The Spiritual Life of An Atheist

January 17, 2011

Spiritual Life of an Atheist: A Very Personal Note On the Necessity of Tolerance this MLK Day

There is an ongoing debate in the atheist community about the proper tone of our public discourse.  Some are quite understandably angry at the hate-filled nonsense fundamentalist theists can be wont to hurl.  The approach advocated is gloves off, let loose the harsh truths.  This is not my favored approach.  My comment to (and is reproduced below:

I grew up in Louisiana, surrounded by very conservative Christians. I knew I was gay from early on in high school and every day on the way home, I had to pass a billboard that read, “AIDS–God’s Judgment Has Come.” I left Louisiana when I was 17 and have returned only periodically to see my parents. When I visited my mother in 2009, that same property had a billboard with a pair of glaring eyes that read, “He Is Watching.” I assume it was referring to some totalitarian, End of Days Jesus. No question that Big Brother Jesus would be the first to stone me for my homosexuality.

There is no geographic cure. The street where I reside in Oakland, California has a Samoan Mormon church at the top, and I have lived through two anti-gay marriage campaigns where the church vigorously opposed my right to marry. Some of the ugliest Prop 8 confrontations occurred in my neighborhood. Tensions were riding so high between the pro- and anti-factions, who were initially elbow to elbow, that the police separated us out onto opposite street corners. Before the police separated us, I feared for my safety a bit, and I am confident that there would have been blood otherwise. The anti-gay marriage folks shouted rude, insulting slurs about gays. I wore my throat raw shouting them down with positive slogans like, “Support love” or “Civil rights can’t be wrong,” etc. I never shouted an insult at them, no matter how personal and painful their attacks against gay people got, and believe me, they got ugly.

Every gay pride we have to suffer literal soap box preachers with bullhorns telling us we’re all going to burn in hell as sinners. Sometimes I shout back at them–things like, “Judge not lest ye be judged” or “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” Do I feel anger at these people who monger very personal hatred against me for who I love? You betcha. When they are wishing me dead, or mocking my inability to sexually reproduce with my life partner, or calling me filthy, etc., I feel bilious hatred toward them.  I do not act on that hatred. I note it and I contain it and I move past it.

Tolerance does not equal silence. It means not responding in contemptuous kind. I do not tolerate and behave diplomatically or constructively toward those who publicly wish me ill and actively work to deprive me of rights for their benefit. I do it for mine.

copyright 2011 S. Anne Johnson



  1. I can see that its very difficult for people in the US, who don’t conform to the mainstream religious ideas, to express themselves, and its quite disgraceful how some people act. Personally, I don’t mind opening dialogue with any fundamentalist I meet, however, I suppose I come across as slightly voracious debater, and if there’s bigotry involved I may end up pulling a few blows below the belt per se.But I agree that (at least for the most part) that respect has to be held, but I find that if the respect is not reciprocated it can be very frustrating.

    Comment by Openingviews — January 17, 2011 @ 9:06 pm | Reply

    • Holding yourself to a higher standard than your opponent is frustrating. That is one of the costs of the high road. The low road is costlier in the long term, I think.

      Comment by SAJohnson — January 18, 2011 @ 9:01 am | Reply

  2. right on-hope you are having a good week. love, mother

    Comment by paula johnson — January 18, 2011 @ 6:52 pm | Reply

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