‘Atheists are good din naman’ and other things that still need to be said

Cate de Leon (The Philippine Star) - June 8, 2013 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - Recently, Pope Francis was quoted to have said that good atheists exist. And while it warmed the hearts of many, it brought to light the reality that in this day and age, such things still need to be said. I guess that while we may be past the infamous Crusades and burning “witches” at the stake, for a good number of people, beliefs still dictate how they see others.

My atheist friend once brought me to the new condo she was renting with her husband. Over coffee she said that she was very happy with their new place — and that the religious owner automatically assumed without being told that they were Christians. “I like that couple. They’re so God-fearing!” he confided in one of their friends, who in turn told them. “Porkit mabait lang kami,” she laughed. They loved the place too much to correct him. She and her husband even agreed, “Pag tinanong tayo about RH Bill, anti tayo ha.”

It was a funny story, but I wondered if the owner’s opinion of them would change if he knew they were atheists — and by how much? Would he still be undeniably convinced that they were good people and give their actions just as much credit as he did when he thought they were Christians? Or would their image suddenly be dimmed by all sorts of disclaimers, such as “But they’re not saved,” or “But they’re fooling themselves,” or “But they hate God and worship Satan!” (By the way, it is impossible to hate and worship entities that you don’t even believe exist.) I sincerely hoped it would be the former reaction.

Goodness isn’t exclusive

Now, each system of beliefs changes depending on the person holding it. I’ve met condescending and judgmental Catholics, and Catholics who listened to me better than I listened to myself. And as much as I want atheists to develop a purely good rep, some of them can be needlessly scathing for my taste, which reinforces the notion that we’re full of anger. But these inconsistencies from person to person are also why I think it’s crucial that ideologies and beliefs should never take precedence over people. And I’m not just talking about the extreme cases like killing for Allah, or being game enough to sacrifice your son on the altar until God tells you, “Just kidding!” In our current society, it means paying attention to a person’s actual package — instead of how you think he/she should be — and valuing them for that. 

It means constantly reminding one’s self that all the desirable traits, dispositions, and emotions one can have aren’t exclusive to your beliefs, just because you experience them under a certain frame of mind. I often hear people marveling at God’s creation when experiencing majestic scenery. I, on the other hand, holding the Big Bang and evolution as viable explanations, marvel at how something so random could be so beautiful. See, it doesn’t hurt me at all to consider that my existence isn’t part of some higher being’s great plan. To me, there’s really nothing more to being on this earth than an egg and sperm lottery, and it doesn’t bother me that life is inherently meaningless. I take that as my cue to have fun making my own meaning and my own stories. Contrary to popular belief, I find atheism to be a very warm, grateful, vivid, and highly involved way to live.

So you can imagine how I feel about Christians asking me if there’s something I’m bitter or angry about that caused me to be an atheist. And how some people somehow think I’m interested in destroying religion. I mean, I don’t spend Sunday mornings plotting to disrupt church services. I spend them blissfully catching up on sleep.

Valuable input

I must say, though, that most of the valuable input I’ve gotten over the years has come from theists, from making big life decisions, dealing with death, to the information I need for my articles. Some of the smartest and most insightful people whom I look forward to talking to are passionate about their faith. And I’ve wrongly assumed, on more than one occasion, that a highly conservative person wouldn’t be able to understand me. I’ve nervously anticipated dramatic torrents of judgment that never came. After that, I was secretly embarrassed by how utterly sure I was that I knew how this person would react.

Even I have to strive to understand other people’s beliefs from their end. As annoying as it is to have someone trying to save me when I don’t need saving, I have to admit that they only do it because they care. I can always debate them when I want, and of course I’m still sticking to my guns. But I’ll be damned if I didn’t give them credit for the love. It may not come in a package that is easy for me to appreciate, but concern is concern. And somehow it’s more valuable when it’s coming from across a barrier.

“Everybody’s a little bit racist,” as that song from Avenue Q goes. In this case, let’s say, ““Everybody’s a little bit religionist.” I think there will always be misconceptions and  misunderstandings brought about by belief-inspired judgments.

But all this goes to show that beliefs aren’t the source of ideals such as morality, peace, open-mindedness, intelligence, and acceptance. People are. It’s people who either have it together or not. It’s people who are either gracious or impatient. It’s people who are either ego-centric or believe in something bigger than themselves. It’s people who either honor or disregard agreements. It’s people who will love you, hate you, and continue to look out for you no matter how much they disagree with your opinions.

And as important as it is to grow in the direction of your choice, I don’t think beliefs should ever come at the expense of missing out on your family, friends, colleagues, or a new drinking buddy whom you just met. You may not be able to prove your lofty ideas, but if there’s anything that exists beyond doubt, it’s the guy who is right in front of you. Instead of consulting your beliefs on what to make of him, maybe you should just ask him.

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Tweet the author @catedeleon.


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