October 13, 2015

Dear Christians: An Atheist's Take On Religious Freedom and Religion in the Public Square

Let's take the internet out of this discussion, because people on the internet are more likely to be assholes. This is Science™, and you read it on the internet, so you can trust that it is true.

Instead, let's focus on the every day world.

The topic of religious liberty is a "hot button" right now. We see it everywhere, from clerks not wanting to issue marriage licenses to nativity scenes on courthouse lawns to satanic temple statues that want to share space with The Ten Commandments.

Yesterday, I listened to a Friendly Atheist podcast episode featuring an interview with Jocelyn Floyd of the Thomas More Society.

The podcast describes Floyd like this:

Jocelyn Floyd is an attorney working with the Thomas More Society, a non-profit group that usually defends religious liberty cases. As a frame of reference, they’re usually on the other side of the Freedom From Religion Foundation on the issues. She also serves as a board member for the Northern Illinois chapter of the Christian Legal Society.

Needless to say, it was an interesting interview. One of the reasons I really respect Hemant and his crew is that they do these interviews with folks that hold different viewpoints from most of us in the audience. It's a good chance to take a pulse of what other people believe while also checking their assumptions about us.

One assumption that Floyd stated that really bothered me, as an atheist, is that associations like the Freedom From Religion Foundation are trying to take religion out of the public square entirely and don't even want individuals to mention their faith in public.

I think this is a fairly common assumption--at the least, it's one that I run into again and again when people talk about Americans United for Separation of Church and State or FFRF. I've also had it voiced a few times when talking to theists--admittedly usually Christians--who know I am an atheist. So I definitely think it's fair to offer some clarity on the issue, from an atheist who believes in separation of church and state adamantly.

Sometimes, I disagree soundly with FFRF in particular on the cases that they try to pursue. Sometimes, it seems really pointless. I know that many theists feel the same. I do, however, see a larger point and importance to even these most pointless of cases: they are the easiest way to shout "We are here!" and have that be heard.

Think of it like this: The United States Government is kind of like Horton the Elephant, we're kind of like the little community on the dust speck on the clover, and there's a whole lot of Christians in the crowd shouting "Boil it!". In order for us to make a ripple, we have to shout at the tops of our voices.

This isn't to say that there aren't situations and communities where theists also feel like they are in the minority. I've had readers share before that they don't always encounter warm acceptance and fuzzies from nonbelievers in their circle that find out they are a Christian. Floyd makes the point in her interview that she encounters pushback and doesn't always feel comfortable saying she's a Christian in her field of constitutional law. These are legitimate and valid experiences, and the emotions that individuals in them face are also legitimate and valid.

Overall, though, 70.6% of American respondents in the most recent Pew Research Center Religious Landscape Study (2014) identified as Christian. 5.9% identified as other faiths. 22.8% identified as "unaffiliated". That's a significant number, but when you look at the breakdown...

  • 15.8% of those identified as nothing in particular--that means that they didn't identify as nonbelievers necessarily, but may have identified as "spiritual but not religious", a growing segment of people who still have supernatural beliefs but don't identify with established organized relgions.
  • 4% identified as agnostic.
  • 3.1% identified as atheist.
That means, if you were to theoretically walk down the street right now and ask 100 random people their religious beliefs:
  • 46.5 of them would identify as Protestant Christians.
  • 23.9 of them would identify as Catholics.
  • 1.7 of them would identify as Mormon.
In all, you could expect to encounter about 71 Christians. By contrast, you would expect to encounter maybe 2 Jews (1.7% of respondents) and 1 Buddhist (0.7% of respondents).

How many nonbelievers could you reasonably expect to encounter? About 7. Maybe some of the 16 "nothing in particulars" would fall into that category if you took the time to talk to them, maybe not. It's hard to tell.

That's a lot of Christians!

Obviously, the ratios will shift based on where you are. For instance, the city we moved from had thriving Jewish, Buddhist and Muslim communities. I don't know the exact rations, but I'd expect that if I walked down the street in downtown, I'd have a good chance of encountering a fair mix of faiths. The city we are in now does not--it's overwhelmingly Christian. So I would take these numbers with a grain of salt, but I still think it's important to remember that when you're the majority religion in a country...things get filtered through that lens, whether you consciously want them to or not. That's one reason that it's so important for smaller faiths and non-faiths to make themselves heard--just to remind all of  you that we are here.

So in that case, even these "nuisance lawsuits" are a way of raising those voices...but it shouldn't be mistaken for wanting everyone to just leave their religion at home when they enter public spaces.

I dunno if I mentioned this, but I'm an atheist (I know you are all shocked!). I would appreciate less religion in government. I don't believe in legislating based on morality, because morality is so variable. There are some basics that are fairly consistent--don't murder, don't rape, don't steal, etc--but other than that there's a lot of flexibility. Even sects within the same faith don't believe in the same moral standards, so it's tricky. Any time you incorporate a version of morality into the law, you're effectively saying that those moral standards are more valid than any others...and since those moral standards are based in religious thought, you're stating that religion in particular is more valid than others.

Take this example: Marriage equality. There were Christians on both sides of the issue--I've mentioned before that one of the lawsuits challenging North Carolina's marriage equality ban was filed by a denomination that wanted to be able to marry its same-sex parishioners. So when the government takes a side and says, "This is illegal," they are effectively saying, "This particular religious view is right versus the other." On the other hand, if they say, "This is legal," they're really operating from a neutral standpoint--it's neutral because churches can't be forced to perform same-sex marriages. This means that churches that believe it is a sin can go on believing it is a sin to perform such unions, and those churches that want to perform them and believe that their interpretation of their religious text allows for it are able to do so. This is a victory for religious liberty (and also for people who want to marry their same-sex partners!).

Despite the fact that I believe this neutral standpoint--this secular starting point--is necessary for all of us to coexist relatively peacefully, I understand that it's impossible for every single person to leave their religious beliefs at the door. That would be an entirely unreasonable expectation. I don't think a religious person could do that anymore than I think that I could leave my deeply held values and beliefs.

What I do think is essential is for government officials to acknowledge that sometimes what's right for your religious sect isn't right for everyone. For instance, I've seen people use Christianity to justify not doing anything to attempt to alleviate some of the pressures of climate change. They talk about how the world was created perfect, with just what we need; how we can't break what God built; and how the world is decaying anyway, so such phenomena aren't manmade but are instead a sign of that decay. These are dangerous points of view for people that don't share those beliefs--whether it is other theists or nonbelievers like myself. We need these officials to set aside their deeply held religious convictions and govern based on what is best for a secular nation. We need them to govern from the position that the world will NOT end--even if it's their deeply held belief that the world will end.

I don't care if the President attends a prayer breakfast. I look at prayer as nothing more than another form of meditation, so it makes since that the President would want to engage in it. Meditation provides calm and clarity. I don't care about invocations at public meetings as long as they are open to everyone--including humanists and atheists. I don't care about student-led prayers or bring your bible to school day. Those are student rights, and as long as the staff of the school stays out of it while they are "on the clock", it's fine by me. A-okay as they say. I don't care about nativity scenes so long as they are part of an open forum that celebrates a variety of beliefs; I don't care about memorials for individuals, although I find generic Christian memorials for soldiers distasteful, as they erase the incredibly diverse backgrounds of the men and women in our armed forces--not just nonbelievers, but Buddhists, Shinto practitioners, Wiccans, Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus, and so many more have served in our armed forces that it seems disrespectful to me to wipe out that tapestry of belief in favor of what's generic for our culture.

If I had one bit of advice, it would be this: Stop and think.

It's easy as a majority viewpoint--and I know this, because I'm a majority viewpoint in other ways--to get caught up in our own hive-mind. So stop and think and consider your behavior and the behavior of your elected officials. Consider how a nonbeliever would feel, but don't stop there--consider how it would look to someone of a minority faith, to a Muslim or a Jew or a Buddhist or a Hindu. Inclusive communities make us all stronger. They create the ties that we draw on to give our lives meaning in the here and now. Try a thought experiment and reverse the positions. Imagine that it was an atheist or a Jewish or an Islamic display, and you were in the minority as a Christian. How would you feel? Consider a time on down the line when your faith is no longer the majority in this nation. What precedent would you like to set now for those that are Christians then?

Empathy is a good thing. We could all, theist and non-theist alike, use a little bit more of it, I think.

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