Question: On Respect, Friendship, and Divergent Belief

[Dog-faced Atheist] Ask
Hey Sarah. I’m an atheist. When I finally come out to my friends about being an atheist and tell my religious friends that I respect their belief in God they like to dismiss what I am saying. It’s like since I don’t believe in God too that I am being immediately disrespectful of them. How would you respond to this situation?

Immediate Response

“I respect you too much not to respect your beliefs.”

It’s important to note the reaction many religious thinkers might experience at the discovery of your atheism. If you’re a former Christian or someone whom they believed to be a Christian, the immediate response might be one of shock, confusion, or disbelief. To deny acknowledgement of God could initially cause some believers to feel as if they are being told their belief is “wrong” causing their body language or conversation to inadvertently become more defensive or aggressive in order to regain their balance in the right. Your friends might not be dismissive of your atheism or respect; they might just not know how to respond or accept that belief initially.

Another unfortunate truth is that atheists are frequently portrayed like this:

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An even more unfortunate truth? This comic is being spread by other atheists who deem its contents as appropriate or amusing behavior.

The atheist in this comic is clearly not speaking to a friend. In four short panels, the cartoonist has successfully communicated a type of misplaced arrogance- an atheist who is being both inconsiderate and disrespectful in light of another person’s question, i.e. laughter in the face of concern and ridicule in placement of an opportunity for growth and understanding. Comics such as this one can cause believers to feel ridiculed and help perpetuate the stereotype that all atheists are rampant jerks.

Secondary Response

“I respect your right to believe in God. I respect your decision to lead your life in correspondence with your beliefs. I simply do not subscribe to that belief system myself.”

Reaffirm your level of respect and  friendship with theists by communicating exactly what it is that you respect vs. what you don’t. Once these parameters have been discussed and defined, the issue of respect may dissolve with time and mutual observation.

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There are always boundaries for respect, and everyone has the ability to cross those boundaries. Respect has to be cultivated. When it comes to friendships, it’s important to remember that friendships should be built on understanding rather than tolerance. Understanding and tolerance are not synonyms. Tolerance means just that, to simply tolerate something or accept its existence. The goal of a healthy friendship should be to understand the other person, to invest to him or her, corresponding belief system and all. You may not agree with those particular beliefs, but to commit to the journey of understanding is a sign of love.

Pedantic Footnote

Beware the word “regardless” when having a discussion about differences in philosophy. Have you ever heard someone say “I care about you regardless of…” or “I love you regardless”? The problem with the word “regardless” is that it typically accompanies a detail associated with flaw or the unfavorable. The word is laden with negative implication.

“I love you regardless of your atheism.”
“I love you regardless of your Christian beliefs.”
“I love you regardless of your yellow teeth, bad driving, crazy mother, et al.”

Yikes. It’s always a good idea to be conscious about the language we use, especially in matters of division and while on the path to understanding. “Regardless” is a good word to leave at home.

Religious Bullying: “I’ll pray for you.”

When I was younger, I used to say things like, “It’s easy to know if you are being bullied or not.” And I was wrong. With time, it has become exceedingly accessible to call people bullies, in the way that introversion and gluten-free diets have also turned into something more popular. Some people are taking the topic of bullying that affects a percentage of people and misapplying it to fit a broader range for purposes largely related to attention and the self. Now, anyone who disagrees with another person is a strong-fashion bully, just as how anyone who doesn’t like playing frisbee golf is suddenly an introvert.

In light of this aversion to the word bully, I want to discuss a phrase:

“I will pray for you.”

I have never been the type of atheist who grimaces at sayings like “Merry Christmas” and “God bless you.”

I hear the words “I’ll pray for you” or a paraphrased equivalent frequently. There are two ways this statement can be made. The first healthy way is to allow a person know that the speaker genuinely cares for the subject and wants him/her to feel relief. Prayer thus being the pursuit of healing (Part 1).

The second way a person can say these words is when the religious bully makes himself or herself apparent. When the religious bully says “I’ll pray for you,” that person is communicating two things:

1. I have a special relationship with God that you lack, because you are an outsider/sinner.
2. I will use my special relationship to see that you are forgiven or censured.

Both the religious and non-religious have heard the contempt behind “I’ll pray for you” at one point and the goodness behind those words at another. Sometimes, it’s difficult to know the connotations behind the phrase, and that is when discussion needs to occur and remove the gray area of assumption. When I tell someone I am an atheist and he/she replies with “I’ll pray for you,” I generally think those words are an unconscious statement of contempt in the guise of goodness; and that’s the thing to remember about contempt, it comes in many faces.

There are other equivalents to “I’ll pray for you” that include:

“I will hope for your eventual enlightenment.”
“Someday you’ll figure it out.”

These words are typically said when one person views another as lesser due to their lifestyle, views, choices, etc. At that point, “I’ll pray for you” or a similarly correlating statement becomes a verbal tool for judgement and personal denouncement.

So what exactly makes “I’ll pray for you” religious bullying then?

In this instance, the bully connotation comes from:

  • Creation of a power imbalance
  • Assumption of authority or precedence over another person
  • Establishment of an “outsider” group and subjective assignment of people to that group (also called, ‘social exclusion’)
  • Repetitive behavior
  • Gaslighting

The religious bully says “I’ll pray for you” with a dismissive tone to someone often seen as “in the wrong.” You, the subject, the nonbeliever, the homosexual, the recently divorced, the promiscuous unmarried woman, etc. do not know the path to God because of your identity, sexuality, situation, and so forth. My advice to the recipient of this phrase’s contempt would be to speak. Be indignant. Practice voice. Remind the speaker of their unnecessary verbal and mental abuse . Tell the religious bully why you are not in need of that prayer, because there is absolutely nothing wrong with you.

The Value of Prayer in Hospitals: An Atheist’s Response

A friend and I recently had a discussion about the value and variations of prayer. The conversation initiated after my friend told me that he knew someone in the hospital. Minutes before we saw each other, he had received a test message which briefly read [paraphrased]: “The doctors said he doesn’t have much time left. A lot of people have been praying for him, and even though I don’t really believe in prayer, you can. . .”

My friend did not seem nearly as perturbed by the speaker’s disbelief in prayer as he seemed off-put by her timing of the statement which seemed more the product of egocentricity than sensitivity. My friend questioned why the speaker felt clarity imperative and also worried about the dismissive/general attitude conveyed through her message.

In past years, my father has been in the hospital a few times. I would often hear statements, such as:

“I’ll keep you and your family in my prayers.”

“I am praying for your dad’s health.”

I have never felt the need to identify myself as a non-believer in those moments, because to do so felt like a rejection of someone’s compassion.

However, I understand why the speaker felt compelled to say she doesn’t “really believe in prayer.” While I do not know her intent or reason for expression, I think her statement was made to convey a disbelief in divine intervention/miracle. Nevertheless, when discussing the relevance of prayer, her mindset seems to express a stereotypical view on how people pray and does not properly observe the subjective experience of prayer.  At the same time, I also sympathize with the speaker, because I know how it feels to be the non-believer surrounded by a group of the religious inside a hospital room, lobby, corridor. The effects can feel suffocating.

Despite this, I write to encourage fellow atheists to see the positive aspects of prayer in these situations, because to dwell on the negative or pervasiveness will only make such circumstances more difficult and tense. While staying with my father in the hospital, I tried to recognize the prayers of others as both a coping mechanism and an expression of empathy for the suffering. I would often thank them and genuinely feel a sense of gratitude, because to those offering prayer, the concept of prayer means something.

A perhaps too convenient or silly analogy to make at this time of year could be a similarity between prayer and giftgiving. One person knits a pair of socks for a friend- chooses the yarn carefully, pays attention to detail and craft, etc. Then, that person gives the socks to the recipient, someone who incidentally does not wear socks, because he/she finds them restrictive and prefers sandals. To the recipient, the socks have no practical value or purpose directly related to their life, but there is still something inherently good in those socks- a symbol of comfort, fondness, and time. A sign that someone cares.

Even though I am nonreligious, I hope that if ever hospitalized or ill or dying that someone out there decides to pray for me, not because I believe their action will make me well but because I would find warmth in their sentiment.

Upcoming Entry
Religious Bullying: “I’ll Pray For You”
In my next entry, I will discuss prayer as a potential instrument for
religious bullying and purveyor of wanton judgement.

Positivity Week: Day 7

Positivity Week Prompt

Day 7: Those Who Are No Longer With Us
This last day is to remember someone (person or even an animal), that in some way had a positive impact on you. It can be more than one person and not even someone you were very close to or knew very long. As long as they somehow had a positive impact on you, share it here.

In 1994, my father was diagnosed with idiopathic cardiomyopathy. He needed a heart transplant. On January 23rd, my father received his donation from a beautiful Italian woman named Laura Pennisi.

laura

Without Laura and her family’s decision, I would have grown into a dramatically different person. A woman I never had the privilege of meeting changed the course of my life. My brother was born five years after my father’s transplant, and my subsequent atheist philosophy found its anonymous beginnings in the understanding of organ donation.

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In past years, when attempting to better discern myself and develop my beliefs, I conducted presentations on Donate Life, participated in fundraisers for transplant patients, and wrote numerous informative essays on the importance of organ donation. People like Laura Pennisi and her family have started a subliminal chain reaction. Their decision and its outcome inspired me to speak about a cause. I cannot say if my early activist pursuits changed the minds of any audience member, but I do know that many of my childhood friends became organ donors after meeting my father and hearing our story.

Positivity Week: Day 1

Positivity Week Prompt

Day 1: Yourself.
Day 1 is simple. Write about yourself, write a small biography or whatever you want to do, but it has to be positive about yourself.

Being an atheist has shaped me into a more rational, appreciative, and morally responsible person. I have become too easily caught up in knowing what I am that I forget to slow down and reflect on what I like about being those titles. What do I like about being an atheist? A woman? A writer?

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“The only position that leaves me with no cognitive dissonance is atheism. It is not a creed. Death is certain, replacing both the siren-song of Paradise and the dread of Hell. Life on this earth, with all its mystery and beauty and pain, is then to be lived far more intensely: we stumble and get up, we are sad, confident, insecure, feel loneliness and joy and love. There is nothing more; but I want nothing more.” Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Infidel

I love feeling a connection between my beliefs and the minds of others, like Hirsi Ali and Diderot and Chekhov.

One of the best things about being an atheist has been having both the ability and privilege to tailor my beliefs to fit myself rather than tailoring myself to fit my religion. I wear no other clothes than the ones I have created. I am naked and beautiful and longing, like the songbird after moulting at ease in its nest, perhaps too often viewed as cold.

Oprah and Diana Nyad: A Religious Trademark on Awe and Wonder

Oprah Winfrey’s interview with Diana Nyad is garnering popular criticism online. Oprah made some sweeping, and wildly inaccurate, statements concerning atheism. In essence, Oprah claimed atheists could not feel wonder and awe— these two qualities being thus tied distinctly to believers. Statements such as these are a big reason why my blog exists. Only, to be fair, Einstein said similar remarks a long time ago; Oprah’s sentiment is an all too familiar one.

Atheists are not incapable of awe and wonder. The most powerful experience of wonder I have had in recent days occurred earlier this month when I went swimming in the mountains. It was cold, and the mountainside was more empty than usual. I was the only person in the water. When I dove deep, trailing my fingers along the rocks, and looked up, I saw the sun reflecting against stone; I saw orange and red and yellow fallen leaves floating on the surface. The air in my chest, for a moment, felt like magic. I never wanted to breathe again.

While I could lament for paragraphs upon paragraphs on the wrongness and implications of Oprah’s interview, I want to briefly comment on three points: Redefinition, Bias, and Gender.

Redefining God & the Individual

In this interview, not only does Oprah redefine Diana Nyad’s religious stance, but she attempted to redefine God, not in a new manner per se, but in a relevant one. Oprah’s statements could be received as equally problematic for the believer. She seems to point out an inadequacy in contemporary religion by stressing awe, wonder, and mystery in contrast to a more traditional ideal. (Which, to me, sounds very atheist of her, but I digress…) If I were a believer, I would be skeptical of Oprah’s definition which seems to partner agenda. Perhaps more disconcerting is when Oprah refuses to accept Diana’s definition and instead succumbs to the ineptitude of label. Oprah used her own belief system to define someone else. Have we learned nothing from history?

Negative Bias

What bothers me most about Oprah’s statement is her obvious negative bias for the word “atheist.” She interrupts Diana and asks if she is an atheist with an agitated look on her face. (It was the type of look that borderlines, not disgust, but inconvenience.) Prejudice against atheists runs so deeply within Oprah that she didn’t even stop to think before saying atheists are incapable of feeling. Furthermore, when she learned of Diana’s ability to feel, she immediately revoked her identity as an atheist. To Oprah, atheism is not compatible with humanity. Intolerance to non-believers is dangerously apparent when it is not unacceptable to ask them if they feel human emotion.

Diana’s Gender

Atheism is largely man’s play. I admire Diana Nyad for what she said. I loved the way she emphasized tolerance and contradiction. Her illustration was beautiful. I cannot help but speculate; if Diana had been male, would Oprah have criticized her religious position so disrespectfully? Or would popular reaction to this interview have come about so strongly? I often think about how we come to the aid of women who do not need our help and what that says about our culture.

Paradox Lost

Though I will continue to focus on spirituality regularly, I wanted to immediately address the oxymoron spiritual atheist and why I consider myself one. The easiest responses are, “Well, the word ‘atheist’ just doesn’t cut it.” or the slightly more facetious, “Atheists can have adjectives too.”

I do not, in any sense, believe in a higher power or essence. Likewise, I don’t think a person must be religious or embedded in religious tradition in order to understand spiritual themes. There are as many secular ways (art, philosophy, nature, etc.) to enhance spiritual thought as there are religious.

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Painting by spiritual artist, Byron Tik.

I consider myself to be on the path of spirituality. I believe in balance, self-discovery, labor, tolerance, connectedness, and unlimited creativity. I want to grow in the direction of beauty, truth, and wisdom. In many ways, I share the goals of other spiritual people. I am on a similar journey. I have only taken a different path to meet them there.

All that being said, I do not believe that beauty, truth, and love are the children of any God, but rather humankind. To continue, for the sake of both contradiction and clarity, I do not behave entirely like the idealized spiritual person. I am too intense, too insecure, too inflammatory. Achieving stronger inner peace is a goal. Restraint is a practice. Dog-faced Atheist may, at times, read more like a pilgrimage than someone speaking from her destination.

We are surrounded by paradox. It’s part of what makes us human. To be humble and proud, to be rebellious and conservative, to be absolute and relative. Even traditionally spiritual people are in a state of paradox by seeking liberty through discipline. I am not nearly as interested in the acceptance or rejection of paradox as I am interested by its means of discovery and reception.  I don’t think I mind the curious looks when I confide to being a spiritual atheist, because I prefer a life in paradox to a life of prejudice.