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People are Better than their Religious Beliefs

An Atheist’s Argument for Why Most of Us Should be Able to Get Along


A Christian, a Muslim, and an atheist walk into a bar, and they all get along because none of them are jerks who need to argue about religion.


I know, it’s a bad joke. Fine, it’s a terrible joke. A stale premise, the dull thud of a punchline, and I can only use the classic “X, Y, and Z walk into a bar” bit because I’ve known Muslims who drink alcohol—”the Quran only prohibits wine,” as a scotch-drinking Muslim supervisor once explained with a wink. It’s mostly unfunny because it’s not remotely unusual. Decent people can find reasons to get along and would prefer to do that over finding reasons to hit someone else over the head with the deadliest object within reach. At least, that’s my understanding of how decent people operate. I’m probably not giving decent people enough credit, or at least setting the bar a bit too low.


Full disclosure: I’m “one of those” atheists—one who scorns many religious beliefs and admits it far too readily. I try to restrict the vocal scorn to evangelicals and fundamentalists. In particular, I try to limit it to those who feel that somehow, in the age of the internet, there are still people who don’t even know about a deity worshipped in some form by over half of this planet’s population. It’s called Jehovah or Allah, last I checked. Some people call it a “he”; some people altogether refuse to name it. But between Christians, Jews, and Muslims, it’s worshipped by about four billion people. Apparently, it’s all-powerful and loves us in a unique way that involves eternal torment for non-reciprocation. That seems to be the main consistency in the narrative. I don’t believe in its existence, in case that wasn’t clear.


On the subject of clearing the air, atheism does not entail worshipping something in place of a deity. I don’t worship Satan. I do enjoy blasphemy, and demonology amuses me, but if I don’t believe in an entity, you can be pretty sure I don’t believe in that entity’s enemy. I don’t worship Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, or Charles Darwin. Dawkins is kind of a jerk, Hitchens was kind of a jerk, and if the evolutionary theory had stopped with On the Origin of Species, Darwin would be as relevant as Galen. I don’t hate “God.” You can’t hate something if you don’t believe it exists, and if I did, that would make me a maltheist, not an atheist. Finally, I don’t eat babies. I don’t even like veal or lamb. If I was going to eat people, I’d… I think we’re getting off topic here.


Anyway, I bring up the subject of religion partly because Trinity Western University plans to open a law school in 2018, and the British Columbia Court of Appeal recently determined that its graduates should not be denied accreditation by the Law Society of British Columbia. However, the Ontario Court of Appeal has upheld the Law Society of Upper Canada’s right to deny accreditation to graduates of its proposed law school, and thus, TWU is going to appeal that decision to the Supreme Court. At issue is the school’s code of conduct, which prohibits any sexual relations between students outside of heterosexual marriage. Without getting into too much detail, the primary concern is that TWU would train law students to disregard the constitutional rights of LGBTQ individuals, and would refuse admission to LGBTQ applicants (or condemn them to celibacy, a fate possibly worse than death). This decision doesn’t greatly concern me. It doesn’t have me foaming at the mouth, at least. I know there were similar concerns raised about Trinity Western’s Bachelor of Education program, and the Supreme Court decided in the school’s favour. It’s a legitimate school, interference in its students’ personal lives aside. It is not like one of those American evangelical colleges that will give you a graduate degree for not eating your textbook. I may disagree vehemently with their stance on homosexuality, but provided no one’s being forced to attend Trinity Western, I will accept their right to operate in Canada… for now.


I’m also bringing up religion because anti-Muslim sentiment has been a major feature in the upcoming US election. Donald Trump has made some pretty reprehensible comments about Muslims, his “poisoned Skittles” analogy immediately coming to mind. As much as I hate to use the word “Islamophobia” because the word itself is used more to stifle legitimate criticism of Islam than it is to describe the irrational fear of Islam and its followers, Donald Trump is pandering to Islamophobes. This isn’t necessarily surprising, since a lot of the problems with Islamic theology stem from its Abrahamic origins. Trump supporters–being predominantly conservative Christians–can’t attack the Islamic faith itself without having to take a hard look in the mirror. The Christian right has a lot in common with the Islamic extreme. Both worship a petty, tyrannical deity who thinks people who don’t worship him should suffer horribly forever, for example. Compared to that, being a xenophobe is almost a positive trait!


While I have an obvious distaste for religion and open contempt for fundamentalism, I hold no ill will towards religious people in general. Religious people are people first and religious second. If you’re a good person, you’re going to find the good in your religion. If you’re a bad person, you’ll find a way to use your religion to justify your misdeeds. As I’ve said before, people are predominantly better than their religions. I may look at a religion and think “I don’t believe it and I don’t see a good message in it,” but it would be wrong to project the limits of my imagination on others. For every Fred Phelps, there’s the eighty-year-old minister who makes weekly personal checks on individual members of his congregation out of a sense of community at least partially inspired by his faith (aching knees be damned). I don’t care if he would have done it with or without religion: it’s unjust to associate good Christians or Muslims with someone who murders an abortion doctor, or the suicide bomber who thinks Allah will reward him with seventy-two virgins (thankfully, that’s as dubiously Islamic as it is creepy, and it’s incredibly creepy). Sometimes, the viciously bludgeoned remnant of my naivete speaks for long enough to remind me that people are basically good, and that might be the one instance where I don’t tell it to get back in its crate. Please don’t deny me that.


And the same goes for atheists. I’m only a moderately decent person. I generously tip my waiter, gently correct the cashier who gives me too much change, hold doors for the elderly, and try to be as nice to people as possible. I also drink, have a short temper, laughed at Ramsay Bolton scenes in Game of Thrones, and scored fairly high on the Hare Psychopathy Checklist (the last one does prove that law school was a good move for me, at least). My grandfather was an atheist and might have been the greatest man I ever met. He worked into his eighties to ensure his family’s financial security after he died, largely because he felt it was the right thing to do. Conversely, in his final years, he funded something of a hangout for atheists, and one of the younger attendees tried to exploit his generosity because he thought a little old man wouldn’t have the wherewithal or energy to prove him wrong. Granddad did prove him wrong by putting a chainsaw through a picnic bench erected without his permission on the property (in violation of city bylaws), but that’s more a lesson on not screwing with your elderly benefactor. The main point is that this punk was and as far as I know still is an atheist, and anyone who willingly deals with him will be tarred by association. He’s a Men’s Rights Activist—a misogynist with delusions of persecution—if you need further context. You can be good or bad with or without religion, and there’s a lot of middle ground.


So, as humanity stumbles awkwardly into an ever-uncertain future, remember this: if you must judge a person, judge them based on their actions, not their beliefs. You’ll never fully understand what someone else thinks, and if someone says worshipping Satan inspired them to volunteer at a soup kitchen, try to give them the benefit of the doubt. To end on an ironic note that still doesn’t do a thing to undercut my point, I leave you with the words my mother has drilled into my head every time my short temper got in the way of my better judgment and/or human decency:


“There but before the grace of God go I.”