As the Christmas season approached, the American Humanist Association, as well as some national atheist groups, did what they have come to routinely do for the season: posted billboards which questioned religious faith. And, with equal regularity, Christian leaders objected to it, calling it, among other things, “rude”. Among the more civil of such responses came from Monsignor Charles Pope, the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian parish in Washington, DC, in his blog:
“To summarize, the bill board, ad campaign of the American Humanist Association comes off as rude, boorish and bigoted. It steeps its message in a ridiculing notion and implication that billions of believers throughout this world and many more stretch back into time are nothing more than children who believe in an “imaginary friend.” . . . . The timing, tactics and content of this bill board by the AHA show them to be far from the humanitarian principles they claim to promote.
“There is nothing humanist or humanitarian in their ad at all. It is plain and simple, ‘Rude,’ just plain rude.”
And he has a point. In private conversations more than one senior member of the Humanist organization has acknowledged that their billboards are deliberately designed to be provocative and grab attention; it’s not much of a stretch to move from that intent to “rude”. Polite, respectful comments are less likely to be “provocative”.
That same point is made from time to time within the atheist community as well. As some others have pointed out, there is a class of atheists who might be called “evangelistic”, whose purpose is to confront religion in our society and attempt to diminish its influence, if not to gain converts to the atheist position. It is those who grab the attention of the press and religious leaders; those who are referred to (and sometimes deliberately are) “rude”.
But there is a much larger class of atheists and agnostics who are not evangelistic, who prefer to keep their heads down, be good citizens and live their lives in ways that do not confront the religious majority among them. They are aware, whether by reading the surveys and studies or simply from experience within their own community, that being an atheist is not accepted by a very broad segment of society, and that they will encounter all manner of personal difficulties if they announce their own beliefs, let alone overtly challenge anyone else’s.
Some percentage of this quiet group who make up the majority of atheists secretly admire and approve of the work of the evangelistic atheists, while being unwilling to take on the substantial burden of that fight on their own. But another, substantial part of the atheist community is embarrassed by it, and would prefer that such confrontational efforts in their names not take place. If the purpose is to blend in to society, to be accepted as trustworthy members of society, then confronting the foundational beliefs of the majority of its citizens is not, in their view, the best way to achieve this. That is, they agree with the point being made by the Monsignor.
But that’s not to say that many of them would agree with all of the points he makes in his article. In fact, some claims (not at all unique to him) they would strenuously disagree with. He says that “I would argue that this amounts to an intentional form of rudeness that the secular media would never accept in return from Christians.” This is a mild form of a claim put more explicitly by other Christian commentators who, while agreeing about atheist rudeness, disclaim any similar behavior by their own side. Bill Donohue of the Catholic League, for instance, puts a point on it:
“This year Silverman wanted to make a big splash, so he decided to draw blood. It shows what he is made of. He and his supporters do not want to be left alone—they want to inflame the passions of those with whom they disagree. Unlike Christians who do not provoke, harass or otherwise mock atheists, Silverman and his ilk want nothing more than to stick it to Christians at Christmastime. It’s who they are.” (emphasis added)
It’s this claim that Christians do not “provoke, harass or otherwise mock atheists” that the atheist and agnostic community would take strong issue with. In fact, they would argue precisely the opposite: that they are routinely subject to provocation, harassment and mocking.
Sometimes it comes in the form of death threats to particular atheists like 16-year old Jessica Ahlquist, or statements by her elected representatives that she is “”an evil little thing.” Sometimes it comes in the form of radio commentary that suggests that atheists should be “punched in the mouth”. Or in more indirect ways, Christian commentators claim that atheist attempts to enforce separation of church and state in the schools are the cause of the mass shooting of children at Sandy Hook.
Atheists might be forgiven for seeing such statements by Christian spokesmen as “provoking, harassing or mocking” – or worse. And these are not isolated incidents. They are a part of the daily fabric of American life, where public accusations against atheists are so routine as to be unremarkable, and even unnoticed.
A review of the blogs of Monsignor Pope shows no indication that he recognizes this profound “rudeness” by Christians against others – certainly he does not appear to have written about it. And in that he is not alone. It is rare indeed to find any Christian spokesman who has the integrity and courage to take on the more egregious statements by their claimed co-religionists.
For so long as good, decent, civil Christian spokesmen like Monsignor Pope do not address the incivility, hostility and threats made by those in their own ranks, they have little reason to be surprised when they encounter “rude” behavior from a minority that sees itself as oppressed.