Time and chance happen to us all (Ecclesiastes 9:11), but it is the stories we tell ourselves (through religion, folklore, national myth) to rationalize events, the unexplainable, the cumulative effects of life, that set one group apart from the other, one warrior in the same struggle from the next.
This is a regular thought of mine, and it popped up recently while I stared at a bumper sticker with the word “coexist.” The “C” was the crescent moon and star representing Islam. The peace symbol stood in for the “O.” Attached to the “E” were the symbols for male and female. The Star of David sat where there should be an “X.” Dotting the “I” was the star within a circle, the symbol most used to identify as Pagan or Wiccan. The “S” took the form of the yin and yang symbol of Taoist philosophy, while the “T” was the Christian crucifix.
The bumper sticker includes no symbol for atheists or agnostics (I don’t even know if they exist), but I think they should be included in this group of philosophies/religions whose members share space and thus need a way to coexist. Given the rising number of Black atheists, perhaps the Black community might eventually serve as a model of living and let living.
But “live and let live,” at times, is easier said than done. Atheists may have specific reasons not to engage established religion as their foundation. Christians and Muslims (used as examples) will have their own reasons for casting off unbelievers. How does a Christian reconcile bible passages that may lead him to isolate those who don’t recognize his religion’s savior with the great relationship he has with his weekend basketball buddy? How does an atheist not see in her kind but pressing coworker’s zealous prods to get her to attend church the very imperialistic and oppressive tenets that may have caused her not to take on that practice herself?
The possibilities for friction are too obvious, and Black atheists are now working to create safe spaces for themselves. The African Americans for Humanism hosted a conference in Washington, DC, in May 2010, with about 60 participants. The association states it exists to “bring these secular humanists together, to provide a forum for communication, and facilitate coordinated action . . . In an irrational world [where] Many African Americans have been engulfed by religious irrationality.”
Sheesh—diggin’ in the trenches. We ain’t getting off to a good start on respecting each other.
Religious/philosophical tenets may often leave us at extremes, when regular, everyday people live most life in the gray areas. So how to coexist? How to see atheists as moral people, not devil incarnate, and religious people as curious, thinking counterparts?
I think it happens when we live closely to each other, when we cease to see the other side in the abstract or as caricatures, when we know the “other” personally, as daughter, son-in-law, best friend—people whom we know are good, whose opinions we respect, whom we want to remain close to and so cannot easily dismiss their beliefs. This is an act or a lens all perspectives need to take on, as well as being secure that respect for another’s life philosophy takes nothing away from the strength of your own beliefs.
Truth is relative. Sometimes: to your circumstances, to the amount in your purse, to your skin color, to your gender, to what country into which you’re born. So is righteousness. My view? Let your example be your mouthpiece, and let John worry about John.