While there is such a thing as atheists who prefer to antagonize the religious of every stripe-and that’s certainly their right-it’s not the position of the bulk of people who don’t believe in a god. This shouldn’t be surprising because people who by their very definition avoid wishful thinking are pragmatic enough to realize that minorities like themselves need friendly allies in order to get things accomplished. And of course, people who highly value freedom of and from religion are also likely to respect people of differing opinions and don’t want to constantly offend those who otherwise share many values.
Most atheists and agnostics want to be clear about convictions regarding the existence of gods and other supernatural concepts. And being in the minority in the U.S., it also makes sense for those who don’t share the majority belief to advocate for strict separation of religion and government. And at times it’s appropriate to criticize religion since some religious ideas hold our society back, such as not yet embracing full LGBT rights and unnecessarily dividing humanity into the chosen and the damned. But in pursuit of respect, in seeking freedom from religion, and in challenging religious injustice, do atheists ever cross the line into activity that may be counterproductive and alienate religious allies?
There was a time when Americans-even in the freethought community-thought that simply identifying as an atheist was automatically offensive to any person of faith. Thanks to the increasing acceptance of disbelief in America, those times have changed, and now you only hear such concerns from people who are behind the times. Because of the emergence of popular atheist authors and celebrities, as well as the prevalence of humanist and atheist advertising, we’ve moved away from the time when atheism was perceived as synonymous with being anti-religion. While prejudice certainly persists against those who don’t happen to believe in a god, today most people understand that being an atheist only means that one’s belief system doesn’t include gods; it doesn’t mean being unfriendly to people of faith.
Still, there are situations where the line may be crossed by atheists and agnostic activists that offend their religious allies. In humanist circles, it’s a matter for serious debate where to draw the line in godless self-promotion and challenges of government involvement in religion. So what do progressive religious leaders think? I asked a few for their thoughts.
Rev. Dr. Ken Brooker Langston, the executive director of the Disciples Center for Public Witness, feels that, “On a practical level, secular humanists affirm many of the same ethical principles as progressive people of faith. Even as they continue to disagree with one another about the nature of ultimate reality, secular humanists and people of religious faith can and must, for the good of humanity, work together to promote these shared values.”
Sara Hutchinson, domestic program director for Catholics for Choice, points out that while religious people imposing their views on the rest of society is just as wrong as atheists doing the same. She remains optimistic about the two communities working seamlessly together, saying, “The importance of freedom of religion as well as freedom from religion is well understood by the American public. In general, liberty and tolerance are widely practiced, and those who overstep the mark usually discover that their shrill voice more often than not falls on deaf ears.”
J. Brent Walker, the executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, describes a number of issues that some nontheists have worried would burn bridges with religious allies, but in fact were areas of agreement between the two communities. Walker agrees with atheists that there should not be government vouchers for parochial schools to pay for the teaching of religion and he specifically points out that “a cross is the quintessential symbol of Christianity.” While he understandably accepts its use for individual expression in national cemeteries, he strongly states that the “government should not display a cross on public property, even if it considers it to be a ‘memorial’ to those who have died in combat.” Still, Walker indicates that he, and his religious colleagues, have some limits when working with the nonreligious community. Walker feels that “It does not serve our cause well to make a constitutional mountain out of a civil religion molehill. In a country with religious roots as deeply planted as ours, it should surprise no one that references to the deity will be reflected in our public rituals and civic ceremonies, our patriotic songs, slogans and mottos.”
Atheists and religious minorities will certainly disagree with the latter statement, since even ceremonial government acknowledgments of God can create an oppressive environment where atheists, Buddhists, Hindus, and others who don’t ascribe to belief in “God” are made to feel as second class citizens. But the real conclusion to draw from this conversation is that religious progressives are far more understanding of atheist and agnostic activism than may have been assumed. Not only are they willing to agree to disagree from time to time, but they frequently are steadfast supporters in important areas of social concern.
So as the civil rights movement for secular Americans progresses, nonreligious leaders can rest assured that they aren’t in this alone, and that we need not temper our enthusiasm for fear of offending friends.
Roy Speckhardt, Executive Director, American Humanist Association