03 November 2014

Atheists untie

Or whatever that call would be.

A conversation that has emerged in some prominence over the last few years, and which I see favorably questioned and discussed in circles of secularists is something like "how do we get along with religious people?". Not just "person who believes in some deity or other and occasionally quotes a sacred text", but like "those religious people". The ones who think we all ought to be of their chosen variety of faith, praying in schools, and so on. And not just "get along with to get by" but things like "date, or have or sustain fulfilling relationships with". These are more common questions because the volume of interfaith and non-faith relationships have accelerated over the last couple of decades.

This variety of question has baffled me. I don't think it makes sense to try to sustain a close intimate relationship with someone where a worldview is diametrically opposed. You can have long-lasting friendships which are formed around other elements besides your worldview shaping concepts of existence. Things like "we both like pizza and football, let's watch football games and eat pizza", and that kind of relationship can co-exist with the bizarre confluence of other interests that you never share or never need to share. Supposing out of a hypothetical couple that one person is a vegetarian for moralistic reasons (animals shouldn't be bred and slaughtered for consuming them would be their stance, so not just they shouldn't eat meat, but no one else should be doing so either), and one person has a high regard for the taste and consumption of bacon, such that they will want to consume bacon and other meats with some frequency and delight. That isn't going to go very well if they're going to try to live together or even occasionally have breakfast. Maybe there's ways to make that work. But why is it necessary to bother? Isn't it potentially simplified for the moralising vegetarian to find someone who is willing to eat much less meat (if at all), and the bacon-lover to find a fellow traveler who desires the consumption of meats and shares their joy in doing so? This would make somewhat more sense if atheists or atheist tolerant persons were rarer than they are for pair-bonding purposes. They're not as rare or difficult to find as one thinks. If you know 20 people, you will know at least 1 or 2 and if one is an atheist, chances are good that of the 20 people you know at random, more than that will fall into the category. Maybe that's not enough of a sample size to select interesting partnerships and friends, but it is a bigger starting sample than many people get (devout Muslims in America for instance).

Even expanding the pool, supposing that one person doesn't eat meat for health reasons (they prefer a vegetable based diet, but may or may not be 100% scrupulous about whether they avoid animal fats in their diet) and the other person doesn't really care that much if they have bacon all the time. That combination should be able get along famously, or at least figure out how to get along reasonably well without much guidance at resolving this "worldview disparity". This describes what many people's interfaith (or non-faith) relationships are like. Religion rarely comes up because neither person takes it that seriously in assessing the other person and their identity, and when they do, it is possible to find ways to work around it.

I suppose one explanation is my experience as an atheist is distinct from the norm. I was never around a heavy religious treatment as a child or teenager. Because I found it absurd from an early age, it wasn't forced to me or compelled upon me. What religion was around from family appears to have been Catholics, but fairly non-compulsory and non-invasive in acting upon me as a disinterested observer of their practices. When I came up on these "questions", of existence, etc, as a matter of course, investigating the texts themselves (as one does when one is an atheist who enjoys philosophy and is willing to consider that maybe other people have figured these things out), generally leads toward a rejection of those texts as sensible guides for life and happiness. They are absurd when read as a critical outsider, and at best offer metaphorical guidance in some passages that is sensible but surround it with a lot of nonsense as with any fiction.

This outsider perspective wasn't also very often a well-known or regarded element of my persona. I wasn't interested in expressing it widely not because I found it shameful but because it wasn't an interesting characteristic (to me at any rate). It also wasn't an obvious characteristic in the persons I chose to associate that they either were or were not overtly religious or "nones". I made my associations for fairly practical reasons; we liked playing basketball or video games or discussing history and politics. Religion doesn't come up much in these venues (necessarily at any rate, it comes up more noticeably as I've gotten older). It wasn't a feature of my identity nor one that I placed much interest in the identity of others. This allowed for at least casual relationships with other people to form, which for both of us are likely enlightening as to the outlook of secularists and religious worldviews alike even as we often have staunch disagreements.

What appears to be the experience of many atheists is that they were raised in an environment of often "extreme" faith, where that faith was a feature of their identity and interaction and presentation to the outside world. In such environments, the pressure of conforming socially is very high, the pressure of adopting certain worldviews is also, and that abandonment of those views and behaviors carries significant costs. If it carries risks and costs, it is assumed that people will want to maintain those relationships that came before this change in their own worldview to reject belief in some deity (or to adopt a strong belief in the absence of previous belief) in order to minimize the damage. Family, lovers/spouses, friends, all being at risk at once can be a daunting position to find one's self on top of reconciling questions over your own identity and the epistemological and empirical questions of existences and ethics that inevitably circle overhead.

In my view, it is probably better not to bother in many cases. If I had had these kinds of troubles with family for example growing up, I wouldn't bother associating with family now, nor have much interest in reconciling those affairs later on. But I carry a degree of comfort with anti-social behavior that many are not comfortable with. Rather than fight with people with whom I share little or nothing in common, and rather than expend a lot of energy building or searching for common ground if none is apparent, I find it usually better to disappear and go to try my own thing. There are ways to communicate or reach many people across these divides, just as there are ways to explain evolutionary theory or global warming to creationists. But I don't have that much patience with human beings generally to be very concerned about trying.

So perhaps what forms the largest portion of bafflement is why people would spend that much time and energy trying to get along with people who have deemed it important to hate or fear you when there are a lot more people who don't care that much one way or the other about us, or who are open and tolerant of a wide variety of views in their associations, or who enjoy the same outlooks as you already and can readily get along without much adjustment at all (maybe someone snores, or has a higher sex drive, or doesn't like a variety of music someone enjoys, but these are more practical problems than diametrically opposed systems of considering the world). Clearly being hated bothers us more than I'd considered. If we're hated or enjoy the threat of hate from someone we had considered with love and affection, I could see how that would be difficult and require some variety of resolution to move on. Indifference is a far more common course of action though than hatred. In general, in America, other people are not concerned with what you are and what you believe and won't spend that much time trying to change it. There will be random missionaries show up at your door whilst you try to piece together a sandwich, and political causes that pop up now and again with a clearly religiously motivated position. These are more sideshows and amusements for the atheist than the introduction of this volatile mixture into a personal space and the amount of energy invested into the latter rather than the former suggests that people want to care a great deal more than I do about these problems. For reasons that do not make much sense to me.
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