Daylight Atheism: Advice to an AtheistOctober 23, 2008 — Deacon Duncan
Ebonmuse recently posted a query from an atheist with a problem.
As part of my job, I am often expected to attend and participate in public meetings that are put on either by my employer or by community councils that are affiliated with it. My Canadian employer is considered to be a public organization and the council members are voted in by their respective communities. None are government bodies and none have any religious affiliation or mandate. However, most of these meetings begin and end with a Christian prayer for which all in attendance are asked to stand.
The atheist, not surprisingly, feels uncomfortable about being essentially coerced into assuming a prayer-like posture, as though he were also making superstitious appeals to an imaginary deity. At the same time, the social consequences of opposing the practice could be serious, especially in a small town. The writer asked for advice on what to do, and Ebonmuse turned it over to the commenters for suggestions. I’m a bit late in replying, but I’d like to toss in my tuppence worth.
There are two elements I’d like to focus on in my reply. The first is the importance of standing up for your individual rights and for religious liberty. These are vitally important concepts and absolutely must be protected and preserved, as even religious believers ought to agree. The second is the nature of society, and especially a free society, where individuals who follow different guiding principles need to work together in harmony and tolerance for the benefit of all.
As individuals, we need to demonstrate personal integrity and to be faithful to the principles which our conscience tells us are the right and true principles one needs to live by. Society, however, works best when individuals cooperate, despite differences in their fundamental principles. This means that we need a common set of principles that everyone can adhere to, in good conscience, for the harmonious working of the whole. For the sake of personal liberty, however, we want this set of required common principles to be minimal.
I would propose two principles as being the foundational, common principles that ought to govern our social interactions: mutual respect, and reasonable compromise. So far, I trust, I’m not saying anything that isn’t more or less obvious. Here’s how I would apply it to the situation above:
First of all, I take it this is in Canada, not the United States, so we’re not talking about a First Amendment issue. Let’s just get that out of the way so we don’t get distracted. My advice under the circumstances would be that if you are in a secular meeting that traditionally opens with people rising to pray, the atheist should stand, placing their right hand over their heart, keeping their eyes open and their head unbowed. If anyone notices this non-traditional posture and asks the atheist what it means, he or she should reply:
“I do not pray, and I do not believe it is appropriate to begin secular meetings with public prayer. Nevertheless, I have great respect for the people who do pray, and I stand to show that, despite my personal beliefs, I am willing to stand with my community and to demonstrate my respect for them. I place my hand over my heart as my pledge to do what I can to make this community a better place and to do what I can to make life better for myself and for those around me.”
We live in a polarized society, and that’s not healthy. Christians and other religious people need to learn to make allowances for those whose beliefs are different, but that can be hard to do, and many Christians see that as somehow betraying their faith. By standing during the prayer, and visibly pledging to support the community without sacrificing their personal principles, atheists can lead by example, demonstrating that tolerance can be helpful, non-violent, and principled.
There will, of course, be those who say that this in itself is a compromise (as in a betrayal). But I think that’s the wrong attitude. Society requires minimal compromise on the part of everyone, because that’s just the nature of society. Some people will say, though, that such gestures are futile, and that believers will never follow the good example of the atheists. For some believers, this may be true, but it’s still worth doing, both because it’s the right thing and because it’s the best way to influence the young and the undecided, so that future generations can grow up in a society where freedom is treasured and tolerance is popular.
Some will say that it’s wrong for atheists to surrender the battle for secularizing the secular, and I agree, that would be wrong. But the wise general engages the enemy at the time and place he chooses. We should fight for freedom from the top down, and work for popular support from the ground up. Sometimes it will be appropriate to take a stand and fight a battle, even at the cost of personal hardship and sacrifice, for the greater good. I applaud those who have had the courage to stand up against the tyranny of the majority and against popular injustice, especially when they’ve paid the price and not (yet) seen the fruit of their labor.
This is not going to be easy. It’s going to take many generations and much patience. But I think we can do it, and are doing it. Meanwhile, we need to set a good example and live upright and respectable lives among the believers, both for our own sakes and ultimately for theirs and their children’s. The free society we create for ourselves will be a blessing to us all.