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.


Reverend Janet

2 Responses
  • ann e on August 26, 2009

    as a christ loving progressive, myself, i see this as a huge struggle. even on the internet, alternative christianity, which is a welcoming and loving place for progressives, is not any easy thing to find! a brother on one blog told me he would never wear his green armbands to church, because he didn’t think his politics and his religion should be mixed. yeshua was a radical! if we invite his example into our lives, it must be in every way, the big ones first (the smaller ones coming later with practice and closer scrutiny on our lives as examples of god’s love). yes, speaking with atheists and recognizing our common ground is important. important, as well, is that we stand up and do as we are called to. we don’t need to just follow the guidelines set by civil politics! we already have agreed to follow the guidelines of our savior! as a group, or alone, we can use the symbols we want, present the need as it comes, always with an open heart and a prayer that our atheist brothers and sisters will be glad to have our support, and always inviting our sisters and brothers who do believe (in whatever they believe) to also feel safe in expressing the relationship between their political and spiritual beliefs.

    love your site!

    peace and bigloves!

  • Janet Edwards on August 27, 2009

    Thanks Ann E for your thoughtful response. Yes, my Calvinist roots teach me that God is active in every aspect of life including the state and political affairs. But, of course, our diverse democracy requires humility and sensitivity. I am especially aware of how often the church has hurt GLBT people, including atheists, and I am always grateful for their grace in talking with me. I look forward to hearing from you again. Peace, Janet

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