News item: May 5, 2011: “Atheists in Orange County, California sponsor a highway billboard which reads:
“DON’T BELIEVE IN GOD? YOU’RE NOT ALONE.”
(The web address for the Orange County Coalition of Reason was included)
Local television newscasts carried this as one of their local news features, with newscasters making the usual comments about atheists making statements that are provocative and offensive to religion.
“Billboard in Orange County causes outrage.”
A few people were interviewed and we heard comments such as
“This is really offensive to me!”
“This is stupid! But I guess everyone has right of free speech.”
“No, this should not be allowed.”
Belief in God. Why is it such a volatile subject? Why should anyone be offended by a person’s declaration that he does not believe in God? Should we (secularists) be offended by another person’s declaration of a belief in God?
In our society, belief in God is assumed and promoted in many places and by many people. US Presidents and politicians frequently invoke that God bless this nation. All our currency carries the slogan “In God we trust.” May fifth has been declared a national day of prayer, which for most Americans implies a prayer to God. This is acceptable, even commendable, to the dominant majority. Some political conservatives and Christian fundamentalists even declare that true patriotism is not possible without belief in God. (Remember when President George H.W. Bush made this preposterous remark?)
On the other hand, non-belief in deity (whether atheism or merely agnosticism) is not easily accepted and is even seen as a threat. Not only are atheists and other non-believers considered unpatriotic, they are considered immoral people, outlaws, and nihilists. The assumption is that without God one cannot find meaning or value in existence; and that one will surely not recognize any moral values or rules. “If there is no God, every thing is permitted,” Dostoevsky was reported to have declared.
Many believers are offended by the mere statement of non-belief. Many believers in a supernatural being look on the contrary statement of non-belief as a threat, an insult, and even an “outrage.” Why is this so? Maybe they see God as the basis for their entire picture of reality; so questions about the base are seen as an attack on their fundamental view of reality.
From an enlightened, rationalist perspective, this intolerance on part of the believer is a form of irrationality and a very narrow, parochial way of looking at things. Carried out consistently this narrow-mindedness would result in a lack of tolerance, even antagonism, with respect to a variety of religious traditions (those not based on theistic doctrine) and secular philosophies (those which don’t posit the reality of a supernatural being).
The narrow-mindedness and dogmatism of the typical fundamentalist religionist are such that any secular, naturalistic philosophy is seen as promoting immorality and nihilism. In an age of science and reason, this attitude comes across as a very primitive form of irrationalism.
Those of us who take a secular perspective on the world don’t think that the mere fact of our refusal to avow the prevailing forms of supernaturalism and theism should be seen by the majority of believers as a threat or an attack on their way of life. My stating that I don’t believe in your God does not attack or threaten you and your religion. I am not interested in converting you to my way of thinking.
Many believers – primarily religious fundamentalists — seem to think that religious conformity is such a highly valued condition that society should insist on conformity, at least so far as belief in a deity is concerned. But why should such conformity be so highly valued?
The problem is that for many believers — especially religious fundamentalist – ‘God’ is the ground for an entire way of life, for all meaning in existence and for the values that give meaning to existence. So when the skeptic denies that God, he denies the very grounds for all that has worth for the believer.
Traditional Christian and Jewish religions contribute to this outlook by way of the Biblical Ten Commandments, three of which declare the obligation that humans have to God; implying of course that denial of that God is the greatest moral offense.
Obviously, then, a philosophy that promotes non-belief in a supernatural being or simply omits belief in a supernatural being will be seen as a threat to theistic religion. So we can understand why those who give high priority to their theistic faith and regard their ‘God’ as the most important aspect of their reality would feel threatened, even attacked, by the affirmation of a non-theistic or atheistic philosophy.
On the other hand, a secular, enlightened attitude is one that tolerates a variety of views on such questionable issues as the reality of a supernatural being who oversees and commands the human world. Ours is an open, free society which tolerates both theistic and non-theistic outlooks on life. Those of us who don’t belong to the prevailing theistic religions and who don’t profess belief in a deity should not be obliged to keep quiet or coerced into keeping quiet about our non-belief and skepticism regarding supernatural claims. My stating that I don’t believe in your ‘God’ may not help you and others to promote such belief. But my stating my view should NOT be seen as directly attacking or insulting your point of view, just as your heart-felt statement of your belief in your “God” should not be seen as an insult or offense to my agnostic view.