Why Religion is “Fair Game” for Criticism
I have recently seen many theists and atheists rail against “vocal atheists”. I can’t help but wonder if the so called “New Atheism” really is morphing into something else–though that is a topic for a different day. I often see statements along the lines of “live and let live”, “why do you care what I believe?”, “respect other’s beliefs”, etc. This I expect from theists. I find that it bothers me more when I hear it coming from other atheists. I want to briefly discuss why it is important to care what other people think, why it is sometimes important to criticize those beliefs, and why it is important to speak about your beliefs. I have written some angry style rant post on this topic before, which you can read here and here. I aso want to highlight a post by Cephus from the blog Bitchspot that is well worth a read on this topic. Today, there will be no ranting.
Let me begin by stating that I fully support your right to believe whatever you choose. If you want to believe the universe is run by little green men living in your closet—feel free. Problems arise when two things happen: a) when one’s beliefs start affecting other people and b) when people feel their beliefs are beyond criticism.
Theists, as I am sure you are fully aware, your religious beliefs help to form your worldview. They, at least in part, play a large role in how you think. They play a large role in how you view our society should be shaped. They play a large role in how you vote. They play a large role in how you think others should live their lives. All of these things extend beyond you. They affect your co-workers, neighbors, friends, and they affect me. When we find ourselves in situations like this, we are usually discussing politics. “Should the school board raise taxes?” “I like Candidate Smith for Governor!” “I support gun control!” etc. However, sometimes we find that this situation extends to religion.
The three most glaring examples of this, that should be plain for all to see, are same-sex marriage, abortion, and the fact that atheists cannot hold public office in seven states (PA, MD, AR, TX, MS, SC, TN). Each of these are propped up solely by the religious views of Christians. If we were to magically remove all religious language from these debates, these things would not be issues. Homosexuals would be able to marry, women would have control over their reproductive systems, and I could run for office should I choose to live in one of those states. That is not our reality.
Theists, like it or not, your religious beliefs have the very real potential to affect all of us in society—and those beliefs often do. Like it or not, although you have the right to believe whatever you wish, once it starts to affect my life, I now have the right to criticize that belief.
It is also important to note that beliefs are not entitled to respect. There is a huge difference between respecting a person and respecting a belief. There are many people that I respect who hold some beliefs that I do not. There are also some beliefs that are just not respectable, like racist beliefs, for example. No belief is entitled to respect.
This brings us to point “b” from above. When it comes to the marketplace of ideas, no idea is sacred. When your ideas/beliefs can affect my life, I have the right to comment on that idea/belief. Religion is not exempt from this. A small example: I have two great friends who happen to be a gay couple. They would love to marry, but living in MN, they cannot. When they walk through downtown and see a protester holding a sign that stays “homosexuality is a sin” or some other religiously based anti-homosexual rhetoric, they have the right to comment on that, just as the person holding the sign has the right to hold the sign.
The problem that I see is that many theists do not recognize this fact. They are quite willing to criticize the beliefs or practices of others, but often, do not wish to receive criticism in return. In fact, I find that they often claim persecution or violations of “religious freedom” when faced with criticisms of this nature. Nothing could be further from the truth. The fact is, if you think I should not be able to run for office because I am an atheist, be prepared to have a discussion about it. Be prepared for that conversation to turn towards your religion, even if that makes you uncomfortable. It is not persecution to have a discussion. Nor is it persecution to point out errors in your belief system. Nor is your belief system exempt from discussions of this nature.
Religion has, for far too long, received a “free pass” from criticism in the public sphere. The problem with this scenario is that religion is a dominant actor in the public arena. There can be no more “free pass” so long as your religion has the potential to affect my life.
There are a few final things that I would like to note. First, many theists reading this will point out that my beliefs are also then on the table for critique. Correct. Feel free to criticize away.
The second thing I wanted to call attention to are other atheists who get upset when some of us criticize religion. To them, I want to say, “Get in the game!” I find it very frustrating to see things like, “I’m an atheist, but I have no problem with Christianity”. Please realize that Christianity has a huge problem with you! Look, I’m not saying start a blog, write a book, stand on a street corner, be offensive or anything like that. There are many ways you can get “in the game”. What I am saying is this: please open your eyes and realize what is happening around you. To be honest, it is for these people that I chose to include the seven states that they cannot run for office as an example in this post. By railing against atheists who speak out against the many disagreeable ideas of religion, you are enabling that religion to discriminate against you! In fact, I encourage you to speak up against those who wish to discriminate against you or against those who are trying to enact policy that goes against your interests. If speaking up isn’t your thing, fine. But stop trying to silence those of us who are. Like it or not, we have at least some of your interests at heart.
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