Open letter to my anti-theist friends
I’ve got something I want to say and I’ve wanted to say it for some time. I’ve hesitated because while I don’t agree with you, I respect your right to hold your opinions and advocate for them as you think best. I would never want or to try and silence you. In fact, I think your voice is important to hear in the public arena. The problem is you aren’t extended that same respect back to me and my fellow Humanists.
Humanism is a philosophy that is based in compassion. Compassion for everyone, including people we disagree with. This is not an abstract concept for us. We feel it deeply with every individual human we meet. It isn’t our lack of belief that defines us as Humanists. It is our compassion. When you denigrate people of faith, we feel pain and sorrow that anyone could be that mean to another human. It makes me want to cry just thinking of how much ugliness your approach is adding to the world.
This is a visceral reaction for me. It is based on my compassion for my fellow humans. When you yell at me and my fellow Humanists telling us we just don’t understand why you are so angry at religion, all I can think is how sad it is that you really don’t understand the power of compassion.
I understand why you are angry. The things that upset you about the negative influence religion has on our societies upsets me to. The difference is that instead of lashing out at the world in anger, my compassion compels me to reach out and try to help people learn more effective ways of coping with the stresses of life.
Humanism is also a philosophy that advocates for freedom of belief. We feel as strongly about this as we do about compassion. In fact, it is our compassion for individuals that demands that we respect the right of everyone to believe whatever they want to believe, even if we think that belief is stupid or harmful.
I realize anti-theists think religious belief is harmful and should be abolished. As a Humanist, I do not agree and I don’t know of any Humanists who does. Freedom of belief isn’t just a way to argue for our right to disbelieve. It is a foundational principle of our philosophy! It is impossible to argue for the abolition of religion without violating that basic principle. This is why we aren’t jumping on board the anti-theist bandwagon with you. You can’t be anti-theist and be a Humanist at the same time. You might share some of our values, but if you are anti-theist, you don’t share all of them.
The simple fact of the matter is this. As a Humanist, I don’t find religious belief offensive. What I find offensive is any ideology that blinds us to the suffering of others. And yes, religion is known to have that effect on people. But ideologically based atheism does too. I just took a poll for non-believers that asked what is humanity’s worst failure? What do atheists think is the worst? Is it slavery, war, nuclear weapons, the death penalty? Nope, 60% of respondents thought religion was the worst of humanity’s failures. Slavery only got 17% of the vote! If you think religion is worse than slavery or war –your priorities are messed up. Your ideological belief in the harm of religion is blinding you and steering you off course. And please don’t tell me that religion is the cause of all wars or that it is the cause of slavery because it isn’t. If you believe that nonsense, you are being blinded by your ideology.
This isn’t to say that I don’t think the world would be better off if more people engaged with the world as it really is instead of relying on what I view to be the false promises of religion. I do. It is just that my compassion compels me to reach out in a sympathetic way to people of faith to help them learn better ways of coping.
Telling people who are simply trying to live life as ethically and compassionately as they can that they are idiots who are responsible for all of the harm in the world not only offends my compassion, it screams to me of hypocrisy. You demand the right to believe differently than the majority and to be able to speak your mind, but you use that right to denigrate others who choose a different path than you. And again, all I can do is shake my head and try not to despair at how much you have allowed your anger to consume you and blind you to the amazing capacity for compassion that almost all humans share regardless of belief or disbelief.
When Humanists talk about the need to be compassionate with everyone, including those who believe differently than us, we are not saying that to temper our anger and frustration at the injustices in the world nor does it make us complacent. Just the opposite is true. What we know and what you have yet to learn is that it is nearly impossible to solve our problems if we are not thinking clearly about the root cause of the problems we face. Humanists use compassion to help us think more clearly about the problems that upset us. We know that if we do not consider people compassionately, we have no hope of helping them improve their lives, in all the ways their lives can be improved.
We use and advocate for compassion, because we would rather solve society’s problems then win a debate.
What all this means is that as much as you might like Humanists to join you and support you in your anti-theist activism we won’t and can’t. Most of us find the anti-theist approach to activism to be not just offensive, but nauseatingly so. It literally makes me sick to my stomach to read most of the popular writers in the atheist and therefore anti-theist movement. As a result, I don’t read those writers. We Humanists and you anti-theists really do move in different circles and as a result you have no idea what practicing Humanists actually think or which individuals we actually respect. It is possible that your ideological approach to atheism prevents you from learning why Humanists feel the way we do. I know in conversations I’ve had with local anti-theist activists, they either refuse to listen to what the Humanists are saying, or they are incapable of grasping what we are saying because of their ideological blinders.
The reason I felt compelled to write this is because anti-theists, in their attempts to gain traction for their cause, are trying to pull all atheists, freethinkers and non-believers under their banner. The problem is that Humanism and anti-theism are inherently incompatible. Just because we are both secular and non-religious doesn’t mean we agree on agenda, tactics or goals.
When you try to take over our groups and redirect them to anti-theist aims that leaves Humanists without a voice and without a home.. True, we share some goals such as the prevention of theocracy in America, but we Humanists need to be allowed to advocate for that as Humanists. So please stop trying to take over our groups. Advocate for atheism and anti-theism through groups dedicated to that cause
Saying that we want Humanist groups to focus on the promotion of Humanism doesn’t make us traitors to the cause of freedom of belief and speech. And it doesn’t mean we aren’t committed to advocating for equality for all people of belief or non-belief. It just means our reasons for doing so are different from yours. And that difference should not only be respected, it is important if we are going to succeed in our shared goals that the Humanist voice be heard instead of silenced.
I say this because I know from my experience what the power of compassion can do. I know because I do not preach my Humanism to the choir. My ministry, if you can call it that, is to teach Humanism and Humanistic approaches to life, to people of faith. And despite what my anti-theist friends think, my experience is that people of faith really are attracted to Humanism and are willing to learn about things like critical thinking, as long as it is taught to them in a Humanistic and therefore compassionate way.
I was once asked by an anti-theist friend of mine whether I had ever gotten death threats or been accused of being anti-religious. She was sure that I had because in her experience, there is no way to advocate for freedom of belief without raising the ire of people of faith. When I told my friend I had never received death threats and that people of faith are actually quite nice to me, I don’t think she believed me. But it’s the truth. Despite writing extensively on the topic of Humanism and publishing things in my newspaper column like you might die if all you do is pray, the truth is, I’ve never received a death threat and people of faith who write to take issue with my lack of belief almost always start off by saying they agree with everything I said, they just would like to see God present in people’s thoughts more.
I really do believe that my Humanist based compassionate approach is more effective at changing hearts and minds that your anti-theist approach is. That is why I have taken this approach. I believe that if we are going to encourage people to respect others who believe differently, we need to model that behavior ourselves. Being disrespectful to people of faith is not a good way to teach respect.
If you are angry and want to be angry and you don’t want to be respectful and you honestly think this is the best way to achieve your goals, great. That is your choice and your beliefs. As a Humanist I respect your choice even if I don’t agree with it and think it is ultimately counterproductive. All I ask is that you respect my choice to believe and act differently.