In a recent post, with the caustic style which makes her one of our favorite reads, Professor in Training (PiT) describes a taxi ride from hell (no pun intended) that she had in New Orleans. In a temporary lapse of judgment, PiT confessed to the driver that she has no religious faith. In response, the driver lashed out at her for the entire duration of the ride, deploring her lack of moral values, warning her of dire consequences and foretelling her eternal damnation, should she fail to repent and embrace God’s message immediately — pretty standard stuff, I would say.
All of us who goes through life with no religion, receive this type of sermon every so often, delivered by the least likely lecturers in the most unexpected places. Sometimes we are caught by surprise, but by and large we learn how not to let it bother us, and take it just as a fact of life. Having grown up in a country where religion (Catholicism, that is) is taught in public schools, where every pronouncement of the Pope is promptly reported by all national media (private and public) and where the crucifix hangs on the wall of just about every room of just about every public building, I have no trouble accepting that a large fraction of the population believes in God. I myself was raised to believe in God, and did so for most of my adolescence. I was an altar boy when I was 11 years old, and am willing to accept that, perhaps, a different life path may have led me to keep God in my life — still, the fact is that I, like PiT, have now no religious faith of any kind.
I can certainly understand that, for many, the belief in the existence of a higher entity may provide spiritual guidance  and I have no problem with religion and religious people, at least as long as they do not try to force their beliefs upon me. Alas, unfortunately they often do. It really annoys me when friends, acquaintances and even perfect strangers, not just priests (I do have quite a few friends who are clerics) but also lay persons, take it upon themselves to try and convert me. It shows lack of respect for an atheist’s own inner travail and search, which are no less intense and deep than those of any religious person.
When it comes to religion, it is not the same as with politics, football or any other topics on which bitter arguments can ensue. As noted by PiT, often times religious people, in their fervor and desire to see the other person yield to their superior views, just do not understand when the time has come to give it a rest.
Perhaps nowhere as in this specific aspect, can one see clearly the absurdity of the comparison made by many religious advocates, who maintain that atheism is just another creed, and therefore atheists are not really free of beliefs as they claim. Aside from the many fundamental objections that could be raised against such a bogus argument, the behavior of an atheist generally differs profoundly from that of a believer. An atheist is simply too respectful of the deeply personal, individual nature of one’s spiritual choice, to try and interfere with and influence it . The religious person, on the other hand, is out to recruit.
But why ? What is it to them ? Are they really motivated by genuine concern for our salvation ? Does it cause them so much distress to think that many of us, even perfect strangers, who are leaving a godless life, are flirting with disaster and may spend eternity burning in hell ? Does that thought really keep them awake at night ?
I do not think so. I think that, for the most part, this is really all about them, not us.
The belief in an afterlife, in a superior being capable of giving meaning to a life that often seems nothing but a short, purposeless journey to nowhere, can certainly provide some reassurance from the sadness and loneliness of the human condition. But in order to be most effective, such a belief needs the type of reinforcement that comes from large numbers, for it is hard to make sense of a God, really.
Many self-proclaimed believers must personally be struggling with that idea. They cannot be content with simply regarding it as their own, individual and subjective way of resolving the dilemma of their existence. If their God is not the same as that of their neighbors, of other countries, continents and cultures, then it is far less powerful and convincing a construct.
As Bertrand Russell wrote in “Why I am not a Christian”, all religions claim to be true, hence they must all be false. I think most believers, especially educated ones, are troubled by that argument to some extent. This is why it is necessary that one’s creed be adopted by as many people as possible, and ideally that there be only one religion.
If on this specific issue, all mankind could agree and share in the same, common belief… then it would for practical purposes be indistinguishable from what a scientist would call “an experimental fact”. Such a collective delusion, to use Dawkins’ expression, would represent the single point of convergence of the whole humane experience — that would simply make it true.
If, on the other hand, so many men and women worldwide can go through life without even thinking of God, chuckling at or shrugging off warnings of eternal damnation or Hell’s flames, and conducting seemingly normal existences… well… how absolute, universally important can those concepts really be ?
This is why dissent is ill accepted — because it undermines the credibility of the faith in the eyes of the believers themselves .
PiT may have been annoyed by the taxi driver, but I would not be surprised if the driver herself had spent the time on her way back from the airport thinking “How can this person do without something that I need so much ?”.
 No, not moral — I do not need a priest to tell me that it is wrong to steal or kill, I can figure that out by myself, thank you very much.
 There are, in fairness, some prominent atheists like biologist Richard Dawkins, who argue that it is time for atheists to “fight back”, and actively try and convert religious people into not believing. Although I can see the motivation in Dawkins’ proposal, I cannot help seeing as fundamentally incompatible with an atheist’s intrinsic tolerance.
 As for “burning in Hell”, well, Churches themselves have never taken this thing very seriously. Indeed, whenever possible, “eternal damnation” aside, they have made sure that heretics be dealt with as they deserve in this life, e.g., at the hand of the Holy Inquisition.