February 24, 2012

An Alternative to Atheist Restraint

Leather restraintStaks (Dangerous Talk) has an interesting post in which he claims that atheists, at least those of us in the United States, show too much restraint when it comes to our dealings with the religious. He describes some recent instances where he went out of his way to avoid saying anything that could possibly be construed as offensive by religious believers.

I imagine many of us can relate to this experience. I know I can. For those of us who live in oppressively religious areas, this experience of holding our tongues is likely to be quite common.
Time and time again, atheists are compelled to show restraint out of fear of offending the religious. We shouldn’t have to. We have actual evidence on our side. We don’t just make up a bunch of stories and demand people believe them on insufficient evidence.
He's right. We shouldn't have to. And really, we don't have to. It is our choice. But is it a reasoned choice to which we give some real thought, or is it something we do primarily out of fear or habit? Do we have an alternative, and if so, what might it look like?

Like Staks, I generally practice restraint. Way too much restraint. And like Staks, it leaves me feeling resentful at times and wondering whether I might be making a mistake by doing so. What sort of social change ever came from people holding their tongues out of respect for the status quo?
We live in a society dominated by people who believe in ridiculous crap and we rarely even point it out. People who value evidence, logic, and reason are made to feel like we are the most disrespectful people on the planet by people who push their ridiculous beliefs on all of society without even the courtesy of even presenting valid reasons for their beliefs.
What would an alternative to showing so much restraint look like? Imagine what it would feel like to adopt a personal policy of not holding back when provoked. Like Staks, most of us do not go out of our way to initiate conversations about religion with believers. We don't generally confront street preachers and attempt to shout them down, and we don't go door-to-door pushing atheism. So far so good. What if we continued on this path but began speaking our minds when a religious believer initiated a conversation about religion with us? That is, I'm not going to bring it up, but I will tell you what I really think when you bring it up.

While adopting such a policy would undoubtedly involve some risk for those of us living in especially repressive environments, I suspect that it might do some good in helping society overcome religious privilege. Sure, many religious people would feel "attacked," as is bound to happen whenever privilege is challenged. But it wouldn't be an attack at all; it would be us participating in the conversation as an equal rather than as a subordinate. It seems like we ought to be able to do that if we want to.

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