by Jesse Galef
I don’t often disagree with Herb Silverman but it does happen on occasion. The man is a constant source of clever phrases, inspiring ideas, and good humor. But there’s a reason I stopped quoting him where I did in my earlier post about the American Humanist Association’s new ad campaign.
In his most recent On Faith piece, he made a case defending the new ads reading “No God? …No Problem!”. I didn’t want to get off-topic in that post, but I take issue with the very next sentence after the passage I quoted:
Saying you don’t believe in God is no more anti-Christian or anti-religious than saying you are black is anti-white, saying you are female is anti-male, or saying you are gay is anti-straight. In the words of that great philosopher, Popeye the Sailor Man: “I yam what I yam.”
There is a fundamental difference between saying you are an atheist and saying you are black, white, female, male, gay, or straight. Those are all personal statements and don’t reflect on others. Identity is pluralistic – there are as many identities as there are people, and none of them are “incorrect”.
Declaring myself an atheist states what I think is true in the world. Unlike the other examples, the assertion is not simply a personal statement about identity. It is a truth-claim about the objective facts of reality – and I am saying I think religious individuals are wrong about those facts. That is anti-religious.
There is one reality and some of us are correct while others are incorrect. It’s no longer merely a statement about myself – in essence I’m saying, “I don’t believe God exists and neither should you.”
Many people base their lives around their god-beliefs. Of course it rubs them the wrong way for us to publicly attack their foundations. I believe all things should be subject to scrutiny, but we know that people are often emotionally invested in their beliefs. Challenging them – as we have a responsibility to do – will upset people. We know it will. It’s the cost of living in a free society in pursuit of the truth. As Silverman said, people will likely hate us merely for stating who we are and what we believe.
We need to recognize that our existence as atheists upsets people in a way the homosexuality doesn’t. Gays don’t, by their very existence, tell straight people that they think everyone should be gay.
Given our starting point, even our polite signs are going to ruffle some feathers. We’ll have to live with that. I’m certainly not saying that we should tiptoe around the issues in public or, conversely, that we should embrace our ability to offend people. Where we should each fall on the spectrum is for each person to weigh, and there’s a place for all kinds of approaches from Greg Epstein to PZ Myers. But when we’re each making that decision, we should take into account the reality that people are emotionally attached to their beliefs and will be upset when we publicly doubt.