Are atheists offended by religion?

I can’t speak for atheists. I can only speak for myself. This atheist isn’t normally offended about anything. Fact is, this world holds an abundance of awesome experiences and affectionate relationships. Being mad much of the time would be very, very sad—to be avoided as much as possible, short of the pseudo-happiness of Pollyanna-ism.

So just for myself, I can say that emotional reactions to a world in which atheism is a minority position is not a matter of being offended. I’m not offended by religious billboards, prayers that go nowhere, and other Christian behaviors that I find misguided and often bullying. I do react to such things, but the pertinent reactions are not offense. They are either disappointment or anger.

Disappointed. I am disappointed when I see individuals or whole populations seemingly unable to attain the discipline, ethics, or reasoning power that our imaginations can conceive, but our behavior cannot achieve. I have that reaction on each instance of dupability that enables religious faith to be treated as truth without evidence. (Though not my focus here, this disappointment applies to politics and individual relationships as well.) My decades of reconceptualizing the job of boards of directors showed me that many board members are just not capable of grasping the paradigmatic shift required to govern in a more precise, conceptually whole way. I have been disappointed in my own limits with respect to learning challenging information, sticking to a diet or persevering in an exercise routine. We all live with disappointment due to our species’s limitations. It is disappointing to see people trying so hard yet still failing due to bumping up against those limits. My reaction isn’t to get angry or to take offense.

Angered: As an atheist (or simply a product of the Enlightenment) I am angry with individuals and groups that force their beliefs on others. In modern history, the greatest religious offenders are the Catholic and Islamic leaders. (Political despots like Pol Pot, Hitler, Stalin, and Mugabe act similarly, though not always with a religious element.) When churches in the United States push their faith agenda on public institutions (schools, courthouses, city councils, military), I get angry. When they spread misinformation about the ethics of non-believers, I get angry. Such “tyranny over the mind of man,” as Jefferson put it, are too infuriating for one merely to take offense.

Offended: Let me say loudly that I have no right not to be offended. Neither do religious believers. The world simply doesn’t owe us the coddling of an inoffensive environment. Recent years have seen uncountable complaints from Christians offended about atheist or humanist billboards. Islam has displayed its thin skin in mass protests against cartoon depictions of Mohammed. Atheists as well are sometimes guilty of taking offense. When I read of atheists claiming to be offended by, say, ubiquitous city council pre-meeting prayers, I am disappointed in the weakness of their response (and in the implied notion that no one should offend them). The Constitutional violation of government prayers deserves something far more substantive than the feeble taking of offense. I am not offended by public schools or other arms of government that display Bible themes or express religious sentiments—I am mad as hell about their religious bullying and appropriation of the public square for their religion. Being offended misses the mark on two counts. It trembles before situations that call instead for spirited opposition. It suggests that atheists themselves deserve not to be offended.

[Comments on, challenges to, or requests about this or any other posting can be sent to johnjustthinking@bmi.net.]

About John Bruce Carver

I am a U. S. citizen living in Atlanta, Georgia, having grown up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, graduating from Chattanooga High School. I served in the Electronic Security Command of the U. S. Air Force before receiving a B.S. degree in business/economics and an M.Ed. in educational psychology, both at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. I then completed a Ph.D. in clinical (and research) psychology at Emory University. I have two daughters and three granddaughters. An ardent international traveller, I have been in over 70 countries for business and pleasure. My reading, other than novels, tends to be in history, philosophy, government, and light science. I identify philosophically as a secular humanist, in complete awe of the universe including my fellows and myself. I am married to my best friend, Miriam, formerly of the United Kingdom and Canada.
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