May 18, 2005

How Are We To Treat Believers?

Picking up where I left off in a previous post, I will now consider the question of how we should treat believers. I've already stated that I think that attempting to respect their beliefs is counterproductive in that it fails to address the many problems caused by faith. But how then should we respond? Do we pity them for their ignorance and attempt to educate them? Treat them with contempt? Fear their determination to convert or condemn us?

By perpetuating the myth of their persecution, Christians have devised an ingenious trap for the rest of us. Throughout their climb to political power, they have maintained that they are persecuted for their beliefs. They have managed to reframe even minor disagreements with their position as evidence of persecution. If we attack the idiocy of their faith head-on, we simply confirm their claims of persecution. On the other hand, if we feign tolerance or respect for their beliefs, we permit them to continue their quest for dominion. By studying the words of Christian extremists carefully, it is clear that these plans eventually lead to the conversion or subjugation of all nonbelievers.

Since neither of these options sounds particularly appealing, what are we to do? Before addressing direct responses to superstitious individuals, I'll lay out a broad strategy for dealing with the threat of religion. First, we atheists need to continue building our own political capital. By making sure our representative organizations (e.g., American Atheists, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, Freedom From Religion Foundation, etc.) have sufficient funds to remain politically active, we give a voice to our concerns. Second, we use every opportunity to educate the public about the dangers of faith and the high cost of maintaining religious dogma. We continue to draw attention to the similarities between Christian extremists in America and extremists from other religious traditions. We do this through the internet, letters to the editor of our local papers, and through our social networks. Third, we remain active in the sphere of education, insuring that science continues to be taught without the polluting influence of religion. We let our school boards know that we want our children to be prepared to compete on the world stage and that this involves science education that is based on sound empirical principles. Fourth, we fight the growing anti-scientific/anti-intellectual bias in our culture. We reward our children for academic achievement, and we model skepticism and rational thought. We apply these principles in our daily lives (e.g., buying products based on scientific product testing, reliability, and other sound bases instead of gut-level reactions).

But how to we respond to individual believers? We focus on the practical consequences of religious belief on both individual and global levels. "What good comes of your beliefs, and why are these beliefs necessary to achieve this good?" "How are your Ten Commandments superior to the Golden Rule?" When the practical consequences are dysfunctional (e.g., racism, homophobia, war, etc.), we are not afraid to point this out. However, we focus our attacks on the belief and its consequences instead of the person who holds the belief. We do question the intelligence of anyone who accepts religious dogma, but we do not need to throw that in anyone's face. Instead, we can focus on why it is necessary, how they benefit from it, and whether alternatives would provide the same benefits without the staggering costs. Most of all, we are not afraid to criticize religious beliefs simply because they are religious. Religion is not off-limits. It is not beyond reproach. When religious beliefs do not present an accurate account of the natural world and/or result in harm, they must go.

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