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You never know someone until you step inside their skin and walk around a little. –Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird
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A few years ago I was teaching a seminar on the use (and misuse) of the arts in the Third Reich when a student asked a great question — one of the best I ever heard as a professor:

“What would you say is the basic difference between ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’?”

What an unusually great question. I stared at the carpet for a week or so as I worked out an answer. Then, amazingly, an answer that I still consider the right one came bubbling to the surface.

I think the central distinction between liberal and conservative is the attitude toward difference. Conservatism embodies our evolved tendency to value what is familiar, shared, and traditional while distrusting the unfamiliar or foreign. Liberalism tends instead to distrust sameness and to see greater value in diversity and change. It seems to (liberal) me that this distinction is at the root of things.

Correct me since I’m wrong.

We watched To Kill a Mockingbird a few days ago. I wasn’t sure if the kids would take to it — B&W, some wooden acting, etc. — but once again they surprised me. As of this morning, Laney and Erin have watched it three times.

I remembered the story as an indictment of racism, but the racial narrative is just one thread in the larger message of the film (and book) — that we fear what is different or unknown, and that that fear drives us to kill mockingbirds (i.e. to hate and harm the innocent).

Tom Robinson is a black man falsely accused of beating and raping a white woman. Mrs. Dubose, the cranky elderly neighbor, is assumed by the children to have a pistol under her shawl. The unseen Boo Radley is assumed to be a homicidal maniac who “eats raw squirrels,” while his father is assumed to be “the meanest man who ever drew breath.” Even a dog walking down the street erratically is assumed rabid and has the Bush Doctrine unleashed on him.

If my definition of the difference between conservatism and liberalism holds water, To Kill a Mockingbird seems to be an extended tribute to the liberal impulse and indictment of the conservative. But again, I’m a damn liberal, so I might very well be engaging in confirmation bias. I’d be interested to see if a conservative sees it differently.

There’s one scene that seemed relevant to the nonreligious — who are, after all, among the hated-different-unfamiliar in our society. A classic lynch mob has gathered at the jail to kill Tom Robinson, only to find his lawyer, Atticus Finch, sitting in the doorway, reading a book.

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The mob already has Atticus neatly labeled and dismissed as a “nigger-lover” and a “tricky lawyer” (and now a book reader! Pinko elitist to the core, this one). Having replaced his humanity with a caricature, they will find it a simple matter to do whatever it takes to get past him.

But then Atticus’ children Jem and Scout show up. He orders them to leave. They refuse, and Atticus does not beat them to death (permissive parenting!). Then Scout recognizes a face in the crowd: Mr. Cunningham, a farmer for whom Atticus has done work and whose son Scout knows. “Hey, Mr. Cunningham,” she says:

I said Hey, Mr. Cunningham. Don’t you remember me, Mr. Cunningham? I’m Jean Louise Finch. You brought us some hickory nuts one early morning, remember? We had a talk. I went and got my daddy to come out and thank you. I go to school with your boy. I go to school with Walter. He’s a nice boy. Tell him ‘hey’ for me, won’t you?

She says his name. She says her name. She reminds him of their connection and offers a kind greeting. Cunningham’s body language says it all. He squirms. He looks at the ground. He tries to hide behind the brim of his hat. He can’t keep the caricature from dissolving in the face of Scout’s humanizing connection.

I spend a lot of time telling nonreligious parents that one of the best things we can do for our children is to be out — to have our views known by those around us. It’s far less important to engage and challenge other beliefs than to simply put a known and loved (or hell, even mildly liked) face on the abstract bugaboo of religious doubt.

It works for every kind of reviled “other.” It’s easy to go to war against distant foreigners as long as “they” are “over there,” safely unknown and simplistically drawn. It’s easy to convince yourself that gays are a perverse threat to all that’s holy as long as you don’t know anyone who’s gay. And there’s no difficulty in convincing yourself that atheists are immoral hedonists if you continue to assume that those around you are all believers.

That’s why it’s important for those who differ from the majority — blue people in red states, red people in blue states, gays, atheists, the works — to be out of the closet, to be a smiling, normal, ethical contradiction to all the fearful assumptions. So I try to convince nonreligious folks to seize those “Hey, Mr. Cunningham” moments and put a human face on disbelief. And it’s equally important for us to avoid drawing a caricature of all religious belief — to recognize the normal, sane, ethical believers all around us. That’s the way the caricature crumbles — one person at a time.

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.