Secularists should not remain silent when religious people offer opinions but should rejoin with small, pleasant disagreement.

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Secularists often say nothing when they should really speak up.

Sometimes taciturnity is merely manners, perhaps thought of as good manners. There is no need to mar a dinner party with a sharp and disagreeable remark, right? No need to set the table on a roar with a cutting witticism offered at a guest’s or a host’s expense.

But how many opportunities are lost for the secularist to offer small dissent? A small dissent would be a polite, short, and apt rejoinder to some overt religious bias.

We’re not talking about a diatribe here. This is not the occasion for a loud, piercing scream. The tone and timbre are to be serene, delivered where possible with a smile. It’s not an argument.

Polite, short, apt, and therefore educative in this way: small dissent lets everyone within hearing know that not everyone agrees with what was said, and not everyone is a fellow traveler with the speaker.

Here’s an example:

Suppose a well-spoken, learned and lively Catholic priest attends a dinner party and slips up at one point and speaks disparagingly of the ‘superstitions’ of Hinduism. All the secularists at the dinner party will see in the priest’s remark an obvious case of the crow chiding blackness, of the pot calling the kettle black.

Mannerly secularists might bite the tips of their tongues, taste blood at this moment, and say nothing. But what is really called for is small dissent. Otherwise, the priest and the other guests will think the whole table is in agreement. Otherwise, the secularist’s perspective is silenced.

Remember the criteria for small dissent: polite, short, apt (and therefore educative).

What is to be said in rejoinder to this priest? Perhaps something along these lines, delivered with a smile:

“Geography determines local superstitions. People at one spot on the globe easily espy other people’s superstitions at another spot on the globe while local custom blinds people from seeing the superstitions of their own spot on the globe. One man’s religion is another man’s superstition. A Hindu might think transubstantiation is a tad superstitious.”

The point is to say something. Don’t let these moments pass. Disagree with peoples’ odd opinions, even if your disagreement is modest and mildly put. Never let the necessity of dissent pass you by.

We’re not talking about a diatribe here. This is not the occasion for a loud, piercing scream. The tone and timbre is to be serene, delivered where possible with a smile. It’s not an argument.

Further examples:

At an office gathering people speak of a recent airline crash and someone notes, “The sole survivor had his prayers answered,” and small dissent responds, ”How about the prayers of a hundred dead passengers?”

A hairdresser says, “Everyone needs religion,” and small dissent says, “There are a billion people who apparently don’t.”

At a family gathering uncle Olaf says, “Without religion society would collapse into chaos,” and small dissent returns, “It’s funny that some of the most irreligious societies on the planet are among the most civil and safe and stable (like Scandanavia), while some of the most religious societies are the most un-civil and un-safe and un-stable (like Honduras).”

At school, a coach says, “The golden rule of Jesus is the height of morality,” and small dissent replies, “Actually, Confucius taught the golden rule 500 years before Jesus: Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you.”

A colleague says, “My ancient holy book predicted certain features of 20th-century science,” and small dissent quickly adds, “Where does your holy book predict 25th-century science? Point out those passages to me.”

A faith healer you meet through a mutual acquaintance says, “The hall was filled with discarded crutches last night at the faith healing,” and small dissent rejoins, “Discarded prosthetic limbs might be more to the point.”

And so on.

Silence is not always golden. A secularist’s voice with a soft and pithy response can offer a sudden remedy to the careless public sharing of uninformed and biased religious opinions.

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J. H. McKenna (Ph.D.) has taught the history of religion since 1999 at the University of California, where he has won teaching awards. He has published in academic journals and the LA Times, Huffington...