Why Aren

Sept. 8, 2010

I went out to dinner with a good friend last night — she happens to be religious, though not in any overt way — and at one point the conversation shifted to things I was doing concerning atheism. As I talked about some of the stories that got me all worked up over the past few months (Draw Muhammad Dayanti-gay seminars, etc.), she told me something I know a lot of us have heard before: I sounded as zealous as religious extremists.

Ok, I’m definitely passionate about atheism. Getting people to lose their faith is important to me. I’m not about to stand on a street corner and scream “YOU’RE ALL WRONG” at random strangers, but if someone wants to discuss religion, I have no problem defending my views and arguing back. The difference between my “zealotry” and that of some religious extremist is besides the point here, though.

I asked her why she wasn’t as passionate about her beliefs. Forget religion. She’s a doctor. What did she think about people who refused to vaccinate their children?

“They’re crazy.”

So how do we change that?

“The crazies are never going to change. You just have to try and educate the others.”

That’s what the atheists are doing with things like science education and religious mythology.

“No, you’re ramming it over everybody’s heads and you won’t stop until they all agree with you.”

But they should agree with us. We’re right.

“See, this is why we don’t hang out more often.”

How are you not more frustrated when you know people are saying things that are obviously untrue?

“Because not everyone has to agree with me. And I’m ok with that. It’s not like everyone who disagrees is crazy.”

Not everybody… but I think there are a lot more crazies out there than you think.

It’s not like my friend lacks conviction. She knows Creationism isn’t real science, she believes that no one should be denied health care, she understands that Sarah Palin is a pathological liar… But she’s not about to write letters or blog posts to explain her positions. She’s not going to rallies defending her views or setting up booths to vaccinate people.

For some reason, that bothers me. Because if you’re not actively defending the truth, you’re allowing the lies to gain more traction.

I don’t think you have to get riled up over every single issue — I mean, I think being vegetarian is an ethical position to take, but I don’t really get worked up when people eat meat — but on certain ones, you should get upset or angry when people disagree, especially when you know you’re on the right side of the issue.

When the topic of gay marriage came up, my friend and I had a similar exchange. She believes GLBT people deserve equal rights. She thinks it’s absurd that anyone would oppose gay adoption, gay marriage, gays in the military, etc. But that’s about the extent of her activism.

I’m not gay, but I understand the injustice that’s currently taking place in our society and I want to help fix the problem. For the life of me, I can’t understand how anyone could possibly say, “Yeah, gay people should be allowed to get married, but I’m not going to argue with someone who disagrees.”

So what, you’re just going to stand there and do nothing?!

How dare some Christians get away with thinking that their relationship is more meaningful than a gay couple’s? Or that their love is deeper? Or that it alone deserves official recognition?

How could anyone sit on the sideline while this debate gets played out and just shrug it off without saying anything?

This is especially true when it’s someone in your own “camp” who is being ridiculous.

One of the reasons I’ve become much more cynical lately about cooperating with Christians is because I so rarely hear them call out their pastors (or other Christians) on their bullshit.

God created us in His image! Women must submit to their husbands! I know what God wants for your life!

No, he didn’t. No, they shouldn’t. No, you don’t.

They might poke a bit of fun at it… but they rarely say that the pastor is Just. Plain. Wrong. Or that anyone who agrees with the pastor on that issue is wrong. Or that anyone who continues to give money to that pastor’s church is part of the problem.

When Draw Muhammad Day happened, I was expecting to read messages like this from moderate Muslims everywhere:

We don’t like the fact that Muhammad is being drawn on college campuses.

We don’t support the action and we are definitely not going to join hands with the atheists as they do this.

However, we fully support their right to draw what they want. Freedom of speech is a good idea and that includes the right to criticize religious ideas — including our own. Certainly, no drawing, even one of the Prophet, is reason enough for us to respond violently, like some Muslim extremists have done in the past.

We do not condone that behavior and we are ashamed that those people practice Islam the way they do. We do not want to be associated with them. The religion we practice is one of peace.

If anyone would like to understand why we feel so strongly about this issue, we urge him or her to come to our group’s weekly meeting Thursday night at the Student Union…

Wouldn’t that be the reasonable, rational thing for Muslim students to say?

But where was that message?

I don’t recall ever hearing it.

Instead, we heard Muslims compare smiling stick figures to swastikas.

I told my friend about that, too. Her only response was that they probably didn’t speak out because they feared the repercussions.

So they didn’t want to get stabbed by Islamic extremists or kicked out of their family?


Isn’t that the whole point of doing this? To fight against that fear? Anyone who drew Muhammad on the ground with chalk or used Muhammad as his or her Facebook profile picture was incredibly brave.

“No, you were all just being jerks.”

But how else are we supposed to respond to that crazy rule that we aren’t allowed to draw Muhammad?

“You don’t.”

I can’t do that. It’s a silly rule and a dangerous belief and I’m compelled to respond. The same thing goes for anyone who believes in the Bible or some other holy book. Or anyone who’s gullible enough to believe in psychics and horoscopes.

I can’t just sit back if I think they’re being irrational. I might not have arguments with every religious person I meet just because the person prays to a god, but if the topic comes up, I’m not about to let it slide.

And I have a lot of respect for anyone else who does the same.


Hemant Mehta is the Chair of the Secular Student Alliance (SSA) Board of Directors. He has worked with the Center for Inquiry and also is an SSA representative to the Secular Coalition for America. Hemant received national attention, including being featured on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, for his work as the “eBay Atheist.” Hemant’s blog can be read at FriendlyAtheist.com, and his book, I Sold My Soul on eBay, (WaterBrook Press) is now available on Amazon.com. He currently works as a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago.