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Room for all to be offended

The Roanoke Times printed a letter from me today:

Ann Boyd made an important point in her Dec. 31 letter (“Atheists’ message did offend”): Atheist billboards, appearing all over the country, offend many people by signaling that many others don’t believe in God.

How is this offensive? We are implicitly denying — or at least doubting — Boyd’s and many others’ testimony that God changed their lives for the better. That’s pretty personal.

Indeed, many Christians say that without God in our lives, we would have no sound morals. Without God, our inner depravity would conquer us.

However, this implicitly denies that I, an atheist, have sound morals or do good works — or that I believe anything at all.

I find that offensive.

Boyd is entitled to her offense, but I hope she’ll agree that I’m entitled to mine. After all, if atheists took as much space as Christians to complain about such offenses from billboards, marquees, politicians, pastors and letters to the editor, the papers would print nothing else.

The public dialogue concerning morality — and religion — needs to continue, and people of all beliefs will be offended along the way.

We can cope. I hope. Our nation was founded on pluralism, a value we can share.

Besides wishing i’d omitted that last paragraph, i’m OK with this one; but it continues to be awkward to reply so publicly to individual peers, rather than to institutions, leaders, and people in positions of power. While everyone bears responsibility for their attitudes, not everyone is equally capable of honing and adjusting those attitudes; the opportunity and even the requisite to exchange and critique ideas is one of the great underacknowledged benefits of a public education (and arguably a reason that public education will always be a superior path to education, if not to wealth). Whether i’m talking “up” or “down” or “across” to Ms. Boyd depends on much more than that she is (almost certainly) Christian while i am atheist, or even that she is religious while i am irreligious. Moreover, her incredulous attitude is more similar to those of some of my mom’s family—whom i love and enjoy, and for whom i want a better standard of living—than of any other group i know. I am, rather, in every position to be generous.

One basic principle of the online social justice community (please don’t ask me to define that yet) is to not lecture down a power gradient, “lecture” here having as much to do with tone as with content. Besides the novelty of seeing concepts from multivariable calculus used to model socioconscious morality, this principle pithifies a daimonion exhortation i’ve “always” felt, and it appears to derive easily as a heuristic from a basic consequentialist framework. Superficially it may seem that Ms. Boyd and i engage both up and down power gradients along different axes, but while one of those axes (gender) is fairly straightforward, the other (religion) is highly nuanced. Not only does greater education correlate with irreligion, and do the highly educated tend to acculturate to a network of similar peers (to the extent that privileges and resources are largely balanced except at the level of national representation (government, popular culture, etc.)), and do highly-educated and financially comfortable atheists owe atheists “in the trenches” more acknowledgement than they currently receive (and do several other differences warrant consideration), but irreligion itself, thought of as one among a diversity touchstones of a worldly education, may not be well modeled as the lower extreme of an axis of power in the first place.

All in all, i don’t think i’m any position to be aggressive.

Update: It was remiss of me to not mention that the letter would not have been half as composed without Dan‘s salient feedback.

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