Evangelical Atheism

“I don’t understand atheists who proselytize,” wrote a friend today on Facebook. “I thought one of the biggest advantages of not having a religion is not having to convince other people to join it.”

Jovial as his comment was, I was delighted to see someone call out evangelical atheism, a subset of run-of-the-mill atheism that I’ve always had a hard time with. I immediately responded to his post. Later, I saw another commenter take issue with his stance and state that “If you’re an atheist that feels that religion causes much more harm than good (see: God is Not Great – How Religion Poisons Everything, by Hitchens), then trying to get people to become atheists is the only ethical choice.”

I disagree for two reasons.

First, there’s a difference between faith and religion. Believing in a higher power is not the same thing as participating in a religious group or tradition, any more than believing in feminism means subscribing to Ms. Magazine, being a member of Planned Parenthood, or attending a lot of spoken word performances. There’s a fair degree of overlap, sure, but to conflate the two is a logical fallacy.

Second, I don’t believe that preaching at people changes their minds – especially when we’re talking about something as personal and heart-driven as spiritual beliefs. I’m aware that a lot of religious people (particularly Christians) don’t seem to have gotten the memo on this one, and there’s an overabundance of religious zealots in the world who are quite simply bullies. But this doesn’t justify atheists retaliating in kind. If anything, I feel it’s incumbent on atheists to behave as rationally as possible if they want to convince people that reason is on their side.

I’ll also add here that I find it lazy and offensive to lump all religions together as “doing more harm than good.” To me, that’s no more defensible a statement than saying that government, the school system, or imperial measurements do more harm than good.

See, I was raised in a liberal, intellectual Christian family; my father was a United Church minister (for those of you outside Canada, that’s roughly similar to the folksier elements of the Anglican or Episcopalian churches) whose faith embraced paradox, encouraged deep debate, and called its practitioners to wrestle with the challenges posed by scripture, liturgy and religious traditions. Ours was not a church that tolerated bigotry or shallow platitudes. In fact, it was at church, or through the church community, that I first encountered causes as diverse as GLBTQ rights, restitution for residential school abuses, anti-apartheid work, and feminism, to name just a few.

This is not to say that the United Church is totally devoid of the troubles that have plagued every religious community since the dawn of time. It has certainly stumbled on the path many times, and its adherents are as human as anyone else, of course. But when I consider the centuries of abuses perpetrated by the Catholic Church, for example, or the hatred spewed from the pulpits of many a fundamentalist Christian community, I count my lucky stars I was born to liberal Christians rather than the conservative kind. And growing up on the mostly-secular west coast of Canada, I spent so many years explaining to people that my dad was not like the TV evangelists who defined Christianity for my generation, that I became a little tired of trying to explain the complexities of the Christian church’s family tree. But there are real differences between the liberal and orthodox wings of Christianity, just as there are in Islam, Judaism and just about every religion I know of – and it is a major logical fallacy to lump all of these faith communities together as a monolithic whole that perpetrates “more harm than good.”

I’d love to see passionate atheists argue their points while modelling the behaviour they’d like to see in their religious counterparts. Drop the evangelism; open up to complexity and paradox; and above all, act with respect and compassion.