Last Sunday was Suffering Church Sunday at my church. We watched videos from Barnabas Fund and took up a special offering. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was held up: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” They spoke of rights and freedoms, and I felt like it was all a bit rich.
Being a rather suppressed atheist in this community, (hence I attend church every week), I couldn’t help but notice their hypocrisy. Sure, there are Christians around the world going through immense suffering for their faith. This has been going on since the beginning of Christianity. But what about me? I have to read my Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens in secret. Is that so different from Christians in China meeting secretly? Admittedly, the big difference is that I will not be tortured or martyred. But I am a disappointment to my family and community. I am an outsider, a dirty sinner and they all feel sickeningly sorry for me and my parents. I would almost prefer to be a known as the courageous martyr than the rebellious, selfish, failure that I am perceived as now.
I spent much time as an “in the closet” atheist because I did not feel I had the freedom to express my beliefs without ruining relationships and my reputation. They aren’t so keen on proclaiming freedom of religion (or lack thereof) when it’s not their own beliefs being promoted.
Throughout history, Christians have been the persecutors just as much as they’ve been the persecuted: the crusades, the inquisition, burning heretics at the stake, forcing conversion in colonial states, blackmailing children with the threat of Hell, persecuting Jews, advocating (and implementing) the death penalty for homosexuals.
In light of all of this, it is almost tempting to conclude that persecuted Christians get exactly what they deserve. But most Christians disapprove and/or condemn the violent actions of the church, so this conclusion is unfair.
So, as an atheist at church on Suffering Church Sunday, I did something interesting. I gave money to the Barnabas Fund. I also signed a petition lobbying the government to promote freedom to be Christian in other countries. This is why: despite the fact that I feel my own religious freedom has been limited, despite the fact that I passionately disagree with Christianity, I want people to be free to believe whatever they feel is true. I figure if I fight for the Christians freedom to believe, one day they might respect my freedom to disbelieve. Perhaps I’m being naïve and idealistic, but it’s a dream. I want to see the church and the atheists work together towards universal freedom of religion.