So today, I was going to grace you with a post about atheism. I’m still going to relate to you something that happened to me last week, but first I want to direct you to a story I read in The Advocate. I just want to know if someone can help me to understand how something like this can happen. It’s short, but to summarize: A student at an Oklahoma high school has been kicked out, because the school administration found out that she’s living with her girlfriend (she’s 18) instead of her parents. They are refusing to let her graduate.
Okay, on to the atheism. Feel free to skip it.
Last week, I was at lunch at a restaurant near my job. I eat at the restaurant pretty frequently, because there aren’t many places nearby. I usually read a book while I’m eating, since I’m usually eating alone. Last week I was reading Atheism: The Case Against God by George H. Smith. An excellent book so far, by the way.
Just to be clear, I was reading the book silently. I wasn’t shouting passages or reading aloud or preaching about atheism to the patrons around me. I was just sitting. Reading a book. Well, and eating a cheeseburger.
This woman walked up to me and said, “You really shouldn’t be reading such offensive material in public. It’s inappropriate.”
Blink blink. “Excuse me?”
She repeated, “Your book. It’s inappropriate for public.”
I was in shock, so my response was a little lame. I told her that I had the right to read anything I wanted in public and that if she is so easily offended, maybe she shouldn’t be looking at my book.
I wish I had told her that she should stay home, if she’s so easily offended, but alas…it escaped me.
Now, before anyone gets his or her panties in a twist, I’m not suggesting that this behavior is representative of all Christians or all religious people or any such thing. These were the actions of one person. I took them as such.
What bothers me, though, is the idea that atheism is seen as “inappropriate” or “immoral” or whatever, in so much of our society (as this sort of thing has happened to me before and I’ve read about these sorts of things happening to others and I’ve seen much evidence of the intolerance of some or even many religious people). The idea that my reading a book about atheism in a restaurant could somehow be offensive to anyone just makes no sense to me.
If I had walked up to a person reading a Bible in a restaurant and suggested it was offensive and inappropriate, I can almost guarantee that my actions would be seen as irrational and rude. Not to mention that I would probably be seen as representative of atheists, in general. Which would not be the case.
Most atheists are just trying to live their lives. The constant and overwhelming “Christianity is the only good” message in this country is…trying, certainly. I didn’t say “religion is the only good,” because people in this country tend to believe that the Muslim religion is anything but good. Not all people, mind you, but it is (sadly) a pretty popular opinion.
I think the negative opinion of atheism is based mostly in the fact that people don’t understand what atheism IS. So I thought I’d toss out a definition.
Theism is defined as “the belief in god or gods.” As such, atheism is defined as “the lack of belief in god or gods.”
Much like amoral is a lack of morals, but not immoral (violating moral principles). Atheism is simply the absence of belief in god or gods.
It’s not a belief at all, which is why it cannot be a religion. It’s not a belief system. It’s not “I believe that god doesn’t exist,” it’s “I don’t believe in a god or gods.”
That may seem like a subtle difference to you, but I can assure you it isn’t. Many atheists may assert that they believe that god doesn’t exist, but that’s not what atheism is. Atheism doesn’t make a positive assertion.
Personally, I don’t like the supposed “new atheism” in which “converting” people is made a priority (I don’t know how real this is, but I’ve heard some talk). I would never try to “convert” someone (but I understand that some atheists are loud and abrasive…so are some Christians), but I will question the things people say and do (particularly if they claim out loud to be doing them in the name of some religious being). That isn’t my attempt to change someone’s mind, it’s simply my attempt to have a conversation or to understand; sometimes it’s an attempt to get the person to think about things from a different perspective. Likewise, I don’t get upset when friends or strangers ask me, in a polite and civil manner, why I’m an atheist. I’m happy to give you my thoughts and explain how I came to be an atheist.
It absolutely angers me when I feel that people are trying to make their beliefs into legislation (e.g. discrimination of any kind, censorship, etc.), forcing us all to live by their rules. But that would likely anger me, even if I weren’t an atheist. Sure, there may be a few things we can all agree on. Murder is bad, stealing is probably bad, assault is almost always bad, lying is usually bad. But what of the rest of it?
There are lots of people who say that beliefs should be private and no one should talk about them. There are still others who say that religion isn’t important. While these are nice thoughts (and both have been said to me by people who believe in god or gods in some form or fashion, not atheists), they just don’t represent the world in which we live. Until wars are no longer fought in the name of a god and people are no longer persecuted or discriminated against in the name of a god, these things ARE important. They affect all of us everyday.
I’d also like to say, for the record, that just because someone takes issue with a religious person or group for something that’s been said or done, that doesn’t always mean they’re making an indictment of all religious people everywhere. Read carefully and completely before you jump to conclusions. There are many many many good and kind and smart and compassionate theists. Same goes for atheists. In both groups, there are also bad apples. I will always think it’s okay to call out bad behavior.