Why Should Atheists Have to Show Respect For Religion?

A commitment to ecumenicalism all too often leads to intolerance and hostility toward atheists.

"Can't we all just get along?"

Among progressive and moderate religious believers, ecumenicalism is a big deal. For many of these believers, being respectful of religious beliefs that are different from theirs is a central guiding principle. In this view, different religions are seen as a beautifully varied tapestry of faith: each strand with its own truths, each with its own unique perspective on God and its own unique way of worshipping him. Her. It. Them. Whatever. Respecting other people's religious beliefs is a cornerstone of this worldview... to the point where criticizing or even questioning anyone else's religious belief is seen as rude and offensive at best, bigoted and intolerant at worst.

And this ecumenical approach to religion drives many atheists up a tree.

Including me.


Don't atheists want a world where everyone's right to their own religious views -- including no religious views -- is universally acknowledged? Don't we want a world with no religious wars or hatreds? Don't we want a world where a diversity of perspectives on religion is accepted and even embraced? Why would atheists have any objections at all to the principles of religious ecumenicalism?

Oh, let's see. Where shall I begin?

Well, for starters: It's bullshit.

Progressive and moderate religious believers absolutely have objections to religious beliefs that are different from theirs. Serious, passionate objections. They object to the Religious Right; they object to Al Qaeda. They object to right-wing fundamentalists preaching homophobic hatred, to Muslim extremists executing women for adultery, to the Catholic Church trying to stop condom distribution in AIDS-riddled Africa, to religious extremists all over the Middle East trying to bomb each other back to the Stone Age. Etc., etc., etc. Even when they share the same nominal faith as these believers, they are clearly appalled at the connection: they fervently reject being seen as having anything in common with them, and often go to great lengths to distance themselves from them.

And they should. I'm not saying they shouldn't. In fact, one of my main critiques of progressive believers is that their opposition to hateful religious extremists isn't vehement enough.

But it's disingenuous at best, hypocritical at worst, to say that criticism of other religious beliefs is inherently bigoted and offensive... and then make an exception for beliefs that are opposed to your own. You don't get to speak out about how hard-line extremists are clearly getting Christ's message wrong (or Mohammad's, or Moses', or Buddha's, or whoever) -- and then squawk about religious intolerance when others say you're the one getting it wrong. That's just not playing fair.

And, of course, it's ridiculously hypocritical to engage in fervent political and cultural discourse -- as so many progressive ecumenical believers do -- and then expect religion to get a free pass. It's absurd to accept and even welcome vigorous public debate over politics, science, medicine, economics, gender, sexuality, education, the role of government, etc... and then get appalled and insulted when religion is treated as just another hypothesis about the world, one that can be debated and criticized like any other.

However, if ecumenicalism were just hypocritical bullshit, I probably wouldn't care very much. Hypocritical bullshit is all over the human race like a cheap suit. I'm not going to get worked up into a lather every time I see another example of it. So why does this bug me so much?

Well, it also bugs me because -- in an irony that would be hilarious if it weren't so screwed-up -- a commitment to ecumenicalism all too often leads to intolerance and hostility toward atheists.

I've been in a lot of debates with religious believers over the years. And some of the ugliest, nastiest, most bigoted anti-atheist rhetoric I've heard has come from progressive and moderate believers espousing the supposedly tolerant principles of ecumenicalism. I've been called a fascist, a zealot, a missionary; I've been called hateful, intolerant, close-minded, dogmatic; I've been compared to Glenn Beck and Joseph Stalin and Adolph Hitler more times than I can count. All by progressive and moderate believers, who were outraged at the very notion of atheists pointing out the flaws in religious ideas and making an argument that these ideas are probably not true. Progressive and moderate believers who normally are passionate advocates for free expression of ideas will get equally passionate about demanding that atheists shut the hell up. Progressive and moderate believers who normally are all over the idea of diversity and multiculturalism will get intensely defensive of homogeny when one of the voices in the rich cultural tapestry is saying, "I don't think God exists, and here's why."

In a way, I can see it. Ecumenicalism is a big, comfy love-fest. (Or, to use a less polite metaphor, a big, happy circle-jerk.) Everyone stands around telling each other how wonderful they are, how fascinating their viewpoint is, how much they contribute to humanity's rich and evolving vision of God. Everyone is self-deprecating about how their own vision of God is of course human and flawed and limited, and how they're both humbled and uplifted to see such different perspectives on him/ her/ it/ them/ whatever. Everyone tells the story of the six blind men and the elephant, and how God is too vast and complex and unfathomable for any one person to perfectly understand him, and how all these different religions are just perceiving different aspects of his immensity. And no one ever says anything critical, or even seriously questioning. About anyone. Ever. It's one gigantic mutual admiration society.

And then atheists come along, and ruin everyone's party. Atheists come along and say, "Well, actually, we don't think any of you are getting it right." Atheists come along and ask hard questions, like, "You actually have important differences between your religions -- how do you decide which one is true?" Or, "Religion has never once in all of human history turned out to be the right answer to any question -- why would you think it's the right answer to anything we don't currently understand?" Or, "If there's no way your belief can be proven wrong, how do you know that it's right?" Or, "Why do the six blind men just give up? Why don't they compare notes and trade places and carefully examine the elephant and actually try to figure out what it is? You know -- the way we do in science? Why doesn't this work with religion? Sure, if God existed, he/she/it/they would be vast and complex and hard to fathom... and what, the physical universe isn't? Doesn't the fact that this never, ever works with religion strongly suggest that it's all made up, and there is, in fact, no elephant?" Atheists come along and make unnerving points, like, "The fact that you can't come to any consensus about religion isn't a point in your favor -- it's actually one of the strongest points against you." Atheists come along, like the rain god on everyone's parade, and say things like, "What reason do any you have to think any of this is true?"

No wonder they don't like us.

Which leads me to the final objection I have to religious ecumenicalism, and by far the most important one:

It shows a callous disregard for the truth.

This idea that religion is just a matter of opinion? That the most crucial questions about how the universe works and how it came into being should be set aside, because disagreements about it might upset people? That it doesn't really matter who actually has the correct understanding of God or the soul or whatever, and that when faced with different ideas about these questions, it's best to just shrug it off, and agree to disagree, and go on thinking whatever makes us feel good? That figuring out what probably is and is not true about humanity and the world is a lower priority than not hurting anyone's feelings? That reality is less important, and less interesting, than the stories people make up about it?

It drives me up a fucking tree.

In my debates and discussions with religious believers, there's a question I've asked many times: "Do you care whether the things you believe are true?" And I'm shocked at how many times I've gotten the answer, "No, not really." It leaves me baffled, practically speechless. (Hey, I said "practically.") I mean, even leaving out the pragmatic fails and the moral and philosophical bankruptcy of prioritizing pleasantry over reality... isn't it grossly disrespectful to the God you supposedly believe in? If you really loved God, wouldn't you want to understand him as best you can? When faced with different ideas about God, wouldn't you want to ask some questions, and look at the supporting evidence for the different views, and try to figure out which one is probably true? Doesn't it seem incredibly insulting to God to treat that question as if it didn't really matter?

There are profound differences between different religions. They are not trivial. And the different religions cannot all be right. (Although, as atheists like to point out, they can all be wrong.) Jesus cannot both be and not be the son of God. God cannot be both an intentional, sentient being and a diffuse supernatural force animating all life. God cannot be both a personal intervening force in our daily lives and a vague metaphorical abstraction of the concepts of love and existence. Dead people cannot both go to heaven and be reincarnated. Etc. Etc. Etc.

When faced with these different ideas, are you really going to shrug your shoulders, and say "My, how fascinating, look at all these different ideas, isn't it amazing how many ways people have of seeing God, what a magnificent tapestry of faith humanity has created"?

Do you really not care which of these ideas is, you know, true?

A part of me can see where the ecumenicalists are coming from. I think they look at a history filled with religious wars and hatreds, bigotry and violence... and they recoil in horror and revulsion. And they should. I recoil from that stuff, too. It's not why I'm an atheist -- I'm an atheist because I think the religion hypothesis is implausible and unsupported by any good evidence -- but it's a big part of why I'm an atheist activist.

But the ecumenicalists seem to think there are only two options for dealing with religious differences: a) intolerant evangelism and theocracy, in which people with different religious views are shunned at best and outlawed or brutalized at worst; or b) uncritical ecumenicalism, in which different religious views are ignored whenever possible, and handled with kid gloves when some sort of handling is absolutely necessary. Ecumenicalists eagerly embrace the second option, largely in horrified response to the first... and they tend to treat any criticism of any religion as if it were automatically part of that ugly, bigoted, violent history.

They don't see that there's a third option.

They don't see that there's an option of respecting the important freedom of religious belief... while retaining the right to criticize those beliefs, and to treat them just like we'd treat any other idea we think is mistaken. They don't see the option of being passionate about the right to religious freedom, of fully supporting the right to believe whatever you like as one of our fundamental human rights... while at the same time seeing the right to criticize ideas we don't agree with as an equally fundamental right. They don't see the option of debating and disagreeing without resorting to hatred and violence. They don't see the option of disagreeing with what people say, while defending to the death their right to say it.

You know. The option advocated by most atheist activists.

I will say this: If the only religious believers in the world were progressive and moderate ecumenical ones, most atheists wouldn't care very much. We'd still disagree with religion; we'd still think it was implausible at best and ridiculous at worst. But it wouldn't really get up our noses that much. We'd see it about the same way we see, say, urban legends, or those Internet forwards your Aunt Tilda keeps sending you: kind of silly, mildly annoying, but mostly harmless, and not worth getting worked up about. (And, in fact, while I disagree pretty strongly with ecumenical believers, I'm happy to share a world with them, to work in alliance with them on issues we have in common, to sit down at the dinner table with them and enjoy a long evening of food and booze and conversation. As long as we don't talk about religion.)

But ecumenicalists are not the only believers. Not by a long shot. When it comes to religion, "live and let live" believers are very much in the minority. And progressive and moderate religion lends an unfortunate credibility to the conservative and extreme varieties. It lends credibility to the idea that faith is more valuable than evidence; to the idea that it's completely reasonable to believe things we have no good reason to think are true; to the idea that wishful thinking is a good enough reason to believe something. It lends credibility to all the things about religion that makes it most uniquely harmful.

And this ecumenical attitude that reality is an annoying distraction from the far more important business of feeling good -- and that insisting on reality is an ugly form of bigoted intolerance -- is part and parcel of this unique armor religion has built against valid criticism, questioning, and self- correction.

It is not a protection against the evils of religion.

It is one of them.

Greta Christina's most recent book is The Way of the Heathen: Practicing Atheism in Everyday Life. She blogs at The Orbit.

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