Jeremy Gross has noticed a menacing trend among the ranks of atheist activists. This is his plea for mutual tolerance.
Even though I am a religious Jew, I’m not your enemy. Really, I’m not. I was raised secularly, and spent a lot of my life without faith. For most of that time, I considered myself agnostic, but I never believed in an angry bearded anthropomorph in the sky (and still don’t), and I would consider myself to have held implicit atheistic beliefs in my past. I still have many close friends who are both implicit and explicit atheists, and we respect each other enough to have respect for each other’s beliefs.
Because Judaism is a complex umbrella of ethnicity, culture, religion, spiritual practice, and de facto grouping, there is no conflict of interest to be an atheist Jew. I have atheist Jews who go to synagogue with me, and they are as welcome as anyone else there. Some will even fast for Yom Kippur, not out of any religious devotion, but as an expression of cultural identity. An atheist Jewish friend of mine defines Judaism as: “When they come to round up all the Jews, if they get you, you’re a Jew.”
While more paranoid than my own personal definition, it does illustrate a point. Jews are not evangelical, and even if you wanted to convert to Judaism, a rabbi would try to talk you out of it unless you had your heart set on it.
I wouldn’t even need to write this letter to you, except for a disturbing trend I see within your ranks, that has me concerned, especially because I want to extend an olive branch to you, and this trend makes me slightly hesitant to do so. I am tolerant of other religions to the extent that they are tolerant of me and my faith. I have Muslim friends whom I love and support, but when Hamas says that Jews are descended from pigs and rats, I withdraw my support for Hamas. I have Christian friends, and I admire their faith, but I do not admire those who claim I am damned to Hell for rejecting Christ, nor those who accuse me of killing Christ.
Tolerance has to be reciprocal, or it doesn’t exist. I love and support my atheist friends as long as they don’t regard all faith as a sick delusion that has to be stamped out of human consciousness. My worry is that I’m seeing too many of you go from atheism to antitheism to intolerance of theism, and I don’t like to share my community with bigots of any stripe, theist or atheist.
It’s hard to be an atheist. The overwhelming majority of people believe in God, and it’s easy to feel outnumbered and overwhelmed by those of faith. Believe me, as a Jew in the USA, I know what it’s like to feel outnumbered and overwhelmed, and in Norway and Australia it was considerably worse. I experienced being forced to have a Christian religious education, to be told daily that I was damned, to be rejected, suspected, and condemned, and worst of all, to be treated as alien by otherwise well-meaning people. In your history, you were subjected to the same persecution as the Jews, Cathars, Rosicrucians, Swedenborgians, Sufis, Ishmaelians, Yazids, Druze, Quakers, Unitarians, and other minorities who believed differently from the faiths of the majority. The previous President of the USA vocally doubted whether you could be true citizens. That sucks. In some regions, you face discrimination at work, ostracism in your communities, and in other parts of the world, imprisonment or death.
There have been moments where atheists have been in control of their nations, but so far those have not been happy memories either. In the USSR, the League of the Militant Godless had state support, and sought to teach people that they did not need gods in order to live a fulfilling life. In their zeal, they destroyed churches, synagogues and mosques, and ended up imprisoning and murdering people. In Albania, every place of worship was ceded to the state, and converted to secular community centers. Priests, rabbis and imams were sent to re-education camps. It became a criminal offense to teach any religious thought or practice, making it the only state in the history of the world to actively seek to obliterate religion from its territory. In China, Buddhist monasteries are subject to rigid control and abuse. And don’t get me started on North Korea.
Like state religion, state atheism is horrible and inhumane. Any forced ideology exists through violence rather than reason, and a reasonable person opposes any forced ideology of intolerance, whether towards, or away from religion. That religions have, in their history, committed far more atrocities than those committed by atheists, does not make any of those crimes condonable or justifiable.
Antonio Gramsci, an Italian Communist, grew up in Sardinia. He watched the Young Sardinia movement emerge, modeled after the Young Turks movement. He saw Sardinians develop a political movement based on a Sardinian identity, and saw they had a chance of overthrowing their Piedmontese (Italian) occupiers and establishing a Sardinian state. Then he noticed that the movement was bankrolled by the local landlords, who were starving the local peasantry with brutal rents, and harsh reprisals for late payments or disobedience. That is when he asked himself: if the Young Sardinians take power here, will they be kinder or more just than the Piedmontese? Would he be any freer than he would be under the status quo? That’s when he realized that who ruled was not the only matter of importance, but how they ruled was equally important (by using that same logic, he ultimately later rejected Communism).
So how do we assure that you can live lives free of oppression? Because if you aren’t free, you may gain power and enslave me some day as a reprisal for your previous subjugation, so I need for you to live a life where you are secure in your liberties in order to be secure in mine. Here in the USA, we have had an interfaith tolerance written into the Constitution, but throughout our history, it has been a struggle to live up to that tolerance. If you actually look at the language, it is more than interfaith, but extra-faith as well:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…
That means that respecting an establishment of religion is beyond the power of the state. If we truly live up to that sentiment, it should be beyond our power to compel another’s faith or lack thereof. This is the essence of tolerance: that I believe what I believe, you believe what you believe (or don’t believe), and neither forces the issue. We live in peace together because we do not try to coerce each other. I pray every day, and go to synagogue and pray with others who are there willingly, and you don’t have to. However you may personally feel about my practice, you are enlightened enough to assume that, in my current level of enlightenment, I need it to function, and do not seek to deprive me of my needs.
You may privately feel that such needs are pathetic, but you are compassionate enough not to interfere. You are gracious enough to let me be, and you may have faith that if I seek to improve my mind, I may one day reach your level of enlightenment and cast off my belief system, but you do not force my hand. Reciprocally, I may privately see you as cutting yourself off from a profound source of spiritual purpose, and I may feel that the real God is patiently waiting for your hiatus to end in order for you to feel God’s love again and reunite with your Creator, but I also understand that by so doing, you are purging yourself of meaningless idolatry and superstition, and I do not interfere with your process.
The point is that tolerance is allowing others to believe things you think are wrong, and respecting their processes enough to allow them to work things out on their own. Obviously there are places where tolerance ends. If I feel that God wants me to strap dynamite to my body and blow up a shopping mall, I should be prevented from doing this as expediently as possible. If you feel that I require a lobotomy because I believe I have a personal relationship with the Creator of the Universe, you should be prevented from having your way. There are going to be gray areas, like the Jewish practice of B’rit Milah, or the education of children, but we can negotiate these gray areas in a respectful manner if we develop the practice of tolerance for the clear-cut cases.
In religious communities, the idea of interfaith dialogue is a hot idea right now, and it’s a good idea. Most Jews and Muslims have no idea how many points of similarity we have together. Jews and Christians have a lot of tragedy and reconciliation to process, having come from a common source. We may see the reintegration of Catholicism with Orthodox Christianity in our lifetimes. Tolerance depends on mutual understanding, and we have seen many religions in the USA that previously excluded and oppressed lesbians, gays, bisexuals, the transgendered, and those questioning their sexualities welcoming them back into the fold (The United Church of Christ has done great work here). Although Christians once regarded (and many still regard) homosexuality as a terrible sin, some Christians are able to be tolerant, and by so doing, have won many to their faith. There is nothing like respecting a person as they currently are to earn their respect. There is no reason that a dialogue between believers and unbelievers, in the interest of tolerance, can not take place.
So my plea to you is to be tolerant of others, and to encourage others to be tolerant of you. People who think differently from you will think things that annoy you, but if you can communicate with them in an atmosphere of mutual respect, please do so. I know that many religious people are so intolerant of your beliefs that they cannot meet you half way. You are under no obligation to be tolerant of such people. But please understand that not all religious people are your enemies. Some of us love you and respect you, and want to earn your love and respect as well.