I saw a meme on social media recently. An atheist page on Facebook posted a photograph that I don’t want to show here, because I found it a bit disturbing. It was a photo that was, I suppose, mocking religion. People who know me as an atheist - and indeed quite a vocal atheist at times - might be a little surprised that I was disturbed by a photo that was mocking religion. Well, so was I, and when I thought it through, it began to open a bit of a can of worms. Specifically, it made me think about how atheists present themselves to the world through social media, and the connotations that are regularly being applied to the term atheist.
First of all, let me at least describe the photo that set these thoughts in motion - and let me explain why I don’t want to show it here. It was a photograph of of a toilet basin containing a Bible, a Torah, and a Koran. Again, people who know me as an atheist, and who have seen the many atheist memes I’ve shared on social media, might be surprised that I found this disturbing. Well, let me start to unravel this conundrum by showing a couple of examples of atheist memes I’ve shared on social media.
I guess some Christians would be extremely offended by the Sunday Bitches meme. And I don’t have a problem with that. Yes, the meme is mocking a pseudo-historical religious figure that is an object of genuine love and devotion for many largely harmless people - but it is also making a point about that way religion, and in this case Christianity specifically, uses money to further its end, in apparent contradiction of some of the basic tenets of the religion.
The second meme, Conventional Logic need not only be classed a meme that mocks religion, but in the context of religion, it’s a pretty accurate representation of what many non-believers come up against when questioning religious belief. Some may say it mocks believers who vigorously defend their faith. I prefer to think that it mocks the thinking processes of people who have been blinded by relgiious faith. There is a vast difference between the two interpretations. I do not hate or disrespect people simply because they choose to believe in a god or follow a religion. I may disagree with their choices, but I don’t hate them for it. I may have slightly less respect for a believer simply because I think they are (often) allowing themselves to be misled, but I do not totally lose respect for them as human beings. The point here is, that I may not like the religion but that is not a sufficient condition for me to hate, or just dislike, or even disrespect the person. The two memes I have reproduced mock practices or behaviours; not people. (I’ll get on to the subject of when it’s acceptable to dislike a person in the context of religion later.)
So, what is wrong with the toilet bowl meme? Let me say initially, that I can have no way of know with 100% accuracy what was going through the mind of the creator of that meme, or what the intention was. I would have to be a mind reader for that, and I don’t believe in such supernatural powers. What I can do is describe the effect the meme has - the message that is likely to be drawn from it. That message is quite simple: Religion is s*** it seems to be saying. And that is a phrase that has probably been uttered by many an atheist over the years. In fact, I’ve probably said it myself, around friends and trusted people. But I would hope that whenever I’ve made public comments about religion, I’ve added some reason to it. If you just say religion is s***, then you leave the door wide open for a believer to say, No it’s not, and then you can either walk away from each other, or maybe start pulling each other’s hair, but nothing will have been resolved by that exchange. No point has been made.
But that doesn’t tell the whole story of why I found the toilet bowl meme disturbing. You see, however much you might disagree with religion, there is no getting away from the fact that there are many many people who choose to believe in a god, and adhere to a religion, and have genuinely strong feeling toward their faith, who are ordinary good people, doing no direct harm as a result of their faith. (Indirect harm is a different matter, which I touch on in my blog post, Gods and Knives and Guns and Bombs and Wedges.) For these ordinary people, whose faith, however misguided, is genuine, putting their religious texts into a toilet with no further explanation is just a nasty, small-minded insult. It is shocking and hurtful to them, and what’s more it paints a very negative picture of atheists to society at large at a time when some atheists are discovering it is very difficult to find acceptance in the world. (Atheists can have immense trouble even finding a job in certain parts of the USA, and can be put to death in certain Islamic states. It’s that serious.)
So, when we think about the image that atheists are presenting to the world, it raises an interesting problem. People like to put other people in categories. Think of what comes to mind about what people are like when you consider these categories; poets, football fans, bikers, hairdressers… and of course atheists. The thing is, there are almost as many different types of atheist as there are people who are atheist. Categorise them all you want, but the only thing you can be certain that all atheists have in common is that they don’t believe in gods. After that, everything is up for grabs. Like any other walk of life, there are some atheists who are very intelligent, some who are a bit dumb, some who love peace, some who promote violence, some who are law-abiding, some who are criminals… and so on. Atheists run the whole gamut of human types, just like hairdressers, bikers, football fans and poets.
WHAT PEOPLE THINK AN ATHEIST IS
And because people like categories, but don’t like being pigeon-holed incorrectly, they create sub-categories. Among atheists, for example, you find militant atheists, intellectual atheists, and anti-theist atheists.Maybe the person who created the toilet bowl meme is more of a militant atheist, I don’t know. I like to think of myself as an intellectual, anti-theist atheist. What the hell does that even mean? Well, as an atheist, I don’t believe in gods. As an intellectual atheist, I don’t mean I think I’m smarter than you, I mean that my atheism came about as a result of me thinking it through, and studying science and philosophy. Some people are atheist purely on a gut feeling. For me, as an ex-believer, the only way out of the faith trap I found myself in was education. Lastly, the ant-theist part. This can be controversial as different people have different definitions of what anti-theist means. For me, it means that I think religion is morally wrong because it is used as a method to control people with lies about things like an afterlife which will never come, and gods that simply do not exist. Religion is also responsible for causing great harm and human suffering throughout history, and continues to do so today. As religion is morally wrong, I feel compelled to speak up about it. That is me being anti-theist.
I don’t feel I can add anything of value to the debate over the existence of gods and the validity of religion if my only output is of the calibre of religion is s***. In fact, I think such an attitude is likely to add to the problems religion brings to society. Instead, when asked, or when I feel like writing a blog post, or just sharing a meme, I like to think I can offer a rational explanation as to why religion is morally wrong, and why I’m sure gods don’t exist. I’m not going to make those arguments today, though. Today, I’m just going to challenge other atheists who spout stuff like religion is s*** with this: Is that all you’ve got?
Finally, as promised: When, if ever, is it acceptable to dislike someone on account of their religion? I would say whenever a person thinks it is acceptable to cause harm to others in the name of their religion, then you can feel justified in not liking them for that reason. Whenever we think it is okay to cause harm to others, we begin to undermine society, which means we are undermining ourselves. It’s that simple.
Words © Darren R. Scothern 2016