The healthcare sector is especially sensitive to cultural competency for a clear reason; people get hurt when doctors or nurses cannot communicate effective with the patients they treat or fail to understand the cultural baggage that the people they’re treating carry with them. Cultural competency applies to the capacity for those within the mainstream culture to be able to engage those who identify with a minority culture. Cultural competency became a matter of importance for the healthcare industry starting in the 1970s when a new wave of immigrants arrived from Southeast Asia and Latin America; soon doctors had to treat patients with a poor understanding of English and an underdeveloped knowledge of American culture. Such a situation can be frustrating for all parties involved, at best. At worst patients die unnecessarily when people mis-communicate.
While it may not be a life or death situation for most atheists, the irreligious are too often the recipients of hostility from the dominant religiously devout sector of the country. Cultural competency is not a black-or-white dichotomy; there is a gradation of competency ranging from a willfully destructive mentality against other cultures to an acceptance of another culture’s differences. And as in all things, each different tradition and denomination of Christianity is sprawled out across that continuum. On the one end of the spectrum, conservative branches of Christianity make it quite clear; atheism is an abomination and elements within right-leaning sects of Christianity actively and wantonly harass atheists, homosexuals, and other minority groups into converting to their brand of Constitutionally-protected bigotry. And on the other end of the spectrum, some liberal schools of thought in Christianity have embraced diversity, even welcoming atheists and believers in other faiths into fellowship. In between these two extremes there’s a mentality of unintentional destructiveness that arises out of ignorance. This mentality can eventually give way to proficiency when members of the more dominant culture become more aware of their negligence and adopt and subsequently support a commitment to civil rights.
In general, Christianity practices a deliberate cultural incapacity to work with the Other; while most Christians do not actively assault or criticize other faiths or views, there is an implicit argument being made. Conversations about gay marriage or the separation of church and state are deftly avoided or simply ignored. While no one explicitly denigrates these topics in public, (in private is surely another matter) these topics are treated as taboo. There’s an unspoken agreement that these topics are unacceptable to talk about. That negligence is just as destructive as any polemic. It marginalizes an issue that determines the legal status and social acceptance of millions of GLBT community members. By refusing to recognize the importance of this issue, Christianity is culpable. The dominant Christian culture in the United States cannot be avoided. And it cannot be ignored. For all of the griping prominent members of the religious community may do about the lamentable decline of faith in America, Christianity is not going anywhere; nor will its influence on our pop culture, politics, or science relent. It permeates all aspects of our society, and in order to thrive in the United States, those in the minority have to adapt or dig in.
Within the atheist community, there are two reactions to the overbearing nature of Christianity; one can accommodate. or they can antagonize. Accommodation is a natural reaction to the overwhelming influence of Christianity in our society. Whether in terms of power, money, or access to those resources, Christians hold the lion’s share of the wealth and high-ranking political offices in the United States. In order to make change, atheists need to utilize those resources. When faced with pressure from the outside to conform, some groups seek to end discord by integrating into the Christian culture. Compromise is an essential part of the democratic political process and in order to combat the problems facing the country, atheists join diverse coalitions to become part of a broad based of support. It also necessarily requires them to hold their silence at times in order to maintain the harmony and focus within the group. By joining the interfaith coalitions, by working within the existing networks of churches and searching for common ground, these atheists display a high level of cultural competence. In doing so they are taking responsibility for and enabling a two-thousand year history of violence and degradation that is not their fault. By accommodating Christians, it lets the theists off the hook for the damage they continue to do in this country.
Other atheists antagonize Christianity; as full-on anti-theists they seek to end the lithified and hegemonic dominance of Christianity. Their goal is not so much to directly change the minds of Christians, but to activate those in the community who lack faith to be more vocal about what they believe and what they don’t. By inspiring the irreligious to be more open about their worldview, it breaks through that shield of negligence that Christians have put up to ignore or avoid views that contradict their own. When atheists are no longer merely tolerated but respected, it paves the way for recognition and respect. This path also comes with consequences. Many atheists within the community also behave unnecessarily antagonistically towards others; r/atheism comes to mind. By alienating a large segment of the country, it can intensify the hostility atheists face. People aren’t usually persuaded through logical arguments, they tend to be persuaded by emotional appeal. Crusading for a scientific world solely using rational arguments is inefficient, at best. And a more rational or scientific world does not necessarily mean a more peaceful world or even a more compassionate world.
Ultimately, the two mentalities are needed to empower the atheist community. Although there is still certainly debate among atheists as to when it’s appropriate to engage theists in a way that’s combative or to cooperate. One thing is for sure; there is room for both perspectives, and as long as atheists are treated in a myriad ways from a weary mix of hostility to uneasy acceptance or even tolerance, both perspectives will continue to be necessary. As long as Christianity is an influential force in the United States, if history is any guide, the institution will largely continue to disparage atheism and atheists will need to flex their political, social, and economic might in order to earn the respect afforded to them.