Faith and Respect

I’ve noticed more and more lately that there’s a trend in a lot of liberal and social justice circles to make disdain for religion as clear as possible. I speak not of out atheists talking about their atheism and challenging assumptions about people who don’t follow a religious faith. I’m talking specifically about treating faith and belief with contempt, turning religion almost into an insult.

It’s profoundly disrespectful, and it’s also extremely not productive. Not least because I suspect that there are a number of people who belong to religious faiths and don’t feel like discussing it in liberal and social justice circles because of the clear lack of respect for religious people. Why talk about your faith when people are using it as a tool for mockery, lumping all members of your faith together like a hivemind, desecrating objects you hold sacred, and speaking dismissively of your beliefs? Why talk about faith when it makes you an object of derision?

I am, as we know, not a member of any religious faith. But I don’t really feel that I need to be nasty about religion. It certainly wouldn’t make me feel better about myself or more secure in my non-beliefs. I’m feeling pretty good about my faithlessness, actually. And I actually really like talking with people who do belong to religious faiths about their beliefs, about the common ground we can reach, and about mutual topics of interest. People are usually not inclined to talk with people who can’t maintain even a basic modicum of respect, as a general rule. Making it clear that I think all Christians are homophobic assholes (which I don’t, as I’m sure my Christian readers know!) would kind of preclude any sort of rational, interesting discussion with a Christian, just for example. Suggesting that I think all pagans are,  I don’t know, sinister witches or something, also wouldn’t be very productive.

I think that being an atheist is a hard thing, in this society. There is definitely religious privilege, and mainstream Christian sects are privileged over us as well as members of other faiths. It’s kind of automatically assumed that we are all Christian until presumed otherwise and we are continually having Christian values shoved down our throats by some hyperaggressive members of the faith. I think it’s really important to talk about the position of privilege occupied by Christians, without attacking Christianity itself (just as I think it’s important to talk about, for example, the place of privilege I occupy as a white person, without attacking people just for being white). But, you know, the response to oppression should not be to become the oppressor. I think we can talk about religious privilege without abusing the people who hold it, and I bet that a lot of those people would be interested in breaking that privilege down.

And I think we also need to distinguish the fact that there are multiple religions, and that not all of them occupy positions of privilege in our society. Muslims, for example, are more at risk for their faith than I am for being an atheist, at least right now. Likewise, pagans face significant oppression, including things like employment discrimination and having their children taken away. And so on.

I was thinking about this at the laundromat the other day when a person approached me with a bunch of Watchtower1 magazines. The person was very insistent about how I should read them, and it was annoying, I am not going to lie to you, but I also know that, as a Witness, this person believed that speaking to me is important. A big part of faith for Witnesses is, well, Witnessing. That doesn’t mean I have to stand there and get Witnessed to, but it did mean that I could just gently say ‘I’m sorry, I’m not interested,’ and when the person pressed me further, I said ‘I prefer to study the Bible directly to learn about Christ and His works,’ and that was that.

I know a fair number of Mormons and Witnesses and I’ve talked with them about the experience of proselytising. It bothers me to see people forcing religious faith on others, but, at the same time, for them, it is a key part of their religious faith. They genuinely believe that they are not fulfilling the tenets of their faith if they don’t attempt to spread the word. And it seems like we should be able to reach a common ground of respect; that when they approach people who don’t want to be talked to, they respect that (and preferably that they only reach out to people who have specifically asked for it), but at the same time, that people who don’t want to be talked to don’t abuse them for simply trying to abide by their religious beliefs.

This is kind of an extreme example of the balance between faith, respect, and personal boundaries, but I can’t help but see a lot of anti-religious rhetoric flying around in liberal and social justice spaces, and it really bothers me. It bothers me both because I think it’s disrespectful, and because I think it’s a classic example of how the response to oppression is often to create more oppression. It’s hard to step outside the cycles we have built for ourselves, as a society. It’s hard to fight these things, but we have to, because if we do not, we are no better than the people we are making targets of our abuse and mockery, whether we are making fun of people who believe that Christ was the Son of G-d, or profaning the name of Muhammad (peace be upon him).

A little respect goes a long way. And while I think that some members of the religious community, specifically the Christian community, are not always respectful, and clearly abuse their privilege, perhaps seen most starkly in the legal system in the United States, which is heavily dominated by conservative Christian values, I don’t think that the oppressed in this case are entirely innocent; some respect is needed from our side, as well.

Just as I don’t think that being abusive to nondisabled people accomplishes anything for disability rights, I don’t see how making religion into an object of hostility accomplishes anything for equality. I want to live in a world where all people can worship (or not) in peace, where all people can believe (or not) what they want, where all people can feel secure practicing and expressing their faith. It’s not like talking to a Mormon missionary for 10 minutes is going to cause me to spontaneously burst into flames. In fact, the local missionaries and I hang out sometimes to drink tea and talk Bible stuff; they know they aren’t getting anywhere with me, but they still enjoy having conversations with me about faith, religious belief, history, and, yes, dare I say it, politics.

Sometimes, the lion can lie down with the lamb. Give it a try.

  1. A publication put out by Jehovah’s Witnesses.