I like to tell my de-conversion story about how a rude atheist actually prompted me to question my beliefs, engage in some critical thinking, and eventually discard my religion. I will probably never meet this person but I owe this rude atheist a debt of gratitude. It is for this reason that I feel strongly that we atheist types should be well-versed in defending our non-belief. After all, we do owe it to the world to shine light into the superstitious darkness within which many otherwise free minds are lost.
So when a highly religious friend of ours died unexpectedly on New Year’s Day, I had to pause and take stock of all the conversations I’ve had over the years with various people and think about the effect I have had on people. There have been multiple occasions when I could have made a comment to this man and his wife about faith, religion, etc. I always bit my tongue because I didn’t want to go there, and after all, they truly are a sweet couple.
Visiting his widow at the mortuary and at the funeral, I was struck by the degree to which her belief that he was in heaven gave her some solace. And honestly, I will never claim that discarding belief will necessarily lead to maximum comfort, especially during trying times like this. At that moment, in a time of intense shock and grief, I would hope that even the most ardent atheist would not begrudge a person’s leaning on their faith to try to make it through. After all, the three boys that are now counting on her alone do indeed need for her to be strong. If I had made the same rude comments to her that I have made to others in the course of my non-believing adulthood I probably would have felt a bit ashamed and would not have been in a position to grieve with her as a friend.
But surely we shouldn’t just sit back and refrain from all potential discussions on the topic of faith for the sake of avoiding the possibility of making someone upset. Our conviction that the world needs freethought and open inquiry will never be made manifest if we don’t make the case for just those ideas. The truth is the truth whether it makes us feel better or not. It is an act of humility to cast away the beliefs we want to have in favor of a world-view that embraces a truth that is external to each of us. Let us not ever apologize for rejecting faith. Let us not ever cower in the shadows of what are, for now anyway, the metastable towers of religion that loom over our lives and threaten the continued progress that secularism has allowed us to attain.
So how does one reconcile these seemingly conflicting ideas? I’m not sure I know. I would like to think that I “plant seeds” of doubt (to borrow from the Bible) or try to put a “burr under the saddle” (I’m a country kid – being folksy doesn’t always hurt). Can this always be done without risking hurting others? Possibly not. But can it at least be done in a way that is motivated by genuine love that is felt and understood by the other person? Absolutely yes. Is this the effect I have had on people with whom I’ve debated in the past? Not normally.
Debate whoever you are going to debate, and do it well. What’s at stake is more important than you as an individual getting recognition for being right – rather, it’s the idea that while the truth may not necessarily set us free, it will at least eliminate the artificial barriers we erect to hold our own societies back from what we could otherwise become.
In the meantime, just remember that for the person you’re dealing with, it may or may not be a happy new year.