The Blessing of a Tolerant Atheist

April 12, 2009 | By | 8 Replies More

Unasked-for BlessingsOn my FaceBook profile, I currently list my religion as “Tolerant Atheist”. This was not carefully crafted to annoy absolutely everybody, but rather to allow for conversation.

I recently received this strip of paper with an eBay purchase. I try to accept the caring and sharing intent of the message, rather than be irritated by the inference that I am damned to hell for all eternity because I don’t share their dependence on a particular brand of invisible friend.

Just after I graduated from college, I was somewhat less tolerant. That summer, I visited St. Peter’s in Rome with my Jewish girlfriend. We followed an American priest/guide around and got some wonderful architectural and artistic behind-the-scenes insight, beyond that of a regular tour.

Saint Peters

Photo by Søren Hugger Møller via Flickr Creative Commons

As he led us out, we handed him a tip in honest appreciation of his sharing. He returned the gesture in kind, by blessing us each with a thumbed cross to our foreheads.

My companion handled it with aplomb. I was less graceful. I’m sure my face reflected an expression appropriate to being blessed by a primitive savage priest with some unpleasant goo.

Many atheists vehemently reject religion much like recovering alcoholics reject alcohol. They had been eager partakers, and now pity anyone who hasn’t yet seen the light. Recovering Cathoholics and other Christ-shuns. I was raised atheist, so I don’t have that particular bent. It’s not that I disagree with Dawkins and PZ and their ilk about the dangers and inherently infantilizing nature of these beliefs. I just think that atheism will become better accepted in America if it isn’t so intimately associated with vocal anti-Christianity.

Here is how a well known irreligious bloviator candidly  expresses his experience of receiving an evangelical gift.

His point of view seems to match my own. Accept a gift as it is intended.


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Category: Communication, Religion

About the Author ()

A convoluted mind behind a curly face. A regular traveler, a science buff, and first generation American. Graying of hair, yet still verdant of mind. Lives in South St. Louis City. See his personal website for (too much) more.

Comments (8)

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  1. Erika Price says:

    This video surprised me. Penn usually presents himself as a virulent anti-theist, not the understanding live-and-let-live type that he projects in this video. This actually makes me like him all the more, because he can call out religious idiocy in a hard-headed way when necessary, while not hating excessively on religious people themselves.

  2. TonyC says:

    I understand and share Penn's perspective. I am a vehement atheist, and suffer fools badly (and think religious very foolish). So proselytizers are already on a shaky foundation with me.

    What I find disquieting and annoying about proselytizing is not the initial approach — "I am saved in jesus, and want to share that blessing with you".

    It's the relentless follow-up.

    I am quite happy to accept blessings, and prayers, and whatever they want to bestow upon me. I try to be laissez faire in my day to day life. There really is no point in getting annoyed at every little thing. I am less happy to do so if the proselytizing continues after my request to desist.

    I generally (not always – I am human, not a saint) politely mention that I'm atheist and have thought long and hard about religion and god and have concluded that god is a purely human construct – so thanks for your thoughts, I appreciate it, but it is wasted upon me. I'd much rather move beyond religion and discover some other area where we can relate.

    This is generally when it becomes annoying. The person proselytizing is annoying me because he/she refuses to take my feelings and my thoughts into account. His/her desire trump all. That is simply selfish, boorish behavior. I don't accept that kind of behavior from my kids. I don't accept it from strangers.

    It continues, I get angry, and my day is ruined.

    I'd much prefer the kind of 'accommodation' that Penn talks about. I respect that you are a real live human being with your own perspective. This is mine. If we don't connect, fine. If you'd like to discuss differences, that's fine too. I love to talk about why I think as I do, and to discover why others think differently.

    Unfortunately that seldom happens when I'm a target of proselytizing.

  3. Dan Klarmann says:

    Penn the individual is distinct from the character he plays onstage. Sure, it is type casting. But one might infer that the massively bombastic personality of the performer probably derived from covering his shyness as an oversize and introspective youth. Pure guesswork on my part; I have not studied Penn Jillette, the man. But I know others like that.

    • Erika Price says:

      That sounds like a reasonable guess- Penn started as a fire-swallowing, loud mouthed performer at a pretty young age, so his public persona has developed for decades. I've followed his "Penn Says" posts on occasion, and I sometimes follow his Twitter- in both domains he can be extremely outspoken with antitheism. It's good to see that he can temper his outrage with reasonable calm.

      Strange, though, that he still says he "knows" there is no god in this video. That strikes me as an extreme opinion even amongst atheists.

  4. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    I've heard it said that it's the thought that counts. I think that applies to proselytizing as well. I think that many of these modern desciples and missionaries are proselytizing to feed their own egos, to score brownie points with the big G for a better position in the hereafter.

    The fellow described by Penn, hoever, is one of the rare true believers that proselytize out of a true sense of concern for other people, and in doing so live by what they believe.

    • Tony Coyle says:

      I agree Niklaus – and that is where I get annoyed by proselytizers. The honest ones know when to stop (disappointed, perhaps, but they'll stop). The rest, not so much.

    • Mindy Carney says:

      Agreed, Niklaus, and I'm with Dan in that it is when they refuse to give my feelings any thought that the gift becomes less than appreciated. I have a sibling who considers herself "born-again," and only once in our lives has her fervent need to save the rest of our heathen family come to light. She couldn't imagine, only months after 9/11/01, that we could live with ourselves knowing that any day something like that could happen again and we – AND OUR CHILDREN – would be doomed. SHE knew where she and her family would be, post-terrorist-apocalypse, but she was horrified that we did not have that same comfort. I had to remind myself repeatedly that her tearful tirade truly came from a place of love, even as it made the rest of us crazy. She's never done it again.

      My daughters once complained about gifts they'd received from stepfamily relatives. The complaints were based on the fact that thewe were extremely "girly-girl" things, when my daughters were anything but. I chided them and used that exact phrase – "you have to remember it is the thought that counts, and be grateful." My oldest looked at me with that stare only a teen girl can deliver, effectively reducing me to the ranks of "parents-are-so-painfully-dense," and said, "But, MOM. That's just it. There WAS no thought. If there had been, well, you know there wouldn't have been ruffles."

      Hard to argue. I have a friend who loathes holiday gifts because they are required. In his mind, gifts are given freely and are based on the wants of the person receiving the gift. I have to say, because of that, the gifts I have received from him are extremely meaningful. He might have a really good point.

      Well, THAT certainly wandered off topic . . . sorry!

    • Tony Coyle says:

      off topic, but you struck a chord with me regarding gifts.

      My wife thinks me (in the voice of Keith Olbermann!) the worst gift giver in the world

      However, she leaves me no room to buy her anything she would actually 'want' – she simply buys what she wants on her schedule (it's usually a surprise to me, too). Example: She loves music – so I've tried various gifts in that vein (from concert tickets, to CDs, to boxed sets) – I bought her an MP3 player a few years ago (for working out) but she pooh-poohed that and ignored it. SO I stopped buying anything related to music. Last year, she decided she would actually want one and went and bought a nano that week! I've tried jewelery (OK when she buys it, not so from anyone else), clothes, holidays, dinner, … ARGHHH! she's too independent (which is, of course, one of the things I love about her)!

      She won't TELL me what she wants – and when she does, it's usually accompanied by 'lookit! – I love my new …!' She expects me to intuit her innermost desires – but refuses to give me a hint! I'm a man! I don't DO intuition!

      My own wants are pretty simple. gadgets! music gadgets; camera/photography gadgets; computer gadgets: gadgets that satisfy multiple categories would make me ecstatic!

      If anyone is listening – I want a home recording studio — so I want a decent mixer, mikes, cables, monitors, and another computer dedicated to recording. I want a decent midi keyboard (with decent touch response – not a $200 'synth feel' keyboard). I want a room to be conditioned for sound.

      I don't need this all at once… But there are enough opportunities for gadgets and bits and pieces there to make me very happy (and my gifts would be taken care of for years).

      However, my darling wife thinks we have too many gadgets already 🙁 She'll get me almost anything – but not gadgets! I guess I'm just out of luck!

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