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Meditation 1246
We need to learn to coexist

by: Deanna Cantrell

Reprinted from the Secular Policy Institute website

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Many nontheists experience some sort of misunderstanding or misconception regarding our way of thinking, lack of belief or code of ethics at least at some point during our lives.  Just yesterday, I was contacted by a friend who told me a particularly interesting experience that occurred on Sunday involving a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses practicing their mission work.  After the first group was turned away by the homeowner, a second group approached my friend who was standing on the porch after they had failed to answer the door a second time.  After all, they were worshiping at the temple of Sunday afternoon football.  “So someone is home” she said, “Have you heard the good news?”  “I am familiar with your message, but I am an atheist” he said.  “So you’re a devil worshiper.” said the Witness.  This seems to be a common misconception, especially among highly religious groups that do not associate much with the secular world.  Much to my friend’s credit, he calmly did set the record straight.  Did it change their perception?  I think he would have a better chance of being struck by lightning than changing their minds.  What matters, is that a calm, fact based dialogue was created.

We share this planet, so we need to learn to coexist.  It’s no surprise that according to a Pew study, members of the same group tend to favor each other the most.  It is simply human bias, we can overcome this natural bias but it is our baseline.  Think of these feelings as degrees on a thermometer, certain groups have been found to be seen as more universally warm, others are given the cold shoulder.

Catholics and evangelical Christians are large groups and viewed each other warmly in this study helps to explain why the two groups are among the most favorably viewed groups in the population. (Catholics account for 20% of the sample in the survey, and self-described evangelical/born-again Christians account for 32% of the sample.) The other groups depicted also represent much smaller percentages of the population at large.  Catholics and evangelicals, the two largest Christian groups measured here, generally view each other warmly. White evangelical Protestants give Catholics an average thermometer rating of 63; Catholics rate evangelicals at 57. Evangelicals also hold very positive views of Jews, with white evangelical Protestants giving Jews an average thermometer rating of 69. Only Jews themselves rate Jews more warmly. Though this warmth does not go both ways: despite evangelicals’ warm rating toward Jews, Jews in the study gave evangelicals a much cooler rating (34 on average).  When asked about other non-Christian groups, evangelicals tend to express more negative views. White evangelicals assign Buddhists an average rating of 39, Hindus 38, Muslims 30 and non-theists 25. The low ratings between evangelicals and non-theists are reciprocal. Nontheists give evangelical Christians a cold rating of 28 on average.  Nontheists gave relatively toasty numbers to several non-Christian religious groups, including Buddhists (who receive an average rating of 69 from atheists), Jews (61) and Hindus (58). Though, non-theists polled were inclined to give much cooler ratings to Muslims and the Christian groups asked about in the survey.

This survey does not list reasons for bias, or why certain groups were viewed more negatively than others.  What it does show is that room for improvement is evident in all groups.  What we can do is strive to bridge the gap.

If the clash between theism and nontheism were merely about metaphysical ideas, personal choices, or even quests made by consenting adults, then it should indeed be a negotiable difference in societies which allow for many other kinds of diversity.  It is striking that the most intractable disputes between believers and nonbelievers concern the treatment of children: how and by whom they should be raised; what they should be taught about the origin of the world; whether, in the name of religious custom, their bodies should be mutilated; whether the education of boys and girls should be separate and in some way differentiated, as conservative Islam mandates; and at what point in their biological development one can speak of a life which cannot morally be terminated. With or without the guidance of brainy public intellectuals, these are hard-arguments which lead to hard choices.

In 2008, in the Illinois House of Representatives, Representative Monique Davis (D-Chicago—who still occupies a seat) had choice words regarding non-theists and children during a committee hearing about the “moment of silence” observed in Illinois public schools.  Rob Sherman, an activist of Buffalo Grove, a Chicago suburb, testified before the House State Government Administration Committee.

I’m trying to understand the philosophy that you want to spread in the state of Illinois. This is the Land of Lincoln. This is the Land of Lincoln where people believe in God, where people believe in protecting their children.… What you have to spew and spread is extremely dangerous, it’s dangerous—It’s dangerous to the progression of this state. And it’s dangerous for our children to even know that your philosophy exists! Now you will go to court to fight kids to have the opportunity to be quiet for a minute. But damn if you’ll go to  [court] to fight for them to keep guns out of their hands. I am fed up! Get out of that seat!  You have no right to be here! We believe in something. You believe in destroying! You believe in destroying what this state was built upon.

Being a citizen of the Land of Lincoln(the state of Illinois), I can attest that I believe no such thing.  Ms. Davis’ views sum up the problem quite well.  In the words of Abraham Lincoln, who called Illinois his home and went on to become the United State’s 16th president, “Let us at all times remember that all American citizens are brothers of a common country, and should dwell together in the bonds of fraternal feeling.” –November 20, 1860 Remarks at Springfield, Illinois.  This statement does not just apply to the U.S., for we are citizens of a global nation.  We can coexist, as free thinkers we should be instrumental in leading the way.  Impacting positive change and bridging the gap, no more giving each other the cold shoulder.

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