UPDATE II: Readers might also enjoy “A God Shaped Void? Maybe Not.” From May ’06.
Gone are the days when a high school or college atheist felt alone. Now close to 1 in 5 Americans are on the “godless” plan.
The ARIS study (see link in the post or this link at USA today) says that those with “no religion” have doubled in less than 20 years; growing by almost 10% a decade. Look at America in 2050 if that growth rate continues at even half that speed: a third of the country will be “godless.”
If evangelicals and other Christians had their heads about them, they would welcome this development. No religion beats meaningless adherence to religion every time. I see this every day. I work with dozens of students with a cultural adherence to a particular “Christian” religion. They overwhelmingly know almost nothing of Jesus, nothing of the Bible, nothing but a collection of cultural traditions, legends and superstitions about Christianity, but they consider themselves Christians.
When it comes to my job as a Christian communicator, give me the students who are “non-religious” over sorting through cultural adherence and dead superstition. (OK atheists, I can hear you snickering. Control yourselves. It’s still my blog.)
But evangelicals have spent a large part of the post-war era villianizing atheists and the non-religious. Sometimes out of manipulation. Sometimes out of ignorance. Sometimes out of fear. Always out of an abandonment of a Jesus shaped view of those who are not Christians.
We’ve been fed the kind of exaggerations and over-reactions about “the non-religious” that ought to make us ashamed. We’ve bought into all these grand fears that we are going to lose “our” country to “them.” Somehow, a lot of Christians agree with Lalli’s citation of former VP George H.W. Bush: “I don’t know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots.”
Lalli says that the atheist next door wants to live peacefully. They want to be accepted by their religious friends and families. They want to participate as full members of society and be part of the “common public good” we all want to achieve together.
Of course, some evangelicals won’t hear that, and Lalli has some idea why. She knows it’s a two way street when it comes to hostility toward one another:
Some atheists out there might wish to de-convert believers, pull them away from their faith or disprove their gods, and it is true that those are the atheists who write the books that make the best-seller lists. Indeed, Richard Dawkins and his The God Delusion ilk have made a pretty penny stirring this controversy. But many of us â€” dare I say most of us â€” would prefer coexisting over combat.
But is that really possible? To read the blogs that discuss such issues, you’d be tempted to say no. In fact, when I wrote a piece about raising my children without a specific religion â€” published in this newspaper â€” readers on the website responded with some support as well as some lacerating condemnation, such as “you are abdicating your role as a parent,” and worse, “without God, we are nothing.” In fact, whenever I have published anything about being an atheist, I have had to stop reading my e-mails from people of faith who â€” oh, the irony â€” say things that are very hateful.
I know the feeling. When I write reasonably about atheists, I get mail saying I’m about to become one. When atheists wrote me during my fifteen minutes of fame last month, they were divided between reasonable people commending me and hate-filled scary people talking about herding all religious people into camps and “getting rid” of us.
I’m concerned that the atheist community will find the temptation for “cultural revenge to be strong. I won’t be surprised at all if we’re about to enter a period where Christians will find a vocal, powerful minority of empowered atheists prepared to harass and even persecute.
Both sides have extremists whom the media love to get on the air to jack up ratings. Talk radio loves the extremists. But do they represent what most of us think?
I can accept that there are 60 million non-religious in America. I trust that they have no more desire to eliminate my religious faith than I do their unbelief, but I want to know if their claims of acceptance extent into the practice of my religion? Are Christians going to be viewed as brain washers and child abusers? Will religious communities be attacked by violent nut jobs? If so, what will the non-religious community have to say? Will my rights to oppose gay marriage remain part of my political rights as a citizen, or will it automatically make me a danger to society?
I think it’s fair for non-religious to ask if their kids can be free of harassment in public schools? Can an atheist openly speak of atheism without being lynched in the press or Christian media? Can unbelievers pursue their rights to avoid public demonstrations of religion for their children and themselves?
I hear Lalli’s experience, but I’m not sure any of us know what tolerance looks like.
I have some ideas:
1. Let’s stop getting together to debate and let’s get together to talk about what we have in common.
2. Let’s both clearly and consistently distance ourselves from the extremists and manipulators.
3. Let’s find a way to do things together that we both believe are important. Why can’t atheists and Christians feed the homeless and work on rights on conscience issues together?
4. Let’s go to the other team’s gatherings and describe our concerns and points of view in each other’s presence, without name calling.
5. Let’s treat one another like Jesus would. I think even atheists would sign on for that.
We need to make a start. Christians and non-religious are going to be two very large communities in American. Can we find a way to exist in the real world, with real mutual interests, or are we cauht in a cycle of hateful rhetoric and misrepresentation?