I want to talk today about Witnessing.

I am someone whose personal spirituality does not call for or encourage the conversion of others, although I know many pagans for whom this is emphatically not true. However, it is easy for me to understand and be sympathetic towards those who are called or required by the dictates of their faith to spread the “good word” about their path and their god(s). Although it does sometimes strike me as the spiritual version of what the kink/BDSM community calls “involving bystanders in your scene,” the gods above and below know that my own path has at times required challenging, and sometimes public exhibitions of faith.

Because of this, I make an effort to be patient, listen, and if they insist, accept literature from missionaries and Witnesses. Their path is not mine, and certainly neither is/are their god(s), but we are human beings of deep faith, and a bit of courtesy, so long as they are courteous in kind, costs nothing and benefits everyone.

That said, many of you have likely encountered Witnesses who are challenging or belligerent; I know I have. For the most part these people are a minority, and in my brief search of the internet, just about every resource I found on the topic was quite firm that that kind of behavior is inappropriate and does not honor their god(s) or purpose.

The important thing I find, is to remember that a great many Witnesses truly are acting out of a sense of love and caring for their fellows. Their faith brings them personal fulfillment, and they wish to share that fulfillment with others. Of course there is the added detail that many Witnessing traditions believe that they are trying to save your very soul from being led astray into damnation. As deeply arrogant as I personally find the idea that someone else has appointed themselves guardian of my being, they really are trying to do what they think is best for me.

However, there is a new Witnessing tradition I have noticed developing, the practitioners of which I believe act out of the exact same caring for their fellow people, and perhaps the same desire to save others from being led astray. I know that these folk would be terribly insulted by the comparison to Witnessing traditions in other belief systems, but the parallels are inescapable.

I am of course, talking about a subset of the atheist community. You will note that I referred a moment ago to atheism as a “belief system.” I’ll own my biases as a person of faith, but I fail to see how it is anything but. Not that I am arguing for a moment that a huge percentage of atheist beliefs aren’t based in fact, although I would argue that some require more faiththan others. I had an atheist recently tell me that he knew for a fact that the Higgs Bosun exists. That represents faith in the infallibility of math and science, as the HB’s existence isn’t a settled fact until the scientists at the LHC have observational data, if then. That is not the reason I use the term “belief system” though. Everyone has a belief system about the world around them. Whether someone’s personal concept of reality includes the idea of the divine or not is a mere detail, albeit one that has caused a great deal of strife in the history of our species.

Just as I understand deist, mostly Christian Witnesses, I understand atheist ones as well. For many atheists, the journey out of a religion of birth is incredibly difficult, and often follows a similar trajectory to the journey out of the closet for LGBT people, up to and including the loss of family and community support. Simply affirming their beliefs can be a powerful and transgressive act. Moreover, the path out of religion can be a deeply fulfilling and healing one. Rejection of religion fills the same internal need for many atheists that whole hearted embrace of religion or faith does for others.

Like any other convert, be it into or out of faith, from Mac to Pc, or Republican to Democrat, atheists often feel it important to foist their own values and beliefs on people who may or may not be receptive. This is where the phenomena of atheist Witnesses comes in.

I have heard it argued by atheists asserting the superiority of their own beliefs and the merits of following them, that their behavior is not comparable to religious Witnesses. But in the end, the reasons given are often incredibly congruent:

  • The desire to help someone see “truth” or “save” them from a life built on lies
  • Concern for others’ emotional and sometimes physical wellbeing
  • A belief that if more people thought/felt like they do the world would become a better place
  • Being sure that many people will come around to their beliefs if presented with them properly
  • Above all, an unshakable conviction that theirs is the One True/Right Way to think or believe

When faced with those who unrepentantly disagree with their perspective, both religious Witnesses and atheist “Witnesses” exhibit similar traits such as vocal disdain or pity for those who haven’t been enlightened, vehement argument, and even sometimes anger at the dissent(er). Reluctance to socialize or associate with those who think or believe differently is also not uncommon in my experience.

I am not here to say that anyone needs to stop proselytizing their perspectives. I have already explained why I feel this way in the case of religious Witnesses. On the atheist side of the coin, I know too many people for whom embracing atheism was a difficult thing, made easier by the public nature of those who went ahead of them. A tenant of my personal faith is that faith is personal. There are those for whom atheism is the right path in life, and “Witnesses” for lack of a better term, can help those people get settled on that path.

However, and this is a big however, I do believe that atheists who choose to be aggressively public should take a long look at their methodology. It is possible to assert your perspective without being unpleasant or downright nasty to others. As a religious minority in the U.S. I sympathize with the challenges faced by atheists living in a nation where a particular religious identity and ideology plays such a defining role. America in 2011 isn’t a picnic for anyone without a Judeo-Christian belief system. Honestly, I’m not to keen on a big cross at the Ground Zero memorial either, but mocking Christians’ faith as part of your argument is not going to win supporters, or for that mater, lawsuits.

I encounter aggressive atheist “Witnessing” far more often than I encounter the traditional faith-based kind. This has far more to do with the communities I travel in than in an actual preponderance of proselytizing atheists in the world. That said, being told that I am stupid, delusional, and pathetic, or having my faith attacked on the principal of its existence, sans any knowledge of its details, has become relatively common. Interestingly, there are a set of assumptions that many atheists make based solely on my being a person whose spirituality is a pivotal focus in life.

For the record:

  • I am a passionate supporter of science, including but not limited to: space exploration, climate change research, astrophysics, medical research, and information technology
  • I believe in evolution
  • I strongly support the separation of church and state
  • I am about as pro-LGBT rights as is possible
  • I do not think that my faith is the one “correct” one

Eventually the atheist community is going to need to do some collective soul searching about their goals in society. If atheism is going to espouses the right of an individual to find their own truth, even with the knowledge that sometimes that truth will be found in faith, than uncompromising rhetoric and overly aggressive proselytizing will likely prove counter-productive.

If instead, atheism is going to follow in the path set by many world religions and seek to change or force the world around to one way of thinking, uncompromising and aggressive behavior is dogmatically consistent, but embodies many aspects of religion that its adherents sought out atheism to escape.

Personally I know what direction I would like to see the growing atheist movement go in. But I acknowledge that I am biased. It gets lonely living outside of the dominant religious paradigm in this country, and the pagan and atheist demographics have many shared challenges. I would prefer that we all, including forces of intolerance within my own demographic, choose to accept the rights of others to follow whatever path speaks to them.

That way we can all come together around shared struggles and better make our voices heard by a majority that paints us all with the same “unbeliever” brush anyway.

And on a totally selfish note: I’d love to be able to participate in some of the great discussions about science and technology happening out there, particularly on the web, without having to put up with the inevitable devolution into faith-bashing.

3 thoughts on “Witnesses

  1. I definitely have had similar experiences, though more so with Christian community members, of varying stripes. I think it really comes down to respect. I may not agree with the Christian’s position any more than I may the atheist’s, but if both approach me in the spirit of respect, I can actually get to a point to where it is a lot easier to get where they’re coming from.

    The biggest trial I think atheists are going to face, beyond the current one you’ve mentioned here, is where they stand with us in regards to our freedoms. I have heard a lot of prominent atheists, as well as ones I have met in-person, talk a good deal about how religion offers us nothing but problems and lies, and we would be far better to just do away with it all. These people worry me about as much as Christians do, because if either were to take power to do with as they pleased, both have more than suggested I, with my Pagan spirituality, would either be too evil or corrupting to let live or be free.

    I too would like to be able to talk science without the devolution of the conversation coming to how religion and spirituality are dangerous, outmoded or useless. It’s so incredibly important to my field, which, when I graduate with my B.S. in Psychology I will be going into getting my M.A. in Counseling.

  2. I’ve noticed that in online archaeology-focused forae where religion is mentioned in passing (i.e. an article about some historical site connected with the Bible), at least one atheist will inevitably pop up to denounce religion and insult believers. Then some offended believer will chime in bitching about atheists in turn, and it all goes downhill from there.

    For once, I’d like to go online to discuss an article about an archaeological find related to the Bible, the Middle East, a pagan god, or a creation myth without some smug asshat butting in to advance their personal agenda in the most obnoxious way possible. That includes atheists as well as fundamentalist Christians or other “true believers”. Simply MENTIONING a religious text or a deity or practice is in no way advocating it, for crying out loud. That’s not what archaeology is for.

    I guess people really do become the things they hate, regardless of where they’re coming from 😛

  3. Faith is comfort. Atheists and believers alike find comfort somewhere, whether it be faith in gods/goddesses/energy/religion or faith in science/determinism/utilitarianism/pure philosophy etc.

    When I encounter someone with whom i disagree, I will normally try to sympathize as far as I can go, and when the situation calls for it, I will say something to the effect of “I apologize, but I feel differently than you do .” This sentence hasn’t failed me yet, as of the moment I’m writing this, to politely navigate the murky waters at the crossroads of emotion and belief. I have often been told, “Okay, but you’re not a bad person though, so you’ll be all right.” and usually the conversation moves in other directions.

    I try to direct the conversation towards the WAY religion/atheism/other fills a need in life, for each person. It helps.

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