Julian Baggini wrote an article for FT Magazine earlier this month on what it's like to be an atheist in America. Mostly, it's a description of the isolation that atheists experience in the ultra-religious communities of small- (and not-so-small-) town America, an offering of anecdotes that blend feelings of ostracism in social and community settings, with concerns about religion in the workplace or the courthouse. The fact that I have mixed feelings about the article is, I think, a result of that blend.
I understand the worry about religion at work or in politics: prayer shouldn't be required in those settings, and in those settings religion shouldn't be assumed or catered to. I also think atheists can justifiably complain about the attitudes of some religious people, who often equate being an atheist with being a rapist or a murder, or at the very least a person of uncertain to negligable moral character. Where did that idea come from? The fact that someone is an atheist doesn't mean that they're going to kidnap you or beat you up (any more than the fact that someone professes to be a Christian doesn't mean that they're NOT going to do those things--I mean, one can hope they won't, but there's no guarantee). So I get this: being nonreligious doesn't necessarily mean being unethical or immoral, and religious communities need to refrain from endorsing that inference. That's all very reasonable.
But here's what I don't get.
Baggini notes that atheists often feel isolated in their communities because all of the social activities are church-centered--even, he points out, the volunteer opportunities. Again, I sympathize with the feelings of loneliness. I'm headed for a career in a field where it's not really socially acceptable for me to publicly express my religious beliefs, but where it's acceptable for authority figures to make negative comments about religion. I can practice my religion, of course. But if I talk about it, most people are going to give me funny looks. This has the potential to be lonely, right? People are going to be laughing about things that aren't humorous to me, and I won't be able to join in; there is a kind of non-religious solidarity that is sometimes exuded by my colleagues that I can't partake in.
But what should we do in scenarios like these?
Baggini implies that, in the case of the atheist, everything could be resolved if religious folks would just be a little more tolerant. And if tolerant means refusing to endorse the inference from "atheist" to "bad person," I'm all for it. But if it means making religious activities less, well, religious, I'm not on board. It seems unreasonable to expect a community to give up the things that make you uncomfortable, especially when those things are what define them (like the Jesus talk, for example, and the emphasis on a personal relationship with God).
I don't expect people to change the structure of the academic community for me and I certainly don't expect them to give up their beliefs (or repress them) in order to make me feel welcome (even if those beliefs include things like "Christians are creepy" or "Catholics hate women" or "Evangelicals are loony," all of which I've heard expressed at various times in the last five years). I'm prepared to volunteer and get involved even in organizations where I "don't quite belong," whose members share and advocate a system of (non?)belief that is alien to me.
I'm not saying that's not hard to do, and I'm also not saying that the lonely atheist is going to hit it off with every Christian group or person he or she meets. There are some really annoying religious people out there; I get it. But it's not impossible to make friends with people who are different from you, either. In fact, the mark of the tolerant person may be just that: the ability to interact constructively with people who disagree with you, even about things like the existence of God.