To Talk or Not to Talk (About Religion)

I grew up hearing that it was impolite to discuss in public the three most interesting topics--politics, sex, and religion. Discussions about politics and sex are omnipresent today, with religion often used to justify views on politics and sex. For instance, many liberals promote a social agenda with passages like Mark 12:31, "Love your neighbor," while many conservatives promote a different social agenda with passages like Leviticus 18:22, which refers to male homosexuality as an abomination. But you rarely hear them cite other abominations in Leviticus, like eating pork, having tattoos, mixing seeds, or wearing a garment made from two kinds of material.

We all have the free speech right to quote selected passages from holy books or talk about religion to anyone who will listen. However, I wish politicians would recognize the importance of separating personal religious beliefs from legislation that affects those who don't share their beliefs. The more a politician equates public policy with religious belief, the less likely I am to support him or her.

Politicians aside, when should we talk about religion with family, friends, and others? A recent piece in the Atlantic categorizes Americans according to the frequency with which they talk about religion in public. Only a third do so at least once a month. Evangelicals do it most frequently, minority religions less frequently, while atheists and agnostics are the least inclined to talk publicly about religion.

Understandably, we like to talk about things important to us. That's one reason evangelicals talk about religion more frequently than atheists. I grew up as an Orthodox Jew in Philadelphia, so religion was an integral part of my life and I often talked about it with my Jewish friends. But unlike evangelicals, I didn't discuss religion with people outside my "tribe" because I had neither the interest nor the belief that I could "save" someone from eternal damnation.

When I stopped believing in God, I became a mostly quiet atheist. But as I got older and more comfortable with myself, I didn't hesitate to tell selected people about my religious (or non-religious) views. However, religion wasn't much discussed when I lived in academic communities in New York and Massachusetts because religion was just not important. That changed in 1976 when I moved to South Carolina to teach at the College of Charleston. Being an atheist at a secular academic institution wasn't a problem, but religion is extremely important in South Carolina, so it frequently enters conversations. Many atheists are quiet about their religious views, especially in the Bible Belt, not wanting to appear impolite or offend others. However, being polite by avoiding conflicts has never been a guiding light for me.

I received national publicity in 1990 when I declared for governor of South Carolina, becoming the "Candidate without a Prayer" in order to challenge the state constitutional provision that prohibited atheists from holding public office, a challenge I eventually won in the South Carolina Supreme Court. After that, strangers who had seen me on TV or in the newspaper would stop me in the street to discuss my religious views. Some thanked me for being open about my atheism, while others had trouble understanding how anyone could possibly be an atheist. Despite frequent attempts, nobody succeeded in converting me. I've also had public debates with Christian leaders, usually fundamentalists. My personality, along with job security, enabled me to thoroughly enjoy religious conversations with those whose beliefs were considerably different from mine.

As with many vocal atheists, I initially thought I could apply logical arguments and biblical contradictions to show religious people that there probably is no god. I've since learned that you can't reason someone out of a belief that they didn't come to through reason. We can listen and try to understand one another. We can find points of agreement, and perhaps even become friends. But at the very least we should be able to reach a point where we agree to disagree, and move on without hostility.

I've become more sympathetic toward religious fundamentalists who want to convert me because I now understand why it's so important to them. Since I came to atheism through following what I consider to be a sensible evidence-based path, it doesn't much matter to me whether others adopt my position. For fundamentalists, on the other hand, eternal life is at stake. And for many of them, that's more important than life itself. I find such a worldview odd at best, and potentially dangerous. But for those who believe in a god who wants them to love their neighbors, help the less fortunate, and follow the Golden Rule, I can happily cooperate in doing good works with them.

There is one thing I won't compromise on, though. I will continue to fight nonviolently against those who try to force their religious beliefs on people who don't share such beliefs. Especially politicians.