So You Think You're Being Persecuted?

I keep hearing a lot of talk these days about religious freedom. Apparently, many American Christians, even though they are in the majority, believe that they're being persecuted. I can't remember a time when atheists made these same claims. Atheists, in America at least, depend upon the separation of church and state to offer them protection. Yet, living as a minority in the Bible belt, I often feel that I'm expected to conform or shut up. And, while I wouldn't go so far as to say that I'm being persecuted, I think that if most Christians were in my shoes, they'd feel deeply offended. 

I'm positive that I have a number of friends of faith. As long as they don't talk to me about it, we're fine. That means, they mustn't ask me to pray with them nor make references about a god as though I'm expected to concur.  Neither should they ever try to convince  me about their particular version of god. Follow these three simple rules and we're gonna get along just fine.

However, for most believers, it's ALMOST impossible for them to follow those three little rules. 

They just can't seem to help themselves, especially if they find out that I'm an atheist. I use to endure their tactless religious freedom, but about a year ago, I gave that up. Now, I make sure they know that although I think their version of god is stupid, I think all versions of god are equally stupid. Then I tell them this, "Look, you and I aren't really that different. I just believe in one less god than you. That's all. You're closer than you think to being an atheist. I'm sure you don't lose any sleep over the thousands of other religions that you don't practice. Why? Because you don't think they're right. Otherwise, you'd probably pray for god to forgive you for turning your back on the truth and join a different church." 

Uh, um, uh yeah, they smile or maybe it's a grimace, but I've noticed two things since I've started setting my bullshit boundaries. 

Most people would rather I believed in any religion that none at all. The fact that I don't, makes them squirm. They may not even realize how revealing that little fact can be, but it tells me all I need to know about how deeply entrenched people are in the norms of their own cultures. 

Cultural expectations are far better at controlling human behaviors than laws will ever be.   

You can have five friends of different religious faiths in the room, all dead sure that they're practicing the truth, but let one atheist step foot amongst them and suddenly they form a united front. It's a cultural barrier that says, "Look if you want to be part of the tribe, you best change your story." That can be powerful. Most people want to belong at almost any cost. After all, who will they date, marry, work for and spend free time with if they aren't a card carrying member of a club. 

Most atheists walk among believers knowing that if we spoke up we'd be outnumbered in a crowd. 

Often, even if there's another atheist or agnostic in the group, they might not have your back either. You see, in any culture, those who defy an established norm are deemed odd, strange and troublemakers. I have many acquaintances who have never come out to their parents or relatives about being an atheist. They tread lightly around anyone that they know is religious. I contend that this unwillingness to speak helps keep the myths alive. With the god myth in particular, the emperor is stark naked, but the majority insist that they can see his celestial robes. And, those of us who call their bullshit aren't thought of as bearers of a strong dose of much needed reality but as heretics. 

That's where boundary setting is crucial.

If I insist upon setting my boundaries, that is, speak up every time they break one of my little rules above, then most will stop imposing their enormous religious freedom on me. Things tend to improve. The dynamics with most interpersonal relationships become better balanced by setting boundaries if you want mutual respect. Suddenly, they get the picture. I'm a person, too. A novel thought. An atheist is a person, too. Most importantly, however, my silence has not fed into a harmful myth that is perpetuated by cultural conditioning.  

I don't know if my readers can remember when they finally came out to the world as an atheist. 

The stories are probably as varied as the people telling them. I'll freely admit this, however. Even though I no longer walk on eggshells around believers, I'm always thrilled when someone, anyone stands with me. It's still a relatively rare occurrence, too. Most of my life, it's been me with my back against the wall while Christians exert their religious freedom all over my personal space. Fortunately, I don't seem to be as sensitive as many Christians. I haven't started hysterically screaming about persecution, but then so far, there's still a separation of church and state in America. 

So far ...