Anyone who has followed the ebb and flow of Atheism in America during the past decade or two is well aware of the presumption by many theists that Atheists are somehow lacking in morality. This shows up strongly in politics where to admit to being an Atheist is tantamount to suicide. In a recent Gallup poll Atheists scored dead last as someone that people would vote for. What bugs me, however, is that people so willingly concede morality to the theists in spite of the repeated examples that theism does not equate to moral strength. Especially in the realm of politics. But I digress. This is not an article on religion in the political world. It is on morality in the religious and my run-in with that morality.
When I was in my late teens my then girlfriend persuaded me to go to church with her. She knew I was an Atheist and had been for years. However, she gave some plausible sounding reason on why I should attend church with her. I forget what it was. Let’s face it, a young man(‘s hormones) being asked to do something by a young woman he likes hardly needs a reason. So one Sunday this young Atheist found himself not only in church but signed up for Bible study. An hour and a half of pouring over the wisdom handed down from God himself before spending another 90 minutes getting the cliff notes in the sermon. Late teen, hormones, I covered that, right? She and I showed up and were greeted by the priest of the church. A few pleasantries were passed as we enter the study room. After a few more minutes there were at least a dozen people there to study the day’s lesson of love, compassion and understanding.
Instead the day’s topic was about Atheism and what the Bible has to say about Atheists in general. I don’t remember the specific passages cited nor much of the discussion. Understandable because my hormones were finally overcome with their better. Anger. 90 minutes of being called a money worshiping, amoral, backstabbing, untrustworthy, not-worth-spit waste of human flesh. Who were they to accept this tripe? More importantly who was this priest to teach it as if it were truth? However, even as angry as I was and how much I wanted to verbally tear into this group of people, especially the priest spewing this bile I didn’t. I sat on my hands, stared at the floor and said absolutely nothing. There was no mistaking that I was upset, I was not so good at hiding emotions to think otherwise. But I let him have his say and when the time came to leave I left calmly and quietly. I uttered not one word.
I sat through the service where the general theme was repeated again. They could understand other religions even if they thought those religions didn’t quite get the message as intended. But Atheists? Scum. Filth. Putrescence not to be tolerated. The only answer? Convert. Show them the error of their ways. Again, sat on hands, eyes on the floor, not one word said.
As bad as all that was the worst was yet to come. During the service I was welcomed by the priest as a newcomer to their church. This was nothing in and of itself until the service was over and he approached me outside the church. He apologized. He told me that my girlfriend had, after Bible study, told him why I was so upset. He knew going into the service that I was an Atheist. He apologized and said that had he known I would have been attending that day he would have chosen another lesson.
I have been on the receiving side of apologies many times. Some sincere, some not. Never before, nor since, have I ever been so insulted by an apology. He was not sorry that his religion encouraged singling me out as a pariah. He was not sorry that he taught that Atheists were immoral. He was simply sorry that he taught the lesson with an Atheist in the room. Apologizing for something so trivial when there were far larger things for which he was unrepentant still, decades later, gets me angry. The difference between then and now is that then I sat on my hands and stared at the floor, saying nothing. Now, my hands type on a keyboard and I say a whole lot. An immoral Atheist I may be but at least my moral compass compels me to apologize for what I said if it insulted someone instead of simply apologizing for them having overheard me saying it.