Friday, September 08, 2006

Holding My Tongue

In an American social climate growing more and more hostile to anything outside ultra-conservative or fundamentalist forms of religion, introducing oneself as an atheist (or even as a liberal) can be quite problematic. It’s not as if I go out of my way to advertise my atheism. Even though I am well beyond outspoken in print, I do occasionally choose to remain silent on the subject of religion should it come up in business meetings, at the gym, or at gatherings among those who haven’t yet suffered through a lecture on my philosophical outlook on everything. Even the closest of my friends can’t bear more than one or two ‘pontifications’ a year, and I try my best to accommodate them.

Overall, I’ve noticed that believers tolerate other believers of different faiths (and agnostics) better than they do non-believers. As long as there is a belief in some sort of monotheistic deity, be it a moralistic god or otherwise, one won’t encounter too much nervous tension. One could assume, in our day and age that, were one to profess belief in the gods of Mt. Olympus, he or she would receive some funny looks and maybe a few laughs, but never with the sort of negative reaction which atheism seems to engender in even those who are not hardcore religionists. Back in ancient Rome, speaking ill of the gods was not met with resounding approval either. The gods have may changed since then, but humanity obviously hasn’t.

So why does my non-belief in this eternal, transcendent, all-powerful being make others so uncomfortable? There are two explanations. First, there is the assumption that my non-belief is also a rejection of any moral or ethical standard that the believer mistakenly claims as synonymous with his or her god and religious doctrine. How many times have we heard it said that America is a Christian country based upon Biblical principles”? It goes without saying that the Islamic world feels much the same in that regard. So when I state that “I am an atheist”, it means much more to them than a mere disregard of their particular deity or religious doctrine. It becomes an attack on what they perceive as a national credo, and I appear to them as one who seeks to undermine their entire way of life. The fact that nothing could be further from the truth means little, however, since one who is willing to believe the unbelievable is equally capable of denying the believable when he so chooses.

The second reason is closely linked to the first and although they are not mutually inclusive, they sure seem pretty damned close to it. First, consider the emotional attachment one develops in regard to ingrained and cherished ideals. One doesn’t build their whole life and hope around something without becoming emotionally involved. Then, mix in the reality of human beings as creatures of habit and routine. Once we factor in the pain caused by an attack on any of those ideas or behavior patterns, it becomes apparent why some would be so offended by my non-belief. It would be great if rationality always prevailed, but I’ve learned to expect that this just isn’t so. The affronted party will likely remain civil to my face, which is great, but even from afar, it is preferable that nobody engages in hearsay or negative conjecture on my behalf. Who needs that kind of karma?

Therefore, in order to avoid the initial uneasiness and fallout of an oft-disliked opinion, I simply say “I am still exploring my spiritual and intellectual options.” The listener generally smiles and replies “Well, it is good that you are searching. So many people don’t even make the effort.” I feel just a little dishonest in holding my tongue, but it’s always easier to take a compliment than to start an argument or forego the possibility of forming a lasting connection with someone you have just met. Besides, they will have plenty of time to know me better after I create that first ‘good’ impression and earn their willing attention. As my friends would attest “Shlomo is a really nice guy, but he has some crazy ideas.” If all people hear is the ‘crazy’ part, I’ll never get to show the ‘nice’ side, and there will be no opportunity to dispel their misunderstanding of my atheism. You can always argue with a friend and remain friends, but you have to make friends in order have someone with whom to argue safely.

(There are rare occasions when I am asked to discuss religion, science, and philosophy with someone who has already been forewarned about what they are getting themselves into. Some people just love a challenge. My response always comes in the form of a question asked of anyone who has ever sought out confrontation for any reason. “Do you really want to do this?” I leave it up to them. I know how to walk away from a fight. Hell, I’ll run if I have to! I like peace better than war anyhow.)

Why push it? Isn’t that what friends are for?

Kol Tuv

1 comment:

Hrafnkel said...

I, too, am good at tongue holding. Fortunately the religious climate at my college doesn't require my silence in that regard. The politics, however, are fairly orthodox leftist-democrat. Some socialists, some greens, but far and away the majority democrat.

The example of the religious debater who "compliments" you, however, is something I would also answer with a question. If it were a true compliment, then there would be no problem. But all too often, the phrasing of that so-called compliment is simply condescension in disguise. And I won't stand for that.