Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.
I was raised Catholic. I am now a Buddhist. After the death of Madelyn Murray O’Hare (I disliked her abrasive style), I became more sympathetic towards Atheist Rights. Free speech and all that. I find myself “sitting on the fence” with regards to Atheism. Although I don’t believe in the “Christian” god; I do hope that there is a pleasant after-life. But I’m really not sure if one exists. Nonetheless, I feel more sympathetic towards atheists and I enjoy reading the contents of this site. After all this my question is this. Is there a place for me in this group of friendly atheists?
Yes, there is definitely a place for you here. This is a place where people with all sorts of beliefs and opinions are welcome, or certainly should be welcome, and I hope to help keep it that way and make it better. In fact, this is an excellent place for someone who is “sitting on the fence” about atheism. That’s an uncomfortable place to sit, and here you will find many people who know what it is like. They’ve gone through some tough times and are now standing firmly on their own feet.
The only people I’ve ever seen who are very unwelcome here are trolls who deliberately degrade the conversations and get them to center around themselves, and use every opportunity for sneaky insults. It’s a problem of online behavior, not beliefs. Once in a while there’s an annoying “drive-by proselytizer,” but they’re merely a nuisance, and they have become less common here over the years.
However be ready, this site is full of skeptics. Skepticism is the foundation for most of the atheists’ views here, so your beliefs, if you bring them into the discussion, will probably be challenged. Think of it as a fencing school, and the rapiers used are arguments. Many people here love to argue, and they can be remarkably good at it. Everybody gets poked from time to time. It goes with the territory. Ouch! Dammit! I mean, touche!
The title “friendly” does not mean “make nice.” It means that the general etiquette is if you disagree, you should attack the person’s argument rather than the person himself. It means try to get better at understanding and persuading rather than getting better at putting someone down.
Sometimes people complain, “Gee, you aren’t being very friendly.” Sometimes these are people who have become so attached to their beliefs or opinions that they think they are their beliefs or opinions. So they feel hurt when someone dismantles those ideas right in front of them. That experience, while uncomfortable, can help us to see that identifying ourselves with our beliefs or opinions can lead to tunnel vision, impaired critical thinking, and emotional rather than rational decisions. It’s better to see our own beliefs or opinions as possessions, things we use like the items in our pockets, but not our essence. Otherwise, they end up possessing us.
There is a sprinkling of smart alecks who like to tease, and that’s perfectly okay; I’m one of them. But there are also a very few here who sometimes actually are unfriendly. Sometimes they’re a little too impressed with their own arguing skills, or they’re bitter and hurting from some injury, or they’ve reached a threshold of some kind of frustration. That may be understandable, but they seem to forget that there is always a real person behind the text they’re reading on their monitors. It’s easy to slip into sadism when we cannot see the faces of our victims and they cannot see us. Once in a while I speak unkindly, and soon after I feel guilty about it. That’s why I use my own name and my own picture. It helps me to stay mindful of the real people to whom I’m talking.
Even if we are diametrically opposed on some issue, that is a tiny part compared to the humanity we have in common; our desires to feel safe, to love and be loved, to feel worthy, to protect our family and friends, to participate in our community, and to make a meaningful contribution beyond our own survival. If I remember those huge things while discussing the tiny things, I can remain a friendly atheist and promote dialogue rather than diatribe.
Paul, I thank you for your compassion toward atheists and their rights, even while you are not quite on “our side of the fence,” and for your support of free speech. That’s a very big plus here, especially when you support the freedom of someone who disagrees with you.
Finding your center of gravity for these things that remain unsettled for you, such as the existence of deities or an afterlife, is a gradual and sometimes difficult process for people who really think for themselves, and I get the strong impression that you are one. You’re in good company. Welcome.