Free expression – another anecdote

Once when I was 15 or 16 the topic of religion came up in a discussion in my English class. The teacher asked for our opinions and two of my classmates raised their hands and talked about their Christian beliefs. I raised my hand and, when my turn came to speak, I talked about being an atheist.

I came from a completely religion-free household, so I didn’t think that being an atheist would be particularly controversial. I had been raised to be tolerant of different beliefs and I assumed that other kids were taught tolerance as well. I had never talked about religion with any of my classmates, but I kind of assumed that the kids in my class had a mixture of different beliefs, with some atheists, some agnostics, some Christians, and maybe some other religions in there as well.

It turned out I was completely wrong about all of this: in fact everyone else in the class was Christian, including the teacher, and all of a sudden they were all pissed off at me. A couple of kids loudly started protesting “You’re not REALLY an atheist, come on!”, some other kids loudly and snidely said that I had was “just trying to get attention”, and the teacher expressed the opinion that I might be mentally ill, and threatened to send me to the principal’s office (although she didn’t follow through on that).

I was shocked and terrified by this uproar; I was a quiet dorky kid who was used to being ignored by pretty much everybody, so having the whole class start yelling at me was pretty scary. Unsurprisingly I didn’t bring talk about my atheism again to anyone until I was in my early-to-mid twenties.

That day I learned that laws alone are not enough to protect freedom of expression. There was no law against saying that you are an atheist, and yet I had still been prevented from saying it. Genuine freedom of expression can only exist in a culture where people are truly tolerant of each-others’ beliefs, even in cases where we sincerely find those beliefs to be inexplicable, threatening, and perverse.

I don’t think we’re there yet.

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