(Originally published June 9, 2012, on a Tumblr-blog — reposted here with some minor editing, for clarity.)
Change is a fundamental part of the human condition. We change until we die, whether or not we have religious beliefs, so, of course, atheists change, just as everyone does.
One can change for the better, or one can change for the worse. I am trying to change for the better.
As you may know, I’m in the middle of a huge political fight, with powerful opponents. I also have a lot of allies in this fight: teachers, union people, our families, sympathetic people all over the place (including some in the local media), angry taxpayers — and this is all going on in Arkansas. A majority of Arkansans are Baptists, with the bulk of the non-Baptists being Christians of other denominations.
Many of my allies are, therefore, people with sincere religious beliefs. How could it be otherwise, here? To offend them, I now see, by being the stereotypical “angry atheist,” would simply be stupid. On the other hand, I am not ashamed of my lack of belief. My “show me the evidence” skepticism is not a secret — and has even been useful in this struggle. “Show me the evidence” is a good response, for example, when claims about a superintendent’s salary are disputed. Arkansas has a strong FOI (Freedom of Information) Act, so I have the means of getting the evidence I need.
We have lawyers to fight in court, we have people taking petitions door-to-door, and it makes sense to do those things one can do well. I spend most of my time on this, therefore, as an Internet activist, since I am accustomed to functioning in cyberspace. This is my preferred environment; it now feels as if I was born here, in fact, although I obviously was not.
It isn’t hard to find past posts of mine about religion which were quite hostile. I don’t intend to delete them, but I am changing my approach — turning into a different type of atheist. Working on a common cause with many religious people naturally has that effect, for I would be useless for this fight if I went around bashing religion constantly. If our opponents “creep” my Tumblr-blogs, they’ll simply find evidence of this transformation. I am not ashamed of it.
Here’s an example of this transformation. I have allies who find prayer helpful, and I used to be the sort of atheist who would instantly ridicule such an idea. This is not true any more, for I have realized now that I was simply incorrect, before, about sincere prayer being a useless activity. Prayer really does help these people keep their spirits up, in this situation, through boosting morale, and I have my own, secular ways to keep my own morale high. There is no need for me to pretend to pray with anyone (which is all I could possibly do, of course). I only need to respect their right to pray, which I believe they do sincerely, alone and in groups. Of course, these allies talk about prayer at times, post about it on Facebook, etc. — and when they do, I have learned, after many years, something important: how to shut up. This is something I needed to learn, anyway. I have developed such respect, to a greater degree than I had it before — out of political necessity, at first, I admit. As this goes on, though, I’m simply changing because I want to. I think these are changes for the better, and, since I like the way this is going, there is no reason for me to try to fight these changes — only to understand them.
This struggle is changing me, and it certainly is not easy to go through this, for any of us. I am certain it is changing all of us, not just me. While I am learning to work cooperatively with religious people, by setting aside differences which have become irrelevant, some of them are probably experiencing a similar phenomenon, from the other direction. It is no secret here that I am an atheist, and, yes, that has rubbed some people the wrong way in the past. Some of those people are now among my closest allies. I never saw this situation coming. Neither did they. My guess is that some of them are as surprised to be working cooperatively with an open and unashamed atheist as I am by the changes I have described.
This is Arkansas. My Tumblr co-blogger is in Utah. Unless we move, we’re not escaping religious people in these two highly-conservative, very religious parts of the United States. This isn’t California, nor is it Europe. These are facts, and facts are ignored at great peril. Where we live, peaceful co-existence of the religious with the non-religious is a goal that makes sense, and we have found a way to do it, in the middle of a storm. Yes, the atheists among us can, to use John Lennon’s phrase, “imagine no religion” all we want … and, at times, I do. In our areas, however, it would be delusional to forget that this is merely a fantasy, at least in our lifetimes. Should I ever want to escape religion in my environment, I have accepted that I will need to move, for I can’t get all these churches around here to move, nor do I have the right to expect them to. I am grateful that the world now has highly-secular areas I can move to, of course. This was not always the case.
I’m walking carefully, along a very thin line, but my eyes are wide open, and I can see clearly.
Excellent post, Robert.
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I am touched because I know you. Awesome.
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