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:

comic_haha

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.

respect11

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.

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.