it, because I think it’s really important for us all to remember.

I live in a metropolitan area in a rather politically liberal region of the United States. I do not live in the Bible Belt. But on my radio, I get four Christian FM radio stations. There are four frequencies here devoted to spreading the word of Jesus Christ 24 hours a day. They air many recordings of preachers, as well as discussions of Bible passages and call-in shows where people can get supposedly Christian advice. They have mind-numbing children’s programs, in the vein of VeggieTales, cutesy stories designed to hit you over the head with sterilized versions of Bible stories and basic moral lessons attributed to the Bible for no clear reason. Of course, they also play “family-friendly” music, either gospel choirs or Christian rock, songs in both genres mostly consisting of hypnotic, arguably cultlike repetitions of short phrases of praise toward God and/or Jesus.

Yes, there are four distinct Christian radio stations on my FM dial that I’m aware of. (Christian rock does often sound like love songs that turn out to be directed at Jesus, so I may have missed something.) Needless to say, this is ridiculous in proportion to the total number of stations I can get, and when compared to the number of stations of other kinds. I haven’t carefully counted all different types, but I know it is one more than the number of news stations, for example.

I have a relatively short commute, but I easily pass plenty of religious advertisements every day. These are billboards, ads in and on buses and in bus stop shelters, and proclamations from the streetside marquees of the eight or so churches I go by. They tell me that I can find happiness and fulfillment by attending that church or the other one, they tell me to visit such-and-such website to read about divine revelations, they tell me that Jesus loves me.

I pass people on the street with clipboards and pamphlets who want to know if I’ve accepted Jesus Christ as my savior. They stop me and argue with me about why I should be a Christian, and they want me to read their pamphlet and come to their fellowship meeting to learn more. No matter how educated I demonstrate myself to be on the claims and tenets of their faith, they assure me I can get all my questions answered if I just come to their meeting and talk to someone above them in the hierarchy — a pastor, a preacher, a teacher of some kind. The people I talk to always admit they don’t know the answers to the questions I am asking, but they are always sure that somebody somewhere has figured out the answer.

Every time I take money out of my wallet, I am reminded that my country expects me to be placing my trust in a made-up, self-contradictory, and probably (were he to exist as he is usually described) malevolent deity. Not trusting in this deity means not being part of the “we,” the embodiment of this great nation. My country so deeply believes me to be an outsider that it emblazons this statement on every single piece of legal tender that is printed or minted, and has been doing so since 1938.

Every time somebody sneezes, somebody else says, “God bless you.” If I find out somebody is sick, I know the appropriate response is, “I’ll pray for you,” and I’m the one who feels awkward if I don’t say that and have to come up with something to replace it with. I know several people who often wear religiously-themed clothing — on the one end of the spectrum, the ceremonial trappings of their religion (head coverings, pendants, etc.) and on the other end, T-shirts advertising religious camps or their former youth groups or their alma mater’s campus ministry of choice. Neither of these extremes is considered remarkable. Meanwhile, I would stick out like a sore thumb if I were to wear clothing proclaiming my atheism.

Every day I swim through a sea of references to religion, some just reminding me of its existence (in the same vein as “Don’t believe in God? You are not alone.”) and others actively advocating their particular religious brand (usually much more vehemently than “There’s probably no God”). Sometimes I forget they are there, because they are so pervasive. They fade into the background. But the reason they fade is because the presumption of religion is so strong. Being religious is the default, the norm. In particular, in the US, the default is to be Christian. We are surrounded by this. That’s why it’s so important to make noise, to be seen and noticed by society at large.

Once, on a long road trip, I passed one of the COR billboards. That’s the only time I’ve ever seen one in person. One of my friends in the car was Catholic, and he spoke up to say he thought “those ads are stupid.” I played devil’s advocate (ha) and he backed off a little, but I could have gone a lot farther in arguing with him and didn’t. These are decisions we make when we’re stuck in a car for hours either way, I suppose, but I still regret not saying more. Even more, I regret the second thoughts I had about the merits of the billboard campaign over the next few days. The atheist ads that have been put up so far are just a tiny drop in that sea of religion, and we should be doing more, not backing off.

I understand fundamentalists

…Well, not really. But hopefully that got your attention.

What I mean is, in some ways I understand fundamentalist religious people more than liberal religious people. Sure, they may think that their prophet read a nonexistent language by looking at a rock inside a hat. They may think that there was once a talking snake that tricked a man and a woman made from that man’s rib into eating a magical fruit that gave them the ability to tell right from wrong, and that this is the reason why giving birth is painful. They may believe that their god wants them to have more than nineteen children. They may believe that if they don’t carry out an inordinate number of daily rituals in an extremely precise fashion, their god will be furious with them. They may believe all sorts of incredibly counterintuitive, ultimately nonsensical things.

But they think they have found the truth, through some means or other, and they are willing to stick to those premises they think are true and follow them to their logical conclusions. (Yes, yes, to whatever extent a conclusion based on ridiculous premises can be called logical.) When they say their holy text is the word of God, they act like it and they stand by all of the text.

As much as I appreciate from a practical standpoint the religious people who are willing to let go of the more absurd aspects of their religion — the ones who let their daughters go to school, who respect LGBT folks as fellow human beings, who are willing to associate with people not of their religion, who are willing to admit something less than total certainty about the contents of their holy texts — I find them frustrating from a philosophical standpoint. In some cases, they are more frustrating than the fundies.

The way-out-there fundamentalists, I can to some extent dismiss as irrational. They simply lack the discernment to be able to tell that their religion was obviously fabricated in order to control people (sometimes for good and sometimes for bad). They are too gullible, and lack confidence — perhaps rightly — in their own critical thinking skills. But the liberal ones, the ones who admit that this or the other part of their scripture is not to be taken literally? They’ve shown themselves to have the necessary critical thinking skills. They’re able to find a few of the implausible, or the self-contradictory, or the outrageously immoral parts of their religion, and actively disavow them. And for some reason, they stop there. They continue to claim that their religion as a whole is true — just not this part, or that part. Or this other part. But still, they claim, it’s true.

If you’ve found some part of your religion’s teachings to be not worth following, why limit it to that one part? What distinguishes that part from the rest of your scriptures and doctrines? Nothing, except that you happened to notice that part first. How did you pick? You applied your own moral reasoning, and your own logical analysis. You don’t need the pared-down skeleton of your religion to provide that for you; you had it all along. You’re so close. Just let it go.

This post originally appeared on this site in April 2010. Usually I put this note at the top, but breaking up the title and the first line was confusing this time around.