Jesse Galef at “The Friendly Atheist” has a strong, well reasoned and provocative rebuttal to Herb Silverman’s assertion (at The Washington Post) that atheism need not offend. Jesse defines atheism as a statement, one that is either right or wrong, excludes other realities, and therefore has the capacity to offend. He’s quite right about that, and arguments to the contrary misunderstand the unique role and history of religious beliefs in human society.
I do not mean to suggest that atheism is a “religious belief.” We needn’t resolve that argument to answer this question, and so we would do best to postpone it for another day. What is beyond contention is that atheism will — and must — bump up against religious assertions. This truth stands regardless of how one’s atheism is framed in personal interactions. Indeed, whether expressed readily and frequently, or quietly held, the expression of one’s atheism implies the certainty of one’s belief in it, and will strike believers as “wrong.” Coexistence without offense or controversy is possible (and advised!), but like so many other things in life, it takes two to tango.
History is full of examples of the faithful taking offense, and then taking up arms, against those viewpoints, religious or scientific, that tend to disprove or work against their faith. The heretic’s intent is almost beside the point. Neither Copernicus, nor Galilelo, nor Darwin (maybe) were looking for a fight, but because the fact or appearance of questioning religion are both viewed by the faithful as anathema, offensive, and mortally sinful, they found a fight. For the truly “faithful,” a heretic’s mere existence is a provocation.
This problem is precisely the reason that atheism, or at least official agnosticism, represent attractive ideologies at the national level. The fathers of the Enlightenment understood religion’s abnormal capacity to generate controversy, and so struggled to avoid its establishment at the state level, as did the fathers of our country. Official pluralism, or official neutrality, are the only ways to avoid religious wars, but this solution fails to trickle down to the personal level. There, if you are an atheist, surrounded by theists, only your complete silence will prevent offense. Because self-censorship is unacceptable, the only solution is to politely broach the subject of one’s identity, avoid deliberate offense, and make clear that whatever offense is generated is wholly brought by the other side. Religious conflict is almost unavoidable — and this is a problem that John Lennon understood all too well:
Imagine [. . .] nothing to kill or die for;
and no religion, too.
Full disclosure: I’m not an atheist, but many of my friends are, and because I’ll more often than not agree with their positions, I share their interests. And, I’m fortunate enough to count Jesse and his sister among my good friends.