The Ethical Dilemma: As Nonbelievers, What’s Our Goal?

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Mother Superior: I have been reading the recent Twitter posts related to your column, and it came to me that one of my greatest ethical dilemmas is to manage my sense of superiority with regard to some family members’ religious ideas.

One part of my family is intensely fundamentalist, seeing God’s action in every minor event in their lives and constantly bombarding us by Facebook for prayers on their behalf. (They seem to think that lobbying is the best way to get God to pay attention.) My son married a woman who is a devout Baha’i, and he adopted her beliefs. He had been raised in a rational atmosphere, and I am frankly disappointed. She is a fine person whom I dearly love, but a few of the beliefs of the Baha’i religion (many of which are quite noble) are simply cruel, including shunning of apostates and condemnation of homosexuality.

On social media many persons, including some who are quite prominent, express their rationalism in terms that can only be described as arrogant. Are we seeking to convert or simply to be understood? In either case, it is preferable to apply that old saw, “It is best to disagree without being disagreeable.”

—What Do Atheists Want?

Dear What,

It’s tempting to edit your letter so it ends with your question, “Are we seeking to convert or simply to be understood?” and begin my answer with your oldie but goodie, “It is best to disagree without being disagreeable.” That’s it in a nutshell. But I’ll elaborate.

There are objectionable-to-horrible elements in every religion. But the thing that is more germane than what sacred texts command is whether a person acts on those commandments. Does your daughter-in-law shun people or rail against LGBT people? Has your son turned judgmental in keeping with his new faith? If not, you are really fortunate, since, aside from her faith, you are quite happy with your daughter-in-law (way ahead of many in-laws, even if they share the same faith). Similarly, I wouldn’t worry about your fundie relatives praying for things. In fact, I wish praying were the only thing people did to get things I don’t support. As for being disappointed in your son for opting to ally with his wife’s religion instead of your nonbelief, I’m afraid that’s part of being a parent. You do what you can to mold your children to your preferences, but you have to accept that how they turn out is beyond your control—but hopefully not beyond your love.

I can’t speak for all atheists or humanists or the entire conglomeration that comprises nonbelievers to declare whether there even is a goal, let alone whether that goal is to convert others or simply to be understood. But it’s hard to achieve any goal by being obnoxious, arrogant, and superior. Do nonbelievers ever embrace religion because someone tells them they are going to burn in hell or that godless people have no morals? When someone tells you your ideas are ridiculous, aren’t you more inclined to dig in deeper than consider whether your ideas might indeed be ridiculous? Although there’s a place for outspoken atheists (particularly among people who are already nonbelievers), abrasive tactics can incite backlash. But non-confrontational nonbelievers can bridge the gap rather than widen it by engaging in dialogue with believers, meeting them halfway and sincerely trying to understand their doctrine and the formidable emotions and psychology that underlie them, while matter-of-factly explaining their own thinking.

I would venture that just about all stripes of nonbelievers have the common denominator of wanting to live according to their own views, without disrespect, coercion, or interference from those with different views. And to achieve that, it helps not to be offensive or nasty. The Golden Rule—do unto others as you would have others do unto you—applies. If you want people to accept your right to your perspective, you have to accept their right to theirs. This can be challenging for all sides, since other people think their beliefs are true and yours are false just as strongly as you think the reverse. But being insulting or condescending shuts down interaction and repels people, so they will reject you, your worldview, and everyone who shares it.

On the other hand, focusing on common ground (even if you have to avoid religion completely) can cultivate empathy. I know two people who were good friends for years when one informed the other (a devout Catholic) that she didn’t believe in god. The Catholic woman was thunderstruck—not because her friend was a nonbeliever, but because she always thought nonbelievers were bad people. Yet she was absolutely convinced that her friend was a good person. So she found herself embracing the notion that someone could be good without believing in a god. I doubt that she herself will ever “convert,” but now she defends atheists against blanket condemnation.

I suspect most nonbelievers would love to see a perfect world in which everyone comes around to their point of view, and at the very least be treated as no less than believers. Religious people feel the same way. There will always be tension between conflicting convictions. But courteous, reasonable disagreement can be healthy and productive—particularly if you can, as you suggest, disagree without being disagreeable.