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Dear Richard,

The other day, I was trawling the Internet looking for nice music when I came across a singer with a beautiful voice. Her name is Christina Grimmie, and she does mostly covers of other people’s songs. I was happily listening to her sing until I saw that she calls herself a “full-on Christian” in her profile and mentions that she sings for Jesus.

Now I’m confused: do I listen to her to enjoy good music, or do I just turn away and ignore her because of her religious orientation in order to show solidarity with the atheist community? I don’t know what to do, because I’m probably as “full-on atheist” as one can get without being outright militant, and I want to be a good atheist who doesn’t support religion. Yet, I find myself supporting a Christian singer who, although she has a lot of skill and talent, is still a religious person. Does listening to songs by religious people (that aren’t worship songs; I despise those) make one a bad atheist?

In a similar vein, should one even support societal institutions that, in one way or another, have their roots in Christianity or other religions? I have been conflicted by the issue of gay marriage in America recently (I don’t live in America, I live in Singapore where the act of homosexual sex itself is illegal), as I support LGBT rights but I do not believe in the institution of marriage. I want the gays and lesbians to be happy but wonder why they want to voluntarily bind themselves to each other through the institution of marriage, which has its roots in religions which reject their very right to love and exist. Why are atheists even supporting gay marriage when marriage has roots in religion? Shouldn’t we as atheists be calling for the abolishment of marriage and the freedom of men and women to love as they wish rather than supporting further institutionalizing homosexual love within religion when it has been free all this time?

Thank you,
“Andy”

Dear Andy,

Your question seems to be more about antireligionism than atheism. Many atheists have some antireligious views, ranging from many who merely hope that organized religion will eventually die out, all the way to a few who advocate its forcible abolishment. In between are those who would prefer to avoid supporting organized religion in various ways, but they can sharply disagree on what measures they should and should not take toward that end.

As an atheist, you probably don’t just passively lack belief in gods, and you probably have more opinions than just opposing religion. You probably also value and support things like critical thinking, science, education, social justice, policies based on reason, and many other things, and your decisions can be guided or influenced by those things.

But when you take such a collection of ideas and values to ask yourself questions like “How would a ‘good atheist’ handle this?” or “If I do that, does it mean I’m a ‘bad atheist’?” you immediately open the possibility of judging other atheists as “good or bad atheists” by comparing their decisions to yours.

When we hear Christians, Muslims and other religious people dismissing each other as “not true Christians,” or “not true Muslims” because of some minor difference in their preferred boundaries, it all seems absurd to us standing on the outside. I’d hate to see the same thing happen to atheists. I wrote a post about this back in 2007. Although my original question was about the various labels we use to name ourselves, such as atheists, or humanists, or freethinkers, it generated a long discussion about many issues that are found under the umbrella of non-believers.

Atheists seem to be highly prone to individuality and independence. They have either broken away from a herd mentality, their family’s religion, or they never were raised to follow a herd, so very often they will strongly object to any implication that there is a “party line” in atheism that they should follow. Having solidarity in the face of oppression is great, but if something reminds them of dogma, they won’t like it.

There’s a practicality problem with wanting to avoid supporting in any way someone or anyone who calls themselves a Christian. If you’re going to live in civilization, at least for the next couple of centuries you’re going to have to interact with, and have transactions with people who are religious in varying degrees. They are everywhere, and they provide your essential goods and services.

You should also consider if refusing to buy or even listen to an artist’s music just because she is a Christian crosses an invisible line into something else. What would you call a Christian who refused to stay in a hotel simply because it was owned by a Jew? Or a Muslim who refused to buy fabric from a Hindu just because of her religion? Or any religious person who refused to buy any goods or services from an atheist?

There are some who would call such people good Christians, or good Muslims, and so forth. Others would call them bigots. Now, I’m not saying that you’re a bigot, and I don’t want to set up a false dichotomy implying that what you’re trying to decide has to be either legitimate opposition to organized religion, or it has to be bigotry. There may be other choices, other ways to look at it. I’m only saying take a long, unblinking look at it.

You’re wondering if you should boycott this singer’s music because you might indirectly be supporting her religion. I suppose if you bought her CD, she might put another dollar in the collection plate at her church. Is that your responsibility? In your letter, you sound like you’re afraid that you are somehow betraying atheism just because you’re enjoying her music. If she beautifully sings a non-religious song and she sings it “for Jesus,” so what? There’s nothing in her private motives that you must oppose. I enjoy viewing Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings. He was very religious. I don’t think I’m betraying any of my principles. I enjoy and admire the work of musicians, actors, dancers, and writers. Some of them are very religious. I don’t give a damn. What goes on silently between their ears is none of my business.

As for your question about marriage, I’m not a historical anthropologist, but I think that marriage or its equivalent preceded organized religion by many centuries. I think people have pair-bonded and have made public declarations of their sexually exclusive relationships since we began living in settlements rather than roving bands, and perhaps even before then. Religion did not invent the practice but only later co-opted it to gain more control over people and to make itself seem more necessary. Again, the practicality problem arises here. If you want to abandon everything in civilization that was ever touched by religion, you’re not going to have much left.

Andy, instead of wondering how to be a “good atheist,” concentrate on being a good person who happens to be an atheist. That will not diminish the importance of your atheism. It also will not diminish the importance of anyone being a person.

By your description, Christina Grimmie sounds like a good singer who happens to be a Christian. If you would want her to treat you as a good person, rather than as an atheist, perhaps you should treat her as a good singer rather than as a Christian.

Richard

You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. There is a very large number of letters. I am sorry if I am unable to respond in a timely manner.