Character Is What Really Counts

By Mike Dishnow, June 09, 2013

Published in the La Crosse Tribune.

It’s easy to name famous and accomplished atheists — Mark Twain, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Jodie Foster, Marlene Dietrich and Richard Branson. It is also easy to name famous and accomplished believers — Francis Collins, Denzel Washington, Chuck Norris, Martin Sheen, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., James C. Penny and Conrad Hilton.

As you can see from the names on this list, it’s character and what one does — not belief in a higher power — that counts.

There are many instances of intolerant and horrific events that have occurred in the name of Christianity and Islam, and there are many other instances of horrific events that have occurred in nations proclaiming a national policy of atheism. It’s the people, not their beliefs, that are the underlying factor.

The ongoing war of words between theists and nontheists is futile and unlikely to change many minds. Most adults have settled for themselves the question of God’s existence.

This debate might be valuable to young people, but the trick is to keep the debate positive and respectful so they don’t learn the wrong lesson.

Many questions have no answers, and a leap of faith often is required. For a Christian, this may seem obvious; for an atheist this may be problematic.
Why are we here? What caused the universe and all that exists? What does life mean? What are our responsibilities as sentient beings? Tolerance for those who have reached different conclusions to these questions is the ideal.

The label of atheist has always been a kiss of death in the United States. It was true in the time of Thomas Jefferson, and it continues to this day. Politicians often wear their religion like a badge of honor, and to run for office as an atheist is rarely a winning strategy.

Freethinkers are speaking up because they want and deserve the same respect afforded traditional Christianity. It’s easy to fall into the trap of tribalism, but this not healthy or practical. Respect for the worldviews of those who differ from us is the key that is often missing.

I left the fold of Catholic Church as a young man. I simply could not understand, nor believe, the statements and ideology espoused by the elderly priests in my local church. Yet many of my cousins, friends and classmates in Catechism classes remain faithful today.

As an atheist, I don’t know what is correct for anyone other than myself.
There are as many paths to the truth as there are people to walk these paths. One of the three major religious icons, the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, said, “Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.”
A lifetime of philosophical and religious readings has provided gems of wisdom
from all major religious and philosophical tracts.

Travel has only heightened this awareness. A recent month-long sojourn in Taiwan exposed me to Buddhism, Daoism and Confucianism — and combinations thereof. Observing the local culture and seeing the benefits of these practices first-hand is revealing. The respect the Taiwanese people afford other belief systems, including Christianity, provided a true “teaching moment.”

The truth lies in tolerance and respect for those whose beliefs and worldviews differ from our own. Only the most arrogant and foolish among us can say they have the answers to the great world’s mysteries.

Freethinkers are a diverse group, as are Christians or members of the other great religious traditions. There is truth and wisdom to be gleaned from the teachings of all of these belief systems. It is time for us to jettison the us-vs.-them mentality and realize we are all in this together.

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