Conversation with Michelle, the Atheist
The fourth Netroots Nation Conference is now written in the Book of Life. It was a wonderfully thought-provoking experience for me, and being a speaker was an honor for which I am deeply grateful. (You can see for yourself how lively the discussion was about the separation of church and state and progressives’ use of universal values and religious imagery in public discourse by clicking here.) But, as is often the case in life, it was some of the one-on-one conversations that made the biggest impression on me.
One of those conversations took place the day after my panel, when I fell into step with a woman who introduced herself as having been among the listeners in our workshop. Michelle told me she was a lesbian and an atheist, and while she respected my faith position, she could not accept my invitation to add religious imagery or language to her political activism, even as a way to express common human values. She repeated concerns — noted in the discussion by both speakers and members of the audience — about a slippery slope into religious fanaticism if such ideas are allowed into political conversations. But the fact is, those ideas already are there.
For the foreseeable future, most Americans are believers in God. The comment was made in our workshop that 25% of American youth are atheists, which means 75% of our youth are committed or open to religious imagery of some sort. And conservatives are already using religious imagery and language to connect with them and win their votes.
But religious values – even specifically Christian values – don’t have to be the territory of the religious right. For example, we progressives value treating everyone with equal dignity and respect, even if they are different from us. Some call it social justice; others call it the Golden Rule. And that same ethic is part of Christian tradition, too, taught to us in the story of the Good Samaritan. Christian moral values do overlap – quite a lot – with progressive values.
The progressive movement simply can’t afford to avoid conversations about our common ground with such a large percentage of American voters. Indeed, if we want to win votes to win elections and pass important legislation, as I do, and many of those I met at Netroots do, then we only hurt our own cause when we limit our conversations with our religious neighbors.
While atheists might wish they could refer religious folk they meet to their religious colleagues, like me, that is usually not a practical possibility in the moment. When we refuse to enter that space where the other person is comfortable, we miss an opportunity to engage in a meaningful conversation that could bring our neighbor to a change of heart on things we care about, like marriage for GLBT people.
I deeply appreciate Michelle’s honesty and sensitivity. Perhaps the wonder of cyberspace will bring my gratitude and response to her attention. And I really hope that she or another atheist will have the grace to continue this conversation.