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Allies for Atheists: Why and How?

In the US, now is a better time to be an atheist than ever. A serious candidate for the presidency has declared on national television that he does not believe in God. The percentage of declared atheists and religiously unaffiliated people in America has risen substantially in recent years. To lack or reject religion is becoming considerably more socially acceptable.

That’s why the non-religious, and avowed atheists in particular, need theistic allies to defend them, more than ever.

This seeming paradox is resolved by considering the strong reaction by some conservative religious people against this more tolerant social milieu. They interpret the social acceptability of atheism or agnosticism as an attack on their religion. They equate their loss of cultural dominance as an erosion of their religious freedom.

In fact, the liberty to practice one’s religion is not the same thing as expecting others to give it extra social or legal privilege. But this is lost on many folks in the religious right. In contradiction to the Constitution, they are pressing for the Bible to be designated the State Book of Tennessee. They are pressing state legislatures to pass laws to allow them to discriminate against people who don’t follow their doctrinal definitions of morality. They are fighting to defend themselves in a “war against religion” that exists only in their fevered imaginations. Really, it is their war against people outside of their fold: atheists, agnostics, irreligious people, gays, lesbians, the transgendered, members of minority religions… and progressive religious people.

We didn’t pick this fight. But we’re in it. In our progressive churches and temples are gay and lesbian and transgendered people whom we accept and include fully. We perform same-sex marriages. Wedding cakes for gay and lesbian couples get cut in our social halls. So it matters to us when our couples can’t get those cakes, or otherwise are treated as second-class citizens. Evangelical culture warriors used to write off progressive Christians as a numerically insignificant crew of heretics. But that is changing as evangelical churches are shrinking. Folks in the religious right are beginning to define us as a force to be reckoned with.

Then there is the constant misunderstanding we get from people who assume that all Christians must be homophobic, bigoted, dogmatic, and self-righteous. The religious right has given all of Christianity a bad name. It’s a constant challenge to correct people’s perceptions. Giving Christianity inappropriate legal and social privilege is counterproductive for all our churches.

So atheists and progressive Christians have important reasons to engage and cooperate. Our progressive churches include many atheist members, and even some atheist clergy. It is in the very DNA of progressive Christianity to be open, affirming, and inclusive toward atheists. But a lot of progressive Christians fail to include atheists in their interfaith conversations. And a lot of atheists don’t know that or who we are.

I’ve had many conversations with atheists in which I ask them what God they don’t believe in. The answer is always the same: they don’t believe in a supernatural, Guy-In-The-Sky God. I tell them I don’t believe in that God, either. Then some of them get upset, even angry, because I don’t fit their stereotype of a Christian. Nobody told them that there are Christians who believe that God is love, that God is one with nature, that God is not on top of everything, but rather is in everything. I’ve had atheists get frustrated at me because I don’t think they are going to hell!

But our fates, our faith and non-faith, are intertwined. After all, the early Christians were harassed for being atheists. They worshiped a divinity that could not be idolized, unlike every other god in the Greco-Roman world at the time. The same accusation is leveled at progressive Christians by conservative Christians, who often assume that if we don’t believe in their supernatural God, we can’t claim to believe in God at all.

Progressive religious people need to go public about who we are and who we are not, in crisp, clear terms. Otherwise, we’ll be continue to be lumped together in the public’s mind with right-wing culture warriors who claim to speak for all Christians. And likewise we are called to take public stands in support of our atheist, agnostic, and irreligious friends, not just because we’re in this mess together, but also because our faith teaches us that it is the right thing to do.

It starts with conversations that lead to understanding each other. Some folks who are public about their atheism were burned by bad religion. Those of us who have had mostly positive experiences with our religion need to understand the depths of the pain these people have suffered, in order to appreciate the stand they now take. Likewise, atheists who have turned away from religion, or against it, would do well to learn that there are many religious people who do not judge them as evil, misguided, and damned. They need to meet religious allies who will love them as neighbors as they would love themselves.

Our job as progressive religious allies is to normalize the public discourse about atheism. That starts with directly addressing the most common misconception: that you can’t be a moral, ethical person without being a Christian or at least believing in God. But religious pluralism is central to progressive Christianity. We believe there is not just one way to live a good life and engage with Ultimate Reality. Our way is one good way, but there are others. We need to include atheism among them. Certainly religion is an underpinning for morality. But morality has even deeper roots. It is hard-wired into human consciousness. Progressive Christians celebrate this fact. It’s good news for humanity, not bad news for religion! Our faith encourages the “original blessing” of our best biologically-driven tendencies toward compassion and justice. Atheists can be our allies in striving to live rightly and well in community.

As atheists come out of the closet, they are creating new public institutions, and progressive Christians ought to support them in the process. “Sunday Assemblies” are communities that gather for social interaction and support in cities around the world. They are a lot like churches in that they meet on Sunday mornings for inspirational talks and music followed by “coffee hour”. They grew out of atheist groups, but now include all sorts of people who may or may not identify as atheists, but have a common desire to be part of an ongoing, local community that serves its neighborhood. Progressive churches are ideally situated to work with non-religious folks to create similar kinds of communities. In San Mateo, CA, I organized one through the church I served as a pastor. Monthly, we held an event in our church building which brought in authors, speakers, and musicians. It had no religious content in any traditional sense. It attracted a steady crowd of people who would never come to a religious worship service, but wanted to be part of an ongoing community. Some of them were atheists, some were just disinterested in organized religion. Some of our church members attended these events, as well. We had no agenda to “save” or “convert” people to our tradition by bringing them into our building. Our progressive churches have the facilities, the leadership, the organizational structure, and most importantly the open, non-dogmatic attitude needed to establish secular communities in our neighborhoods. We get it that everybody needs community, but not everybody wants religion in order to have it. We can get such groups started and “spin them off” when they are self-supporting, or we can create such communities and maintain them under our organizational umbrellas. We can create these groups as building-blocks for revitalizing democracy at the grass-roots level, engines for increasing citizen engagement with public issues.

We’re all in trouble if our atheist, agnostic, and irreligious neighbors suffer discrimination on the basis of their non-belief. If you can be hassled for atheism, then you can be harassed for doctrinal deviation within Christianity or other faiths. Freedom of religion means nothing without freedom to have no religion.
Website: JIMBURKLO.COM Weblog: MUSINGS Follow me on twitter: @jtburklo
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Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California

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