Enlightened Self-Interest, or Why This Is Important

Another break in the history to make a couple of points.

Right now the fabric of the country is being stretched beyond tensilary capacity. We all know this. There’s a level of hysteria in the discourse that is more extreme than anything most of us can remember. The racism, homophobia, economic oppression and religious hyperbole we’re hearing scares most liberals right off the pavement. Not just liberals. Conservatives, too, folks who may disagree with the administration’s decisions but don’t feel fomented into Hitler-mustacioed delirium. Folks who can at least spellcheck their protest signs before they get on the news. Folks who are still able to have a conversation. We’re all a little terrified.

The either/or-ness of the conversation is debilitating. From what we see in the media, it’s either Christian Values or naked homosexuals dancing in the street. (For the record I personally see no problem with naked homosexuals dancing in the street. We do it all the time here in San Francisco.) It’s either Pro-life or festering abortion clinics strewn with damned fetuses. Health Care Reform is tantamount to slapping a hammer and sickle sticker on your forehead and slipping “Mein Kampf” into your breast pocket on your way to your friendly neighborhood death panel. But how much of that is influenced by the media, by the pundits who shape the conversation itself? I know people who disagree with Health Care Reform who are not slavering spelling-disabled maniacs. The way that the media is portraying them drives them crazy, so much so that when proponents of reform want to talk to them about it their defensive mechanisms engage and they might end up shouting. Take away someone’s humanity and they start acting like an arsehole.

 Most of these issues get painted in a religious context. The people who tend to shout the loudest about America as Christian Nation are the people who tend to vote against marriage equality, racial equality, womens’ right to choose, comprehensive sex ed, economic justice-oriented market regulations, separation of church and state. So as atheists we tend to position ourselves not only against those seeking to oppress human rights but against religion en toto. And in doing so we foreclose on the possibility of collaboration with communities of faith who are working against oppression rather than contributing to it.

I just spent some time searching for data on the comorbidity of atheism and liberalism vs. conservatism and couldn’t find a thing. If anyone has any numbers on this please send them to this atheist. My guess, though, is that atheists are more likely to be socially liberal than conservative, primarily because they are not bound by dogmatic regulations that dictate how they think about homosexuality, race, gender, economics, education, reproductive rights, etc. Discourse on these issues therefore tends to get contextualized as a hot-mess pissing contest of belief/nonbelief instead of evidence-based explorations of what might be best for humanity. Tempers flare. Mud is slung. Everybody leaves in a huff thinking “Those atheists/religious people are just fanatical morons.” And we all go back to our corners seething, dedicated anew to finding validation for our own beliefs to vanquish the other guy’s. How exhausting.

But here’s the thing, the truth that we atheists don’t see when we’re running for the hills because the fundies are foaming at the mouth and we don’t know what to do with them. There’s something different happening. I think it’s been happening for a long time but I haven’t been exposed to it, and now I see it all over the place because my eye is trained to it. Or maybe it is something new that’s arising in faith communities, and if so we as atheists must come out in support of it. What’s happening is this: people are taking their faith back from the malignant institutions that have subordinated it. They are thinking harder about the off-handed commandments of their churches and evaluating them based on what they feel is humane and righteous. They are wresting free the right to interpret what spirituality means to them and thus expanding their ability to tolerate difference.

They are thinking critically instead of swallowing dogma.

I have had conversations in the last year with devoutly religious people who have begun to challenge the idea that homosexuality is a sin, because they see beloved family members living happy, moral, constructive out lives. I’ve read commentary by conservative Christians rejecting creationism in the face of the overwhelming factual evidence of evolution. I’ve seen countless instances of people shaking their heads and saying “No, you know what, that does NOT add up to my idea of God.” And they’re making the choice to stand on the side of humanity rather than church doctrine.

We must stand beside them.

We must make this alliance. There is no future in a secular world that shuns believers who do the same work, strive for the same goals, simply because they believe. There are people out there – I have seen them, I have worked alongside them – whose faith compels them to march, fight, speak out for liberation rather than oppression. There are people out there who read the Gospel as an incitement to love radically, include completely, celebrate universally. We must give up trying to convince them not to believe. It’s none of our goddamn business, anyway. We must set aside the discomfort and frustration we feel about their faith and collaborate with them in healing the injuries this war of philosophies has incurred.

Enlightened self-interest. We do what is right not only because it is right but because it preserves humanity, of which we are a part. This is what many atheists hold up as the foundation of their morality, a morality that we well know is perfectly attainable without the infrastructure of religion. We fight to make that known. Let’s live up to it.

3 responses to this post.

  1. […] womens’ right to choose, comprehensive sex ed, economic justice -oriented market …Click Here Cancel […]


  2. Last year when Israel invaded Gaza, I had a fruitful discussion with my cousin’s wife. At the time they were living in Israel and like my cousin, who grew up in Berkeley and went to Reform temple, she had gone from almost secular Jews (like me) to orthodox. In the context of that discussion I went off the deep end and began to spout all kinds of nonsense about Christians, Jews and Muslims being on a path to a self imposed Apocalypse and that the belief in a god was mass delusion. I was so wrong. Like many religious people I had in the moment ignored the basic lessons that are taught in all the great world religions. Lessons of tolerance and good will. These are lessons I learned in my own religious training. But they are also lessons that simply were valued by my parents and my community; very secular influences. A secular community and family that had received the lessons a generation or two before through Christian and Jewish values. I don’t see us as a perversion of these lessons, I see us a valid alternative. My cousin and his wife are wonderful people, intelligent, and great parents. We agree on much and debate on some, but it is a rational if not productive debate, that does not change our core values. It is a very common practice for Jews to disagree with each other. I think it has much to do with the traditions in Talmudic studies. Where we have studied, debated and reinterpret the Torah. I am hopeful that what is written here is true and religious and non-religious are both opening their minds and harts, as well as, questioning their leaders and their interpretations of doctrine.

    By the way for evidence of another Jewish perspective on Israel I recommend checking out J Street.


    • i’ll check it out indeed. and i hear you about going off the deep-end. i’ve got real estate off the deep end on this one. i have to take responsibility for my former position of anti-theist, anti-religion, anti-faith, anti-faithful. hi, my name is anatheistinchurch and i was a sam harris atheist. (hi, anatheistinchurch….) it is only in seeing faith put into positive, humanity-affirming action as i have since becoming a part of glide that my position has shifted. which, i feel strongly, puts me at a certain obligation to keep speaking about this. not too many atheists across the country get to have that experience these days. and you’re right, the one thing that nearly all religions have in common is some version of “the golden rule” (check out karen armstrong’s “charter for compassion” on ted.com for some truly mind-blowing ideas about this), and enlightened self-interest is more or less the same thing. it’s our psychological defenses in the face of uncertainty – fear, paranoia, rejection, projection, reaction formations, etc – that smother that spark of good at the heart of religious traditions. AND non-religious traditions. i know many an atheist who are as rigid and defended as any bible-thumper. yet another great biblical notion that we could all benefit from contemplating: “let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”


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