Note: This is a post about a thing that I’m still thinking about, and that’s definitely not a fully formed, concrete point of view. It’s a work in progress. And it’s very much based on my pwn experiences and inclinations – I don’t expect others to be the same on this one!
As an atheist, talking about religion can feel like a minefield. Talking about atheism, too. Finding an approach that is both respectful of the people with whom I interact, without compromising my own position, can be difficult. And with good reason. There’s a lot going on. First, though, a little background on my own perspective. Because perspectives are important here. I’m writing from Dublin in Ireland- which makes a big difference, in the mostly-American internet. Religion(s) and atheism have a bit of a different relationship here than they do elsewhere. On a personal level, being an atheist- especially as an adult without any kids- is simply not a big deal. It’s not a thing that people talk about. When it is talked about, I’ve found a lot of understanding for a person’s choice to steer clear of the church. See, the thing about Ireland is that we are very, very aware of the damage that giving religious institutions too much power can do to a society. And the damage that identifying really, really strongly with religious groups can do to a society. I’m not sure if it’s a conscious thing, but talking a lot about god or about our own beliefs is definitely something that would be considered.. odd. People don’t do it, at least in the circles I live in. I’ve heard that this isn’t always the case, particularly in more rural areas, but I can’t speak from experience.
At the same time, the Catholic Church still has a ton of institutional power here, with control over the majority of our schools and hospitals. So we have this strange sitution where religion doesn’t come into every day life, isn’t really discussed, but does have an awful lot of institutional power. Well, one religion does, at least. Because of these factors, it’s not at all uncommon for people to criticise the instutions of the RCC. People are less likely to talk about actual beliefs, though.
So for me, talking about why I believe what I do (or, well, don’t!) needs to get past a level of discomfort with the topic itself, before even starting to tackle any other issues. Tis an odd one.
Background aside, let’s talk about talking about religion. For me, there’s a few issues at stake. The first thing is, of course, being honest about my worldview. As an atheist, I do genuinely believe that there is no real evidence for the existence of gods. And I’m as sure as I am about anything that I’m correct about that. I’m not going to deny that.
That doesn’t mean that there aren’t religious viewpoints that I have respect for, though. And it doesn’t mean that I can get into conversations with religious people and ignore the massively important meanings other than the existence of gods that religion can have. Religion is about the supernatural, but it’s also about a hell of a lot more. It’s about where you come from. It’s about family, identity, class, and a host of other factors. I’ve spoken to enough secular Jews and cafeteria Catholics to know that, although a lot of sceptics would like to pretend otherwise.
When I talk about my views with religious people, I’m not trying to convert anyone. It annoys the hell out of me when anyone tries to convert me to their beliefs. I have no interest in being annoying. What I do try to do is to simply explain my own perspective- why I have come to the conclusions that I have, what those conclusions are, and how that informs my perspective. And I listen. As Jadey said in a comment to a previous post in this series, I prefer to practice “genuinely setting aside my own expectations and trying on something new”. I want to understand where people are coming from- us humans have a really terrible tendency to lump in all the members of other groups together and rely on stereotyped views.
Some people really like debating. I’m not one of them. While I love watching a good debate, I have about as much interest in participating as any sofa-bound sports spectator. Seriously. Not my thing. When I talk about religion and atheism with people, my interest is in increased understanding of our perspectives. That’s all.
Unless someone’s using their religion as an excuse to ignore reality or behave horribly to other people of course. Then the gloves are off. But that’s a different conversation, for another post.