pp. 7-9 The Godless Delusion‘s introduction recounts the first experience that Patrick Madrid had with an atheist when he was a young boy of 11. A next door neighbor was driving his sister and him home as a favor for their mother, and young Patrick apparently made the tragic mistake of mentioning God in front of her.
“God?” She gave a snort. “You believe in God, huh?”
“Yes…” I said timidly, confused by the sharp note of derision that so suddenly had entered her voice.
“Well, there’s no such thing as God,” she snapped. “He doesn’t exist, and people who believe in God believe in a myth.” (p. 7)
Is it possible that this interaction occurred exactly as Madrid recounts? Absolutely. But, on the other hand, this interaction strikes me as the sort of anecdote that believers often offer up to show how mean and angry atheists are in their interactions with Christians. This is exactly how many believers like to characterize atheists. The hidden camera show What Would You Do offered up this sort of mean atheist character on a recent episode. Look, I’m not saying that these sorts of interactions aren’t possible, but this sort of behavior is not something the vast majority of atheists would ever engage in, let alone condone. What sort of a person would be so cruel to an 11 year old boy? I can see a response like “Actually, I don’t believe in God.” This would at least show the child that there are different points of view without being hostile or confrontational. But to attack a child for his religious beliefs? I would hope there are very few atheists out there who would act this way.
At one time or another, most Catholics will be hassled by an atheist over their belief in God, even if only indirectly. Not everyone knows an atheist personally, but we all inhabit a society overrun with atheist proselytism. Anti-God propaganda forces its way into the public consciousness via the internet, movies, billboards, and a recent avalanche of bellicose books, such as Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great and Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. (p. 8)
I find the use of the word “hassled” to be interesting. Certainly if an atheist acted the way the atheist in Madrid’s first anecdote did, “hassle” would be an appropriate word. But are most atheists out there really going around hassling believers?
I think that all too often the fact that atheists exist and are willing to be open about their disbelief is seen by believers as hassling. But is it? When it comes to the sorts of things that are commonly discussed in the public square, if one person says “I believe X to be true,” and another person responds with “Actually, I am not convinced that X is true,” is that hassling? If one person is free to assert a claim, should not another person be free to openly reject that claim? Or at least to question the evidence for the claim?
And yes, there are many more books written by atheists about atheism being published today than there was twenty years ago. And sometimes atheists put up billboards or write blog posts. But is this any different than the believers doing the exact same thing? In the free marketplace of ideas, stating one’s position or questioning another’s position is not hassling. It’s the byproduct of living in a free society where we are able to have out own ideas and beliefs, and to talk about them in public.
The idea that atheist groups would put up billboards is something that many believers struggle to understand. Why would we spend to much time and effort on something we don’t even believe in? These billboards, believe it or not, are an important part of the atheist visibility movement. They allow those who are questioning their religious beliefs to know that it is okay to doubt, or even to not believe altogether. It shows them that there are others out there, that they are not alone. And while some can be a bit abrasive (the billboards put up by American Atheists every Christmas season come to mind), most are completely innocuous, with messages like “Don’t believe in God? You’re not alone.” Is this such a horrible message? Is it hassling believers to have to view these sorts of messages any more than the myriad of religious billboards I see along the highway every day?
Many Christians seem to prefer the atheists of the past, who were for the most part willing to silently disbelieve, so as not to offend the fragile sensibilities of the believers all around them. And now we have the audacity to be open about our atheism. And to write books. And blogs. It must be infuriating.