In my town, there is a small group of evangelists who spend the majority of their week walking around and talking to people about God. This group has come to know and avoid me, as I have come to know and avoid them. On the rare occasion that I am stopped nowadays (mostly by newbies), the conversation usually ends rather quickly when I explain that I am an atheist and in no way interested in attending their services. I used to give them the time to talk – sometimes for quite some time – but the conversations have become so repetitive and monotonous that I lost interest.
Last night I went to the gym to play basketball, and one of those guys was there playing as well. He recognized me, and I recognized him, but we played on the same team and everything went well. He’s a good player, and I daresay he’s actually an enjoyable person to be around. We worked together and won a couple of games. We understood where the other stood theologically, but it never came up. Nor should it. In that situation, the goal at hand was to win basketball games. We didn’t have to come to any mutual respect for the other’s position in order to do that. We just focused on the game and played the way we needed to.
This is the way I would like to see interfaith work go. Furthermore, I wish for “interfaith” to become a superfluous term, because I would just like to see people work together towards common, secular goals. If the scene from last night was altered and this evangelist and I were both planting trees or providing food to children in need, I would gladly work beside him still.
It’s when this notion of mutual respect for ideas comes into play that I have a problem.
One of my greatest grievances with some atheists involved in the interfaith movement is their insistence that atheists need to be nice to and respectful of the beliefs of the religious rather than to decry those beliefs for what they are. In my opinion, beliefs should not garner respect until they have earned it, and most religious beliefs have not earned that respect. I see nothing noble in faith, so I’m not going to spare it reverence that it doesn’t deserve.
I will, however, respect the people who hold those beliefs. I will defend their right to believe whatever they want, no matter how crazy, because I believe in freedom and autonomy. I will protect friends and strangers who are being persecuted for their beliefs (actually persecuted – not persecuted in the whiny, Fox News ‘War on Christmas’ sense), even if I don’t hold those same convictions.
But I don’t have to respect or even know these beliefs in order to accomplish these goals. I am a secular person; I live in a secular country; and I will not forfeit my own thoughts and beliefs (especially in regards to religion) for the sake of being nice. Work together, love your fellow human being, but stop telling anti-theist atheists that they’re doing it wrong just because they elect not to pamper beliefs in the absurd.