Deference to Religion

This Thanksgiving, I was given a reminder of how differently many people see the world than I do.  I spent the Thanksgiving weekend with one of my maternal uncles’ family, who live in Shakopee, which is a suburb located to the southwest of Minneapolis.

Now, my uncle and his family are very comfortable around people of other cultures and views.  His wife is a Hindu of Indian descent from Guyana and among the family friends we visited on Thanksgiving day were an Iranian-American husband with a European-American wife and we ate dinner at the home of a couple who were from different Caribbean islands and had moved to the area after living some time in Winnipeg, Canada.

However, when my aunt brought up the fact that I am an atheist, there was an interesting tone to the discussion.  Our host proclaimed that I was not really an atheist and that I would come around to a more theistic way of thinking as I matured, my aunt stressed that there were multiple types of knowledge, using “scientific knowledge” and “religious knowledge” as the examples, while my uncle made a God of the gaps-type argument and hinted at the maturity argument made by our host.

Now, the discussion didn’t go too far, mainly because I didn’t want to spend Thanksgiving dinner assaulting my relatives and their friends’ deeply held beliefs, but there was enough of a discussion to pick up an edge to their framing of their thoughts on the matter that didn’t reflect the type of discussion that I would normally expect were the topic different.

Now, that discussion immediately came to mind when I read the following sentence in this BBC article:

Pullman’s His Dark Materials books have been controversial with some Christian groups who have accused Pullman of using them to promote his atheist beliefs, a claim he has denied.

Now, I have read His Dark Materials, and the funny thing about such a comment is that the series doesn’t occur in an atheistic universe: it occurs in a theistic multiverse mostly based on Judeo-Christian theology, with the big twist being the nature of God, who is impotent and allows a corrupt regent and church to govern the multiverse for him.

Does it challenge the Church? Yes. Does it promote atheism? Only if one believes that any challenge to the Church is a promotion of atheism. Pullman himself may be an atheist like me, but he didn’t anywhere in the series or with reference to the series write

Psst, the moral of the story is that God doesn’t exist.

This brings up a point that is frequently brought up by many of the “New Atheists” like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and PZ Myers and that is that religion tends to get a certain deference that isn’t seen when one discusses other ideas and ideologies and that merely stating that one doesn’t believe in God is seen as strident.

Now, I personally have been sheltered from much of this, as I have mostly kept my beliefs regarding the existence of God to myself and have a religiously diverse extended family with my parents being a liberal Christian and a Deist who each have streaks of Universalism.

But I found it interesting that even as a liberal Christian-Hindu couple, who have reconciled their religious differences enough to have a happy marriage for almost two decades, the concept of someone not believing in the divine was a bit challenging. In a way, it is the anecdotal evidence that makes Gallup polls regarding the number of Americans willing to vote for an atheist running for President believable:


I find it interesting that both atheists and gays are dramatically more unpopular than other groups and that their gains and losses are correlated (though gays have apparently fared a bit better in recent years in the public eye).  I have some conjecture as to why this is, but its pretty undeveloped, so I’m going to leave it for another time.


About Meng Bomin

Real name Benjamin Main, I am a graduate of Grinnell College with a degree in Biological Chemistry.
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