Objecting in Silence Never Changed Anything

Guest Author: Don Severs

If I were black in 1850, I’d be uppity.  If I were gay in 1980, it would show.  But it wouldn’t have to be that way.  I could be a quiet, docile black man, like the Sambo and coon stereotypes we never hear about anymore.  I could be a closeted gay man, an ‘older gentleman’, hoping silence would help my career or avoid scandal.

It’s Christmas, 1890.  You bring your working-class girlfriend home.  Your upper-crust mother cries and everyone is mad at you for upsetting her.

It’s Christmas, 1940.  You bring your black girlfriend home.  Stephen Foster is playing on the radio.   You note the obvious racial epithets, caricatures and stereotypes in the lyrics.  Dad is aghast that you can’t let everyone enjoy a simple song.  Your mother cries and everyone is mad at you for upsetting her.

It’s Christmas, 1970.  You bring your gay boyfriend home.  Dad stiffens, appalled that you would be so disrespectful.  Mom cries and everyone is mad at you for upsetting her.

It’s Christmas, 2010.  You mention that you’re an atheist.  When the Hallelujah Chorus plays, you note that Christianity, being monarchical and autocratic, makes a strange partner for American ideals.  Your sister is bewildered that you can’t just enjoy it for its musical stature.  Mom cries and everyone is mad at you for upsetting her.

What should we do in situations like these?  Everyone likes to get along, so saying nothing is a good option.  Why rock the boat?  What is to be gained by speaking when you know others will be offended or uncomfortable?

In normal situations, in normal times, I would go this route myself.  But there are times when the old culture collides with the new one; where the advancing wave of change buckles the pavement.  I largely missed the great civil rights shift, where blacks very slowly became integrated into our society at all levels.  Every time a black was hired for a good job or an interracial wedding was held there were those who were offended.  Should blacks have stayed in their place to avoid offense?

What do we owe people who get offended?  No one wants to be deliberately offensive.  But what, exactly, is offensive about a black girlfriend, a gay boyfriend or an atheist insight into religion?  Offense in these cases just is the collision of cultures.  It is the feeling people have when you aren’t playing by their rules.  And you do it when you’re with them.

What effect does ‘being offended’ have?  It’s a topic-changer and conversation-stopper.  And it’s a threat:  “Say certain things and my mood will quickly change for the worse.  I won’t be content until you stop and promise not to offend me again.”  Now, we all have the right to draw boundaries.  If I don’t want to be in the presence of certain people, for any reason, I don’t have to.  But the easily offended don’t do this.  They want to go anywhere and speak with anyone and have their sensibilities respected.  This is cultural control, plain and simple.  When we welcome people into our lives, they are not programmable like the devices we carry around.  We live in a pluralistic society.  We don’t have to celebrate diversity, but it is a fact.  If we don’t like it, we can withdraw, but we can’t redraw things to our liking.  That is segregation.

Because of the place religion has in our culture, it is hard to see it from other angles.  We have been trained to see religion as a force for good.  It’s parallel to our natural patriotism.  America might make mistakes, but we never doubt our good intentions.  When people on the Left dare to question our good will, we are called unpatriotic.  I suppose, in a way, we are, if patriotism means blind love.  But that’s not what it means to me.  Since I love my country, I owe it my honest appraisal.  If we are wrong, but think we are right, then we are in love with an illusion.  We see this when we have a friend in an abusive relationship.  She’s likely to resent our honest input about her husband’s philandering.

So it is with religion.  If we love our faith, then we owe it our honest appraisal.  If it is solid, there is nothing to fear in inspecting the foundations.  The problem arises when we inspect the foundations of other people’s houses.  Are we right to do this?

It depends.  If they live alone, perhaps not.  But almost every city in the world inspects houses.  It’s a safety issue.  If your religion shuns medical care in favor of prayer, the tribe needs to get involved to protect your children.

Most cases aren’t of this type.  Most believers are good parents and citizens and I don’t accost them.  I write essays and post articles, but I’m not going to directly subject their faith to my unwelcome analysis.  But when we are in relationship with them and they bring religious ideas into the conversation, I think it is wrong to be silent.  It is wrong because it is dishonest and it maintains the impression that religious beliefs have no social consequences.

Most people I know rarely mention religion.  But when they do, they expect no reply, or benign assent.  This expectation is justified by the countless incursions religion has made into our culture without comment.  “In God We Trust” in on the money.  It’s on the money, right there with “Liberty” and “E Pluribus Unum”.  What greater stamp of reasonableness and universality can something have?  But slavery and segregation were once legal, too.  We are simply living in a time where religion still has an unquestioned public image, that of a wholesome force for good.  People spoke out against slavery for centuries.  The objections grew louder in the decades before the Civil War.  Desegregation took another hundred years.  We can expect a similar, slow process of realignment for the public face of religion.  Religion’s image will become more realistic:  it will be seen as a private comfort for certain people, but a source of division and supremacy in the public square.  This only sounds offensive today because we are early in the process.

What should we do when we hear racist music?  Racist speech?  American, Iranian or Nazi nationalist speech?  Supremacist religious lyrics?  We can choose not to speak up to avoid offense, but there are cases where being silent is itself offensive.  Social pressure works to maintain the status quo.  The civil rights movement showed us that change won’t occur without confrontation.  The great achievement of Parks, King and others was that they confronted our culture nonviolently, even though they received violence in return.  They refused to be silent.  They made people uncomfortable, but these were people who shouldn’t have been comfortable in the first place.

Let’s clarify one thing:  I don’t want reverse discrimination.  I don’t want religious people to cower silently, either.  We simply want to make real the promise of ‘a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.’  Silent is not equal. Taking offense is social pressure that has evolved to keep others silent.  We don’t want to offend, but we can’t keep silent.  No one should.

If you keep your religious beliefs private, I won’t comment on them.  If you bring them up, put them on the money or insert them in the lyrics of songs, I will.  When ideas have social consequences, silence is complicity.



  • Adam

    I'm a Marketing Director in the "real world" so this is what I am good at… you're welcome. And don't worry about the downs. A lot is from Christian trolling /r/atheism or wimpy atheist. The top ones always have a lot of down votes from people who disagree. Controversy does well on Reddit.

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  • Adam

    Very well written, Don. Keep up the good work!

  • Derek

    Great post!

  • http://facebook.com/donsevers Donald Severs

    Thanks, Adam. I suspect your title helped. My first article here has 17 Reddit hits. This one’s at 284 ups, plus 132 downs. THANKS for the marketing!


  • John

    Having moved from a european country to a US state I notice how very different things are because of two things here in the US. Nationalism and Religion. Both being very blind. Opinions run strong instead of discussion, make up things take precedence over fact, but most disturbing is the lack of care for others.

    How can a nation so obsessed with Jesus Christ, a made up dude that has a lot of actual good values, act so completely 180 degrees from him? Ensuring that everyone has adequate healthcare makes christians froth at their mouth in anger, yet feeding the homeless a few times a year makes them proud.

    So I say, you rational atheists, don’t be silent. Be it about your actual atheism, or the horrors that blind faith brings to society. I don’t believe in any god, but I do believe in treating everyone fairly and that everyone deserves a safe and happy life.

  • Dean

    Grady, why do you think atheists have meetings? Usually, it is to hang out with people they can be themselves around. Some atheists, perhaps especially if they are attending meetings, are angry at the religion they were raised in. They may feel deceived, that their time was wasted, if they were ill-treated by religious parents they may blame religious justifications like 'spare the rod and spoil the child' for their abuse. That doesn't mean they should not have been polite to you, but a Christian attending an atheist social gathering may find themselves in a position more analogous to a Smirnoff rep showing up at an AA meeting than an atheist attending a church service. In other words, it is probably not accurate to generalize from your experience. The relationship between atheists and the religious is likely to get better as the religious get to know us better, angry atheists are usually angry for a reason, and often that reason may be experience with the false stereotypes about our morality (and about our angriness…can you imagine how frustrating it is to be characterized as angry before you've had a chance to say a word?).

  • http://facebook.com/donsevers Donald Severs

    >So, don’t try to kid me, I have been there. Your side has no superiority when “silence” is not kept.

    I'm sad about your experience, but you aren't justified in such a sweeping conclusion. You were poorly treated by people, not by 'atheism'. There are jackasses everywhere. The Inquisition was horrific, but doesn't justify impugning all Christians, or even all Catholics.

  • http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com Ani Sharmin

    Most people I know rarely mention religion. But when they do, they expect no reply, or benign assent.

    I've found that to be the case, too. One side gets to talk and expects everyone else to be silent. I've noticed as well that while people who've had a good experience with religion are encouraged to share their experience, anyone who had a bad experience with religion is encouraged to not say anything (or their experience is characterized not the "true" faith.)

    @Grady: I'm sorry you were treated badly. I have to agree with Dean and Donald. A lot of atheists are angry because of mistreatment they suffered at the hands of religion (although they should not have taken that out on you). By contrast, a lot of the fundamentalist Christians in the U.S. are angry when they're not being given special treatment.

    While you were silenced at one meeting, religious minorities and atheists are silenced on a regular basis in larger society. I think that was the point of this post. There are good and bad people in every group, and everyone is mistreated sometimes. When looking at our society or country as a whole, though, whichever group is in the majority has the power to make their opinions heard all the time while others are silenced on a regular basis.

  • Lynn

    Thank you Don. Your post has encouraged me to continue to speak out against proselytizing from my "born-again-nutjob" niece. She knows that I am an atheist and a few years ago I told her not to send me any of her "christian fairy tales". Over the past few years I have never sent her anything about the topic of religion or freethought. This year, she foolishly disregarded my wishes. Early in December, she sent me a x-mas letter which also contained the nativity story. She knew that I would respond to her trying to push her religion on me. And it was a mild response on my part. In return, in her birthday card, I sent her a small pamphlet from the FFRF called "Dear Christian". It basically states why I don't believe in her religion. However, her husband, the one who brainwashed her, does not want her to have any contact with me or to be influenced by rational thought. When I sent them a generic holiday greeting card, it was returned, unopened with big bold letters on the outside saying "STOP SENDING US CARDS! OR MAIL!" I'm fairly sure it was the handwriting of her arrogant little pr**k of a husband. So, I came to the conclusion that it does no good to try to reason with such people. To get thru to them, you sometimes have to fight RUDENESS with RUDENESS! I have a little surprise for them, that is in the works as we speak. It's a secret. He will learn that he CAN NOT tell me what to do! I will NOT be silenced!!

  • http://lilianmarvolo.deviantart.com rodiel

    I tell you what I'd do in these situations. The same I did when mom objected to my bisexuality and my cutting. Yell at her, slam the door in her face and enroll in a university 151 miles from her, get an income source of my own, and show that I'm capable of earning her love again by sending money.

    That was 3 years ago. Now we're reconciled and she completely accepted my "weird things".

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  • Coleen AJ Raisanen

    Interesting – I feel that we are all given a brain and that we are in charge of using it. I am not a scholar and not a very good debater. I do appreciate realism and ones confidence in oneself. (Arrogance is not tolerated) Religion, Christians, Racism, Atheism, all very suppressive we all are responsible to make choices. We should all listen to what interests us and discuss / debate when we feel the need. No one has the right to suppress and pressure someone else’s belief. If I call myself a Christian I am not putting myself above anyone I am not considering myself better than or less than. If someone is uncomfortable around me, that would be sad. If someone wants to debate whether or not I should believe in God – I will listen and discuss. I expect the same respect in return – although I will not start this debate – I feel it is personal choice. I will give others the right to believe how they feel necessary as long as no one is being hurt, imprisoned or shamed. If you don’t want to believe in God – I will still pray for you. Because I believe. Not because I expect you to believe. This is called unconditional love. I do believe that discussing, talking and sharing are what is most important in the human race never being silent.

  • http://facebook.com/donsevers Don Severs

    >If I call myself a Christian I am not putting myself above anyone

    I hear this frequently from Christians, Hindus and Muslims, but it never makes sense to me. Each religion claims primacy. If someone is a member of another religion, you must think they are wrong. Now, I hang out with many liberal, progressive people who think it doesn't matter what you believe. That can't be right, since many beliefs are contradictory. They can't all be right. I think they say that because they are afraid of conflict, but it's not an honest position. Most, or all, of the world's religious claims must be wrong.

    If we care about truth claims at all, we have to think that our own system of belief is better than the others. That is my position: Scientific Naturalism is better because it's more likely to be true. It makes the fewest assumptions and makes the best predictions.

    In this way, I relate better to fundamentalists than liberals. They care about truth and they think they possess it. So do I, but my reasons are better. If you don't think so, quit using the internet. Science gave you that.

    But I don't believe you when you say you are a Christian but you don't think you are any better than anyone else. If not, then why are you a Christian?

    If you think Christianity is correct, you should just say so. And you should want everyone to know about it. If, on the other hand, you think Christianity is simply one belief system in a field of equals, then you are ignoring their differences. They can't all be correct.

    The only way I have found out of this mess is Scientific Naturalism. When we are seeking a way to choose our worldview, religions diverge, science converges.