After some deep thinking and a few cigars, this is what i came up with: "Religions are like hats"
~~~ A hat is always a hat and never anything else. It's a hat. You can it different names but a hat is a hat. But one can wear different kinds of hats. There are different shapes and different colours. Atheism (or better the absence of religious beliefs) is like 'no hat' or 'not a hat'. But when religious and non-religious people try to discuss religion (or the lack there of) religious people tend to think that non-religious people just wear another kind of hat. And this is a problem. Religious people often think that atheism is the absence of (a) god. Their god. And since their gods is absolutely real the non-religious person is living his life, on purpose or by accident, denying or oblivious to the presence of that existing god. It's hard to talk to somebody that is convinced of this. How do you explain that not wearing a hat is not 'wearing a different kind of hat'. ~~~
Some time after this i had more less the same discussion with a (rather fanatical but extremely tolerant) Christian friend. This friend is a (did i say fanatical?) Christian most of his life and his faith is a daily activity for him. Dealing with people of other faiths and people without any religion as well. However, despite of his experience, the hat-no hat analogy was totally new to him. As it made him think and we had a nice discussion about it (i mentioned he was quite tolerant) i decided to write some of this down. it's a rough sketch meant to start open and intelligent discussions.
~ So religions are like hats. And a hat is always a hat. If we see religions like hats, a religious person is wearing his or her religion like a hat. And like religions, there are a few basic types of hats that are just not much different from each other. But per basic type of hat there are many variations. Different shapes, different sizes, different colors, different things added to the hat. Two of the most important features of any hat are that you can take them off and you can put them on. Sometimes other people try and succeed to convince others to either put it on or take it off. One can change hats by taking one off and putting another on. It's possible to try and wear more than one hat, but it's very confusing and messy. It's better to only wear one hat at a time. Wearing more than one hat sort of defeats the purpose of the hat. You can forget your hat. One can, by accident or on purpose, take it of and leave it somewhere. Forever or one can go find it and put it back on later. But regardless of all this a hat is always a hat.
Now; Atheism is like 'not a hat'.
People of 'no religion' do not wear hats like the ones described in the case of religious people above. A non-religious person can certainly put one of the many available hats on. Thereby shifting from being non-religious to religious. If one would want to stop belonging to that particular religion one only needs to take of that hat he or she once put on. thereby going going back to being without religion, or in other words; hat-less.
The problem in trying to have a useful dialogue with a religious person (of any religion) is that a lot of religious people are convinced that atheism means 'just wearing another kind of hat'. And it's very hard to explain the 'no hat' principle' to someone that has a conviction that everyone is wearing a hat. It's very hard to get across that every human being is born, with no exception, with 'no hat' on. One is not born wearing a hat of any sort. A lot of religious people live with the conviction however that this is fundamentally wrong. To them, a child born into their Christian family is, by default, from day 1, immediately also a Christian like them. A Muslim will say the same thing about children born from Muslim mothers and fathers and so will people of the Jewish faith. This is a fundamental 'roadblock' in any discussion between hat-less people and people that wear hats.
No matter what someone's conviction is; We start out 'hat-less'. If one is brought up in an environment where everyone he or she knows is wearing a certain type of hat there is a decent chance that, at least in the beginning of his or her life, he or she will wear a similar hat. When one grows up that hat is sometimes taken off, forgotten for a while or it remains on depending on the circumstances of that persons life. The best example i can think of that proves this are the numerous children from very poor regions in Asian countries that were shipped to European parents who lovingly and with the very best intentions adopted them when they are babies. And even though their background was Muslim or Buddhist or any other kind of religion, in Europe these babies grow up mostly Christian or without a religion depending on the background of the new parents. There are no cases of children doing anything else during the first years of their life. Maybe once they become teenagers or adults they choose to switch to another religion or be non-religious but that is a human decision. Basically to put on a hat, another hat or take their hat off.
People that are without (a set of) religious beliefs (the no-hat people) are often hat-less because they started out that way and simply choose to never put on a hat. Some of them never had to make a choice, others had to fight off many hat wearing people that, vigorously, tried to convince them to put on their kind of hat. Others have been brought up with a hat (very probably the same hat their family has always been wearing) and, at a certain point and for a certain reason, choose to take that off hat. Sometimes the hat is discarded without much effort and some only manage to break free from wearing the hat after a great internal and sometimes also external struggle. And if he or she never chooses to put on a hat that person remains 'without a hat'. He or she simply did not put on another hat. Both groups of people are often called 'atheists' because they are (literally) 'without (a) god' or 'without religion'. Or 'without hats' if you will. And very often religious people (often with the best intentions and no hostility whatsoever) think of hat-less people as 'part of some form of a group'. A group that shows all the similarities to the group they belong too. Going with the example of a Christian, to them there is a Christian 'group' and there is an atheist 'group'. And as the Christian 'group' has a pretty nicely ordered set of rules and regulations the atheist 'group' must have them too. Unfortunately, ironically but to obviously without intent to do this, the very existence of ThinkAtheist.com and similar on- and offline communities of non-religious people contribute to this misconception with religious people. Or at least; it doesn't help. And all of this this a pretty big problem when trying to discuss the 'no hat' situation with religious people.
The reason of course, is that there is no 'no hat' group. There are hat-less people that do not care about hats and that typically will avoid discussions about hats or religions. There are hat-less people that have a deep rooted hatred for all hats and these people sometimes look for discussions and conflicts with anyone defending the wearing of hats in general or their hat specifically. Some hat-less people have a similar hatred for 1 specific kind of hat. Sometimes because they started out their lives wearing that particular hat and carrying with them a lot of pain and bad memories for that hat. Sometime, and this is one i am still puzzled about, hat-less people hate one particular kind of hat for the reason that that hat is, to their opinion, the worst of all hats. For example I'm seeing a lot of hat-less people putting in a lot of time discussing the evilness of hat number one and spending very little time on hat number two because, to their opinion, hat number two is not as evil as number one. Anyway; There are many many different kinds of hat-less people, in besides those examples. So being part of this group of hat-less people doesn't mean that everyone thinks the same about the 'wearing of hats' or 'not wearing hats'. Even though a lot of religious people, mainly in discussions about wearing or not wearing a hat, tend to throw us (the non religious, hat-less atheists) on one big pile.
To my opinion a really effective and useful discussion about being religious or being 'of no religion' is going to be quite hard as long as religious people keep entering these discussions with the presumption that atheists are all part of one nicely ordered homogeneous group with nicely documented and published set of rules and regulations. And that we, like them, are wearing a hat. Of course.
by the way; i love hats.
My sincerest apologies for any typo's, spelling mistakes or bad grammar. English is not my first language and i am, be it mildly, dyslectic. \o/ for spellchekc!