On the Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.: From an Atheist

On occasions, I am asked if I would date a believer, or a person who believes in a god or supernatural being, such as a Supreme Being. Being an atheist, there was a time that I said unequivocally no to that question. But, about two years ago I began to soften my response. For example, in 2012, in an NPR interview with Jamila Bey, I said openly that I was “flexible.”

Recently, I met someone who is a believer, and we connected. Although he is not what I would call a religious enthusiast or fanatic, at times he talks about his god and his faith with subtle and not-so-subtle attempts to inform me that his god is real. Because of my feelings for him, I overlook it, and there are times when I engage him gently with questions about his religious thoughts and philosophies. I am willing to be in this kind of critical engagement with him because 1) I understand his actions; I once did the same kind of thing – used every opportunity to “witness” or share my faith (often when it was not requested) with others; and 2) because it is another way for me to get to know him and the basis for his everyday actions or behaviors in life. And, I have yet to encounter a Christian who does not feel compelled to be vocal about his or her faith. It goes with the territory.

So, what did it for me? How could I allow myself to be in an intimate relationship with a man who believes in something that I don’t? On what grounds is it conscionable that I get along or share myself with a man who does not share the same ideas or philosophies that I hold? These are questions that I am contemplating at length on the 29th anniversary of the Martin Luther Kr., Jr. national holiday.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was a man who challenged the white racist ideology or philosophies of his time. By the 1950s and 60s, those white racist philosophies and socio-political expressions of whiteness were incorporated into federal, local and state policies and institutions, such as urban renewal, which was a federal housing policy that had a disparate impact upon former urban Negro communities, and at a time when urban blacks were fighting institutional oppression at an alarming rate. Throughout my lifetime, I have come to understand Dr. King as a man who stood against social division and exclusion on political and personal grounds. I have also come to know him as a man who believed wholeheartedly in achieving a peaceful coexistence despite everyday unjust behaviors and inhumane practices, here in the U.S. and beyond.

With regard to my political and personal commitments, I have come to realize that I do not want to section myself and my life off to only those who think or behave like me. I want to meet and know others whose lives and philosophies are different from mine and without the compulsion or the need to willfully mock or dismantle their thinking or beliefs, just because they are different from mine. On the other hand, there will be times when I will be openly critical of ideas or philosophies (including religious ones) that are expressed in public that I reject or disagree with; that is something Martin Luther King Jr. did with the power of the spoken word, and he did it mainly from the pulpit, as an American preacher. Likewise, I am fundamentally empowered by the freedom of speech as we know it in a Western way. And, it is that freedom of speech that I rely on, as an atheist, to say publicly that I do NOT believe in gods of any kind. I have that right, even though the majority may respond to that statement or position with hate, rejection or discrimination.

In addition, what I have come to learn is that I am not responsible for the thinking or the belief of others, which, I think, is one reason that I can spend my personal time and person with a man who believes in a supernatural god or ideas. I am not his keeper. I am not responsible for what happens to him when he dies or really at any time for that matter. I do not choose an intimate partner on the basis of what he believes, but on the content of his character. In other words, my being with a man is essentially not predicated on where he lives, or how much money he makes, or how supportive he is of my thinking or behavior. My decision to be intimately involved with a potential partner is not determined by whether or not he believes in a god or whether he shares my worldview. Rather, my being with a man, or being with any person for that matter to accomplish any goal, is rooted in a healthy engagement of ideas and critical thinking. At the end of the day, I want to know who a man is overall. I want to know if he is committed to doing good; to being the best person he can be; I want to know if he is willing to use his talents and skills to help and empower others; and, is he a peaceful, loving person, even when his ideas are not supported or he does not get what he wants.

Indeed, this is not the kind of behavior that I have seen from many atheists or theists who use their positions and philosophies like weapons to discredit those who don’t ascribe to their ideas or theories of reality. These are extreme and unjustifiable attitudes that I cannot support, because the truth of the matter is that others may not choose to walk in the paths that I have taken. We each have our own paths to attend to. When I think of Martin Luther King, Jr., I don’t worry about whether he was a Christian believer or not. I respect and honor him because he was a great human being who courageously endeavored to bring about fairness and equality, and not exclusively for his own clan or Christian friends. Of course, I know that there will always be those who choose to remain divided over philosophies and ideas, but I have lived long enough to know that there is no future in divisiveness, and fortunately I know that there are those who have found the wherewithal to accept those who are different or divergent in thought, word and deed without resorting to contempt, hate and violence, but they are also not willing to let injustice and hatred go unconfronted. This kind of boldness and willingness to speak compassionately and thoughtfully, I think, is a significant part of the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. And it is, in my humble, atheist opinion, one of the attributes that made him one of the greatest human beings who ever lived on the face of the Earth.

© 2015 annalise fonza, Ph.D.

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3 thoughts on “On the Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.: From an Atheist

  1. Interesting thoughts. The Art and Science of a Man’s Character. How is it built? Is it built at all? What is it you see; feel?

    I enjoy reading your blog.

  2. Algo realmente bonito às vezes acontece como
    este too. Mas minha política quando namoro on-line foi google informações do cara antes de te conhecer him.

    Outra razão é que ele está tentando fazer você jealous.

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