I work in an office that is characterised by many different cultural and religious beliefs: there are Muslims, Hindus, and Christians from various denominations. As part of this multi-religious environment, I sometimes find myself wishing my Hindu colleagues a happy Diwali when they are in celebration, or congratulating a Christian colleague on the christening of his or her child. My Muslim friends and colleagues are celebrating Eid ul-Fitr today. As an atheist, should I wish them well? Can I respectfully acknowledge the beliefs of those I know, even though I don’t hold those beliefs myself?
Some atheists might feel that by affirming religious beliefs, I’m flirting with the enemy. Religion is nonsense, they might say, so if I was true to my atheistic beliefs, I should be trying my utmost show my colleagues and friends why they are wrong, instead of affirming what they believe. Should I not be the one to hold the torch of reason high for those in my circle of influence?
Well, I don’t think so. And this is why: this kind of black and white thinking that some atheists advocate is the same kind of thinking that turned me off Christianity in the first place: the conviction that others must conform to what I believe; the ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ mentality; and the idea that I have to shoulder the burden of bringing others to the Truth, whatever that truth might be. I swept aside this kind of thinking when I left Christianity; I still reject it as an atheist.
One of my core values is respect for democracy and human rights, and one of these rights is the freedom of conscience and religious expression. The journey of de-conversion that I have shared on my blog is deeply personal to me. My beliefs were a result of me thinking for myself; they were hard fought for, and thus they are dear to me. Many theists, although not all, arrived at their beliefs in much the same way, so should I not also respect their individual journeys as well?
But respect does have its limits. Speaking against American foreign policy, Arundhati Roy once said that she isn't anti-American, but anti-power. As an atheist, I can say the same thing regarding religion: it is not religion in general that I have a problem with, but with religion’s misuse of power through violence, politics, and the dehumanisation of the individual (by using guilt and the fear of hell). I am not anti-religion, but anti-fundamentalism and anti-intolerance. It is against these that I will make a stand.
So when I positively affirm the religious beliefs of others, I am affirming the individual: a human being who holds cherished values, a human being who has a story to tell. I respect another’s journey because I respect my own.
So, to any Muslim who might be reading this: Eid mubarak!