Today atheists, agnostics, skeptics, humanists, and all kinds of other non-religious folks are organizing to protest the imprisonment of three atheist bloggers in Bangladesh. They could face up to 10 years in prison, or potentially the death penalty.
They are not alone. Alexander Aan is an Indonesian atheist who was arrested for admitting on Facebook that he was an atheist. Asif Mohiuddin was stabbed and then arrested for his lack of faith. Sanal Edamaruku is an Indian atheist who is living in exile to avoid arrest for explaining that a weeping statue was caused by leaky pipes.
Now I recognize that these countries are not the United States. I know that we do not send people to jail for writing harshly about religion. I am deeply grateful for the freedoms that I enjoy every day as a faith blogger.
But I also believe that as a faith blogger, I have a couple of obligations.
I can’t flippantly use words like “persecuted” or “attacked” when someone voices disagreement with what I have written. I try very hard to write things that I will stand by even when people push back. I don’t always succeed at this, and I have amended posts when people have suggested that I wasn’t clear. But sometimes I write things that others simply disagree with, and that’s okay. Disagreement, even strong disagreement, is not akin to persecution and it is important, especially when people experience actual persecution for writing about their faith or lack thereof. I can (and do) feel bad when people don’t like me because of something that I’ve written. However, it’s important for me to remember that disagreement is not an attack and that if I feel as if I am attacked, I have options on how to respond. Someone who is genuinely persecuted is without those options.
I need to stand with those who are persecuted or attacked. I am not able to attend any of the protests today for the jailed bloggers in Bangladesh. But I can certainly let you know about them and others who experience actual repercussions for sharing their viewpoints. Part of my obligation as someone who enjoys free speech is to look for constructive ways to exercise it, and I believe that as more of us, both Christians and atheists, join our voices together, we can begin to bring about change in some small ways. And when I see someone being treated unjustly, even if it’s just a mean comment, I can still gently suggest that there are better ways to engage.
I need to remember that because someone’s voice is oppressed it does not mean that they are voiceless. As someone who cares about those who experience this persecution or attacks, it can be very easy for me to assume the mantel of “voice for the voiceless.” This turns into a whole other way of denying them their personhood. These three bloggers have been silenced by their government. But their words still exist. They are not without a voice. And their community is not without a voice. I always want to be mindful to speak with people, not to speak for people.
I often hear that the Christian faith is a relationship, not a religion, and while I think it’s a bit of an “and” proposition (I believe that my faith is based both on relationship and religious ritual and that the two are difficult to separate), I see some value in that statement. However, I have also often observed that when aspects of the religion are challenged, we have a tendency to abandon any kind of relationship that might exist here. We use battle language to describe disagreement. We stop listening. We say one thing, but our actions show something completely different.
Today I’m standing with my atheist writing friends and saying that questions and criticisms should be allowed, even of things that I hold dear. And while this may not do much to help those who have been imprisoned for those questions or criticisms, it may begin to blur some of the battle lines that are drawn between our communities.
Today, my obligation as a faith blogger is to pursue relationship.