I ask a man I’ve just met what he does for a living. “I build boats,” he says, “like Jesus – I mean Noah –” he darts me a concerned look and holds out his hand in a halt sign, “I mean, not that I’m religious.”
The quasi squeamishness in his tone and body language not only implies that being religious is in some way objectionable, politically incorrect, or embarrassing, but also his absolute certainty that I share his view. As though anybody in his or her right mind would.
I’m in a pub with a group of writer friends. Somehow, the conversation turns to religion, and a joke is shared about people who believe in God. “I believe in God,” I say.
Complete silence as they all turn to me with an expression of shock mixed with disbelief. One of them says, “How can a woman as intelligent as you believe in God?”
I remark that if I were to ask him how a man as intelligent as he could possibly be an atheist, I’d be quickly condemned for intolerance – and rightly so. So what gave him that right over me?
Another man says, “But you might as well believe in Santa Claus. I mean, you can’t prove God exists.”
“No,” I said, “but can you prove He doesn’t?”
Why would my inability to provide irrefutable proof be considered inferior to his? I wasn’t proselytising but merely demanding equal rights for expressing an opinion without being derided or ridiculed. Or at least simple good manners.
Every US dollar bill has the words In God we trust printed on the back. When President Barack Obama took the oath of office, he concluded it with the words, “So help me God.” He is one of many US presidents to have done that and nobody finds anything strange or untoward in that. I shudder at what would happen if David Cameron ever referred to God. Twitter would explode with a hashtag along the lines of PMsaysGod, and he would be interrogated by the journalist on duty of Radio 4’s Today programme the very next morning. “Prime Minister, in your speech at the Commons, yesterday, you actually said ‘God’. Now how do you reconcile your choice of word with Britain as a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, inclusive society?”
That’s right, inclusive is the buzz word in present-day Britain. So why not include everybody – believers and non-believers alike?
Several councils have stopped using the word Christmas in favour of the allegedly more inclusive Winter Festival. A vague term that could refer to a number of other seasonal celebrations, including Chanukkah, and which therefore lacks precision.
Many in the UK may remember the case, a few years ago, of the nurse who almost lost her job for offering to pray for a patient. What kind of person would feel offended by this sort of offer, which is tantamount to an expression of good wishes? It seems that the patient declined the offer, and the nurse respected their decision. Why report this nurse? Interestingly, this nurse was apparently in breach of her code of conduct on “equality and diversity”. That does strike me as a contradiction.
I must admit that, these days, when a certain spring Christian festival approaches, I hesitate before wishing strangers a happy Easter, in case they take offence. Sometimes, I even ask, “Is it all right to say ‘Happy Easter’?” And yet I have Jewish friends to whom I regularly wish a happy Chanukkah – and who wish me a happy Chanukkah in return. Far from offending me, I feel glad and honoured by the fact that they somehow include me in their celebrations. After all, it is a good wish that relates to celebration that falls on a specific date on the calendar. Believing or not believing does not alter that date or event. Whether you are a Christian, a Jew, a Buddhist, belong to another creed, or are an atheist, 25 December is Christmas Day.
I appreciate the fact that this trend is a reaction to the uncountable harm religion – Christianity, in this case – has done over the centuries. Every school child knows about the Inquisition and the persecutions. Without the need to go that far back in history, I myself witnessed intolerance, ignorance and cruelty inflicted on people in the name of religion while an undergraduate at what was considered the third most prestigious university in England – both on the part of Catholics and Anglicans.
What I find sad and, frankly, unacceptable, is that many people should act as though being in turn intolerant towards religious beliefs helps somehow redress the balance, but bigotry is bigotry – whether religious or atheist.
Much is made, nowadays, of freedom and, in particular, freedom of speech. I don’t see how exercising the freedom to offend or insult can do honour to a human being. Any fool can express his or her opinion, seeing the Law allows it. But perhaps it takes an intellectually and morally superior person being to weigh the situation and, if need be, temper his or her free speech with respect towards a fellow human being.
Dear Katia, You’re spot on with this, and I speak from my position as an agnostic (which despite some websites, is NOT a synonym for “atheist”) who grew up in the Bible Belt of the U.S., and heard way more about the Bible than I ever wanted to, and encountered enough Bible-bashing both pro and con to last a whole two lifetimes. Though I adhere to my “Geez, I don’t know for sure,” routines in daily life, in poetry I often use the term “God” either he or she because there are poems and meditations one can’t write without it. Also, I had a watershed moment a few years back, though I”m still an agnostic officially. I was in the hospital to get my gall bladder removed, and was feeling lousy, fearful of going under, etc. And here came along one of these churchy do-gooders who haunt hospitals and etc., and offered to pray for me. I didn’t even have a chance to say “No thank you”; I know you’ve heard the expression “there are no atheists in foxholes.” Well, before I could speak up in my ordinary voice, another voice from out my throat said, “Please do.” Within a minute or two of her praying for me, I was holding her hand and crying buckets, and telling her how scared I was. I mean, who knew? Lately, I’m more tolerant of listening to people’s beliefs, though every time someone claims God saved them in particular out of a hoard of others who weren’t so lucky, I still roll my eyes. Maybe I should just say something like “Well, I guess that imposes special obligations on you then, doesn’t it?” Take care.
Thank you for commenting. I wrote this a few years ago. The situation is even more pronounced now.
Thankss great blog post
I am neither ashamed nor afraid to call myself a Christian. Nobody should be ashamed to adhere to some faith since reason can explain a lot, but fails to give an answer to existential questions. It can explain how the universe works, but fails to explain why it exists.
Reason is what we need to develop, so that it works in tandem with our inner knowledge (well, that’s my opinion). Many thanks for reading and commenting.
Sadly, the same situation is becoming more prevalent in the U.S. with people trying to ban Christmas trees for containing the name of Christ. Many religions have done terrible things in the supposed name of their religion, and you’re right to point out that it is apparently Christianity that is now the least-accepted form of religion…or at least that is what it seems. I have friends who are Buddhist, Taoist, Catholic, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Agnostic, and Atheist. Strangely, I don’t become offended at any of their conversations, but there are a few who would demean me for believing on faith that there is something “bigger” out there than humans when, to them, there is no empirical evidence. So perhaps, the larger question is why they fear this so much, if they don’t believe it to be true? Should it even bother them at all, if they don’t believe it? If I don’t believe the flavor grape exists and you tell me you believe it does, so what? Aren’t we both equally entitled to our opinions? We either believe in equality for all humans, or we don’t. There’s an entire amazing universe out there, but we can’t even stop stupidly bickering amongst ourselves over any, and everything. More than anything, it just saddens me. As a race, we could accomplish so much more if we realized we’re all people with the same feelings.
Thank you for reading and commenting. I had no idea there was a similar situation in the US. I guess in Europe, we hear mostly about the Bible Belt and so on.
I agree with you that perhaps people should respect one another’s beliefs without being offended or needing to put them down. Once, when I was in a taxi, crying my eyes out over a break up, the driver said he knew a very good witch who could definitely make my ex come back to me, and offered to drive me there on the spot. I thanked him profusely, and declined politely. No harm done, right?
Exactly. It would be a lot easier if we tried to understand the spirit in which things were said. It would be like someone getting offended at being wished a good day, which is odd, but their choice so long as it doesn’t deny others their choices. Thanks for posting about such a delicate and controversial subject. Your bravery is appreciated.
Hi, Katia. I’m of two minds regarding Christianity, as it sounds like some of your respondents are too, or at least we share some of the same doubts. I was born and brought up in the American Bible Belt, and I got thoroughly sick and tired of hearing people rant and rave and go on and on about religion, even from the time when I was quite small. I guess that really the Bible stories never really seemed to me true anyway, but struck me even as a child as being a sort of fable, fairy tale, fictional story much like Cinderella or Snow White, only with Christ as a hero. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, except of course when you’re being brought up among fundamentalists. My own immediate family was tolerant of difference, but of course if my father had known what I felt (and I don’t think it ever occurred to me to discuss it), he would have been overwrought because it might have incited the neighbors and friends. As I grew up, I began to scoff at religion a bit, as did most of my liberal friends, but in reality I never felt much one way or another about it: it was, and I was, and I accepted that there were some people who believed it, and I didn’t much mind hearing them talk about it, as far as that went. I suppose that passed for tolerance, because my scoffing was kept for those who also scoffed; for that matter, as long as the religious matter was cloaked in fine words and felicitous phrases, poetry or fine prose, I rather liked it. Not the first time, I suppose, that fine words have partially won over someone to their cause. I still don’t quite know what I think about God, except that it seems very extraordinary to me now to doubt that something or someone exists out there somewhere in order to explain all of the radiant diversity and splendor of life. And there have been times when I have dared to hope, or to meditate upon possibilities. I don’t know if you have heard of Dr. Larry Dossey and his book “Healing Words,” but he wrote about the difference it made not only to the doctor-patient relationship but also to the apparent course of the illness in some cases when he (the doctor) prayed for his patients. He didn’t hold it over their heads, according to his book, at least, and he didn’t have them pray for their own recovery, though some of them doubtless did because that was what they believed. I have to say that with the best skeptical will in the world, he lifted my spirits somewhat in a time of lowness, even though I didn’t take the book wholesale, but maintained my own mind. And surely, if whatever religion involved can do that, then it has a place in the world for those who value its services, as long as they don’t abuse it, or mistreat others with it. I know this is a very long-winded response to your post, but I thought it a very important one, to which I wanted to respond with detail. I’m sorry if I’ve been too wordy.
In a brilliant interview, crime Donna Leon said her parents were “Christian ‘light'”. That sums up my upbringing, but with elements of other religions being thrown in. My mother always described the original purpose of religion as “ethics”. I don’t know Dr. Larry Dossey and his book “Healing Words,” but have you read about Dr Emile Coué, who got his patients to say “Every day in every way, I’m getting better and better” and those who repeated it recovered more quickly. Dante said that prayer is an extension of oneself to God. My mother and grandmother always emphasised the bit about God helps those who help themselves”. A book I love is Nietzsche’s ‘Antichrist’.
Obviously, there’s a distinction to be made between God and religion. On the Green Room, where I also posted this blog, one of the readers made a very good comment about two people discovering they both believe in God and then realising that each person’s belief was different. The problem is, we use labels, such as “atheist” and “believer” to make things easier.
Thank you, Vicki, for taking the time to respond at length.
Reblogged this on nbsmithblog…random digressions and musings and commented:
I didn’t write this; I wish I could claim it for my own, but because I felt more people should read it, I received permission from. ScribeDoll, a writer-friend of mine from the UK.
I love this blog; would you allow me to re-post on my blog. I think your message, which I happen to agree with wholeheartedly, needs to reach more people, Katia. ~nan
Thank you Nan.
I’m embarrassed to confess I actually don’t know what re-blogging means, or how it’s done, but it sounds like something good, so please go ahead – and thank you!
Equality in all and to all. The way society over reacts and counter reacts to create more over reaction … a comedy of sorts.
It’s like a pendulum, swaying from one extreme to another.
Thanks for commenting.
The benevolent agnostic in me says: “Katia, well done – and very well argued!” The slightly less accepting (or tolerant) person in me says: “I am increasingly alarmed by the creeping secular intolerance towards people of faith.”
Oh, hello, Graham! How good to hear from you!
I think this secular intolerance is a backlash against religious intolerance. But two wrongs don’t make a right. I also think that the Church (both Catholic and Anglican) should start explaining the Scriptures a little better – their 2,000-year-old manipulative version is no longer acceptable.
Thank you for commenting.
Great article! As a citizen in the U.S. I’ve been seeing this trend here also. It is amazing how intolerant people are who profess tolerance and acceptance EXCEPT towards Christians. Yes, there are Christians or people who professed to be who have harmed people. But I would say, look at the great GOOD that has also been done. Most hospitals were founded by Christians, most relief agencies were started by Christians, most orphanages, most soup kitchens, homeless shelters, most universities, and basically, just about every other helping organization started in the last century was either purely Christian in intent at the beginning, or had the idea of service under God. Name 10 atheist started hospitals or children’s orphanages….as far as intelligence goes, we had a rocket scientist at our church (he moved to Texas) we have several engineers and other scientists, several physicians, and my own research scientist husband who believe very strongly in God. Stay strong!
Interesting about your rocket scientist. A doctor friend of mine says he was a declared atheist before he went to medical school, but learning about the perfection of human physiology and the human body in general made him feel that there simply had to be a Supreme Intelligence out there.
Thank you very much for reading and commenting, Sally.
Dare I say “Amen!” to your wonderful post? Amen and well-done, Katia! 🙂
Dare away – it simply means “so be it” in Hebrew, doesn’t it?
““How can a woman as intelligent as you believe in God?”
I remark that if I were to ask him how a man as intelligent as he could possibly be an atheist, I’d be quickly condemned for intolerance – and rightly so. So what gave him that right over me?”
I agree with this sentiment. There are lots of highly intelligent religious people.
““No,” I said, “but can you prove He doesn’t?”
Why would my inability to provide irrefutable proof be considered inferior to his?”
Because the burden of proof lies with you, because you’re making the positive claim that your God exists.
Not being able to prove a negative isn’t a good reason to believe something. Just like your inability to prove invisible leprechauns aren’t real isn’t a good reason to believe they exist.
You’re also defending your god from a deist position. If you’re a Christian, for example, there is a mound of historical, scientific data that refutes large chunks of the bible or at the very least show that it’s unlikely that people rise from the dead or that water can be magically changed into wine.
“Several councils have stopped using the word Christmas in favour of the allegedly more inclusive Winter Festival. A vague term that could refer to a number of other seasonal celebrations, including Chanukkah, and which therefore lacks precision.”
It’s inclusive and governments are supposed to represent everyone. Also, Christmas is a pagan holiday.
Businesses that use ‘Winter Festival’ instead of Christmas are doing so for good business reasons. Why alienate parts of the population that might buy goods from you?
“Caroline Petrie is a bank nurse. We have had two separate concerns reported from a carer and a patient about her actions. She has therefore been told we will not be using her until the outcome of our investigation is known.
“Many in the UK may remember the case, a few years ago, of the nurse who almost lost her job for offering to pray for a patient. What kind of person would feel offended by this sort of offer”
From the article you sited:
“The Nursing and Midwifery Council Code of Conduct makes it clear that nurses ‘must not use [their] professional status to promote causes that are not related to health’.
Her conduct broke the rules. Rules she should know, and a rule which she had broken more than once. If the patient wanted praying, I’m sure they could have gotten it.
Also, just because you aren’t offended, doesn’t mean someone else isn’t. They have every right to complain of misconduct on the part of the nurse.
If you’re asking for tolerance, then you have to GIVE tolerance as well. Expecting everyone to subject themselves to your prayers isn’t tolerance. Instead, the nurse should obey the rules of her profession and do her job.
“Because the burden of proof lies with you, because you’re making the positive claim that your God exists.”
Not really, since he implied God does not exist as a fact, whereas I stated a belief, personal by definition (and, admittedly, a very convenient way of not being forced to justify myself).
“Not being able to prove a negative isn’t a good reason to believe something. Just like your inability to prove invisible leprechauns aren’t real isn’t a good reason to believe they exist.”
I agree but is it a good reason to expect someone to prove a positive?
“You’re also defending your god from a deist position. If you’re a Christian, for example, there is a mound of historical, scientific data that refutes large chunks of the bible or at the very least show that it’s unlikely that people rise from the dead or that water can be magically changed into wine.”
I must admit I’ve always taken that to be symbolic, rather than literal.
“Businesses that use ‘Winter Festival’ instead of Christmas are doing so for good business reasons. Why alienate parts of the population that might buy goods from you?”
How far are we going to go in the name of commerce?
“Christmas is a pagan holiday”
I think Yuletide is a pagan holiday, Christmas, by its very etymology, is a Christian holiday. The Church cleverly superimposed its festivals on existing pagan ones, to facilitate the transition (not always succeeding, thankfully).
“Her conduct broke the rules. Rules she should know, and a rule which she had broken more than once. If the patient wanted praying, I’m sure they could have gotten it.”
I hadn’t read about the nurse breaking the rule more than once, so thank you for pointing that out. Have you read Thoreau’s ‘On Civil Disobedience’? His view as I understand it is that – as long as nobody is harmed/hurt – there can sometimes be a case for acting according to your conscience rather than according to rules. But I do get your point.
“Expecting everyone to subject themselves to your prayers isn’t tolerance”
I’m afraid I disagree with you here. “Subjecting oneself” implies an action whereas allowing someone to pray for you is a passive acceptance, I think. Possibly, if you pray for someone without their consent, one could arguably call it intolerant, but I fail to see how an offer, which can be declined or accepted, constitutes intolerance.
Thank you ever so much for your thoughtful, through reading of my piece, and for taking the time to comment so extensively, point by point. I consider it a high compliment and truly appreciate it.
Eloquent as always, Katia. “…but bigotry is bigotry – whether religious or atheist.” Indeed.
Thank you, Eva.
Well said! Great article to read. Thanks.
Thank you, Kitty.
🙂 Very well expressed.
Thank you very much.
well said!! can hardly believe that in only 50 or so years it is almost a rational offence to be ‘a believer’. I also dislike the notion of tolerance – after all no one has to bear with me and my faith which is quiet and personal. I believe it stems from an intolerant faith – but why should we tolerate intolerance? Such is the shiftless puzzle of current orthodoxy.
I agree. Interestingly, you’ve reminded me of a conversation I had, many years ago, with a lovely Jewish old gentleman who said he’d had a strong disagreement with his rabbi about the term “tolerance” saying we should use the word “acceptance”, instead, because “tolerance” implied “putting up” with someone.
a much better word!