Thursday, February 19, 2015

My year on Twitter. What have atheists ever done for me?

Almost exactly a year ago, at the beginning of Lent 2014, I opened a Twitter account. I had decided to spend my Lent as a time to really listen to people, with the intention to understand, engage and connect.

When I say 'people' I meant in particular atheists. I figured that by listening to atheist strangers I might learn something about atheists closer to home, and that some conversations might be easier with strangers than with loved ones.

A year and 20.5K (!) tweets later, perhaps it's a good time to reflect and look back. And hey, a new Lent has arrived and who knows where this one will take me??

My life on Twitter turned out more varied and interesting than I had anticipated. I became political and tweeted about marching for the NHS; about the Greenbelt festival and LGBT issues; about knitting #ToriesMustGo beanies; about running; being a humanist Christian and lots more. And more importantly I made a bunch of friends and had heaps of fun!

But back to the atheists. After all, this blog is dedicated to them. :)

Having innocently joined the Twitter community I very quickly met atheists like I had never met in real life! The aggressive, militant, out-to-offend type.
I got to practice taking a deep breath, being gracious and forgiving, keeping calm and friendly A LOT!

To be honest, being offensive or aggressive isn't a problem for me. As long as people are willing to engage, sooner or later there is common ground, which friendships or at least connections can grow on. I have taken part in some pretty tough and painful conversations which have led to great friendships - once the waves had settled, the pain and anger eased ... and two people had remained, still looking at each other and eventually smiling too.

The bigger problem are the people (and not just atheists, of course!), who actually have no intention to engage; who just want to shout their message loudly and without distinction into the void.
So if you are a one-trick pony with just one message and seemingly nothing else in your life, chances are we will struggle to engage with and learn from each other.
Even then, I have learned to stop and ponder why some people might be so angered and so driven to just share that one single message.

I have learned from my time on Twitter that many atheists are...
  • ... Angered by theists who reject scientific proof if it contradicts scriptural accounts/teachings (apparently there are many of those out there); especially when those teachings lead to harmful, hateful or discriminatory behaviour (i.e.being against LGBT rights; denying climate change; being against human rights in general; discriminating against people from other faiths or none; rejecting medical treatment, especially for children etc). I am with you, my atheist friends.
  • ... Bewildered by theists who use 'religious language', which to an atheist has no meaning at best and which can sound patronising at worst. I have learned to avoid expressions such as 'I will keep you in my prayers' or 'I feel God is calling me to...'. I use this kind of language with ease when speaking to other believers, but I have learned that for many atheists it touches a nerve.
    I am finding that some atheists are curiously literal in their interpretation and find it quite hard to accept that other people take a much less literal view.
    When I say 'God is calling me to...', I don't usually mean that I have just heard a booming voice giving me instructions.
  • ... Irritated by the superior thinking of some theists that everybody who does not subscribe to religion A will be doomed to eternal hellfire and misery. And some have been treated terribly by those who call themselves religious and godly. I feel ashamed on their behalf!
  • ... Upset by a world in which suffering is a reality and even more frustrated that theists believe this world to be created a by a loving deity. This is probably the most meaningful issue for me. Especially since there has been a fair amount of discussion about this in the wake of Stephen Fry's thoughts on what he would tell God if he met him.
The issue of suffering is one we all have to grapple with, and we come to different conclusions.
I can see that simply disbelieving in God seems the easier option. Shit happens, and that's all.
Suffice to say, when I meet God the question of suffering is right on top of the agenda.

Perhaps the most difficult moment comes when atheists meet theists who don't fit into the "all-theists-are-thick,-uneducated-and-gullible" category. Sometimes I think that is the most frustrating of all.
So you question the Bible? You disagree with much it says? You don't think it is God's direct word? You think much of it is metaphorical? You think you have to read it through the lens of modern knowledge and understanding, and interpret it for yourself? You think it is your responsibility to question it?
Then why on earth do you follow it at all??!

If you atheists have taught me anything over the last year, it is to think about my faith much more and to be much clearer about what I believe and why. Frustratingly for me, that doesn't mean I can always convey these things to you. Often we seem to lack the common language and perception to be able to make each other understand. And a limit of 140 characters does not help! 

You have taught me to not assume that the path which seems so right and beautiful for me is not necessarily so for others. And that I must be careful in how I choose my words, because being hurtful and causing offense is just not something I want to do.
If I value your thoughts and feelings, then I should do my best not to hurt you in any way.

So, what now and where to next?
I don't yet know. Perhaps I am waiting for God's calling ... ;)

Here's to my atheist friends. I love you all! xx