A Godless Proposal: A Kinder, Gentler Atheist

I'm not much of a joiner. I have a hard time affiliating with organizations whose policies or ideologies I can't fully embrace.

I fully admit to doing so from time to time (I am a registered Democrat, after all). If we went through life only aligning with organizations, products, services, and politicians with which we agree 100%, we would probably be living off the grid in adobes, wearing loin cloths.

But when it comes to social and civic organizations, charities, and such, I'm skittish. I have avoided the Boy Scouts for their discrimination against homosexuals and atheists. I stopped dropping money in the Salvation Army kettles since I learned of their LGBT policies.

So, when a secular, pro-equality fellow like myself looks for kindred spirits, often he is pointed to secular and atheist organizations. They have become plentiful in the past decade, thanks in part to the internet and the rise in popularity of secular/atheist books, blogs, and websites -- all of which have helped many non-believers come out of hiding.

I am quite fond of many secular organizations and their members. I applaud many of their fantastic philanthropic projects, awareness campaigns, community-building initiatives, and the support systems they provide and foster. However, I have trouble committing to some of them due to philosophical differences.

Although I am a non-believer who came from a religious background, I am not the least bit resentful about my religious past (I grew up in a fairly liberal Methodist church). Unlike some who have left the church, I did not leave in disgust, or because of a bad experience. I left the church, and religion, simply because I could no longer admit that I accepted the doctrine beliefs. I did not believe, and therefore, I didn't belong there anymore. It would be like continuing to show up for piano lessons after having one's fingers amputated.

At times, I cringe at some of the undertakings of my fellow secularists. Take, for example, some of the holiday-themed initiatives. There are nativity brouhahas in Santa Monica and Athens, TX. There was the crucified skeleton Santa display in Leesburg, VA. There are the evergreen battles to remove 'Under God' from the Pledge of Allegiance. There are in-your-face campaigns that tend to condescend to believers by claiming Jesus is a myth, or that there probably is no God.

To be clear, I do understand these endeavors. I get the sentiment. I don't disagree one bit that nativity scenes (or statues of Jesus, or engravings of the ten commandments) on government property are completely at odds with the Constitution's Establishment Clause. I don't disagree that it is rude to only acknowledge the Christian winter holiday this time of year. I don't disagree that much of the Bible (or much of religion) is mythical in nature. And I certainly don't disagree that non-believers are essentially invisible to society and to the government.

What I'm not crazy about is the antagonistic nature of some of the campaigns. (And I do realize that many atheists would not see these as antagonistic -- it depends on one's perspective, to be sure.)

I also tend to think that there are other, more important issues to address -- issues that can be addressed without further alienating ourselves. Is the removal of 'under God' in the pledge really more important than ensuring our kids learn about evolution in schools? Is it really that important that we insert ourselves into Christmas tree and nativity scene turf wars when we could funnel that time and energy into educating people about the science behind gender and sexuality and combating the religion-based bigotry that drives many LGBT teens to suicide?

I think it is difficult to gain acceptance and respect by systematically antagonizing average citizens who happen to be religious (many of which don't share the same religious views that we may find harmful). Part of my reluctance to antagonize is because I am still very close to my religious family members (and they are supportive and understanding of my secular approach to life), and I have many religious friends who share most of my political and social ideologies -- they just happen to also believe in God. I don't like throwing these people out with the bathwater.

While I certainly do not refrain from ridiculing specific religious beliefs or ideologies which cause harm or perpetuate bigotry (just ask any of my Facebook friends), I don't think that a scorched earth approach accomplishes much, except for furthering the stereotype that atheists are angry, smug, antagonistic, condescending, untrustworthy, and lacking in morals.

Call me crazy, but I tend to think that there is a particular group of people that can be extremely helpful to non-believers in combating negative stereotypes, and reaching some of our goals: progressive Christians. Christian writers such as John Shore, Mark Sandlin, and organizations such as The Christian Left, Believe Out Loud, and the Clergy Letter Project, are more closely aligned with the values of secular folks than one might imagine. These folks are progressives. They are pro-equality, pro-science, pro-evolution, and they have the same distaste for theocratic politicians as we do. They get angry when Christians use scripture to validate bigotry, or to deny overwhelming scientific evidence. They, too, are often maligned, berated, and threatened by Christians.

We are so focused on the fact that we disagree on the big questions that we don't see that we agree on all of the other ones. All of us want evolution taught in schools, religious dogma out of politics, and equal treatment for all. All of us want progress. All of us long for a time in America when the thought of a Bachmann, Santorum, Perry, or Palin in the White House is closer to science fiction than reality.

My Christian family and friends remind me that, for many people, religion does have a lot to offer. I am also reminded that these people are important to promoting progressive causes within their churches and their religious communities. They are much better positioned to do so than you or I.

I realize that there are many atheists and non-believers who long for a day when religion is a curious phenomenon we read about in history books. While it is likely that humans will evolve to a point where religion takes a different form (and perhaps a less-prominent role), I have a hard time believing that religion will become extinct. We would be wise to accept this, and focus instead on combating the aspects of religion that can be harmful, specifically religion-based bigotry, scriptural literalism, and anti-science ideologies. We can accomplish these things without attacking religion as a whole. As the saying goes, 'use a scalpel, not an ax.'

That's not to say that there is no place for the angry, antagonistic atheist-- there absolutely is. We need the Dawkinses, the Hitchenses, the Harrises, and the Dennetts, just as we need any uncompromising figures in a variety of disciplines to open our eyes and challenge our long-held beliefs. We need people who shake us out of slumber. We need these uncompromising atheists, just as we need lightning rods to expose animal cruelty, government corruption, environmental threats, and social injustices. However, when we all follow suit (and especially when less-eloquent and less-tactful individuals follow suit), we can lose respect, we can perpetuate stereotypes, and, in the end, we are left preaching to the godless choir.

I have had a great deal of success, on a small scale, engaging the religious by discussing particular aspects of theology that trouble me. I will often leave behind any arguments about the existence or non-existence of God. Instead, I address specific religious ideologies which contribute to science denialism, bigotry, misogyny, and social injustice.

Isn't a world in which the godless and the faithful share similar objectives better than a world where the godless are continually at war with the faithful? Which of these two scenarios is more likely to lead to a more secular society? Which is more likely to lead to a progressive culture characterized by tolerance, equality, evidence-based policy, respect for people of all faiths (or no faith), and clearer boundaries between church and state?

I believe that such a reality is possible. I also believe we are more likely to reach it through building bridges than by digging chasms.

I came to my secular worldview on my own terms. Nobody twisted my arm or ridiculed me into disbelief. It was through calm, deliberate reflection and critical thought. It required a casual exploration of literature and self-education in the areas of science, philosophy, and history. For many like myself, with strong ties to the church and people of faith, condescension and antagonism would have made that transition more difficult. For some, it might completely halt such a transition.

The best way to convince a meat-eater to become a vegan is not to erect a sign in front of their house complete with images of slaughtered animals and condescending remarks labeling that individual as ignorant and ethically bankrupt. A more effective approach might be to politely suggest that it's possible to live a healthy life without eating meat or using animal products.  One is more likely to create more vegans by letting others know that it's not easy, and that it's not for everyone, but that it can be a fulfilling and healthy way to live. Providing educational resources and support, and engaging others in polite discussion, is much more effective than an aggressive onslaught of condescension, ridicule, and judgment.

When I first explained that I was no longer a believer to my mother, she said, "Well, just don't call yourself an atheist." It was a funny statement, to be sure, but very telling. First of all, it said to me that my mother still loved me. Secondly, while she wasn't so upset about the non-belief part, she was well aware of the stigma attached to that word and felt I was too good of a person to deserve such derision.

That stigma will go away eventually. (The Tea Party is now more disliked than atheists.) We can choose to blame the religious for this stigma, and further alienate ourselves, or we can choose to erase the stigma by being living examples of that stigma's inaccuracy.

Maybe we can get some work done while we're at it.


  1. Great post! One that I will have to share with some folks I know that may learn a thing or two. I sure did.


  2. I would allow my inner Hitchens to respond to this, but I just can't summon the vitriol right now (Damn it!), and besides, it's almost Christmas. Well said, good sir.

  3. Well said, Shep.

    I do, however, detect a weak thread.

    You speak of "antagonistic nature of some of the campaigns," and I agree with you. As do many secularists and atheists. The problem is we don't all agree on what's antagonistic and what isn't.

    I thought it was interesting that you included that comic at the top, which to me makes this point (sort of): one person's reasoned argument is another person's antagonism.

    You of course address this later, where you say there is a place for the angry atheist -- provided they're actually good at it. Once again, I agree, as do many; but we won't always agree on who is good at it.

    It reminds me of a youtube debate I watched between a priest and an atheist. The atheist was TERRIBLE, and I cringed as he "made us" look terrible and I wanted to cry cry and I wanted him to stop.... except I didn't really want him to stop.

    I want reason popping up everywhere. I want to hear reason argued in every venue possible, showing up in the most surprising places. And the idea that that might happen, and that I would also agree with every one of the arguments is just, well, unrealistic.

    And finally, regarding "The best way to convince..." well, it's not necessarily true. While I've watched the arguments between the nice atheists and the mean atheists (a stupid shorthand, sorry), I've seen both sides trot out decent evidence to support their side. For myself, an evidence-dirven person, I'm currently thinking that there isn't one way. There are different kinds of arguments, different kinds of reactions, and different paths to personal change.

    To be clear, in my day-to-day dealings I'm on board with you. I don't like antagonism. I like people.

    But I think one of the strengths of the reason movement right now is the tremendous variety of approaches, and I think this variety should be encouraged-- even though that may mean cringing at the occasional atheist asshole.

    (Oh I have gone on. I should've made this a post on my blog, instead of filling up yours. Sorry about that...)

  4. Hey Matt, all valid points. (And you 'go on' as long as you want, as far as I'm concerned.)

    I do hear you on each point. I think, at the end of the day, what I am trying to say is, 'hey, let's not be such dicks.'

    It's hard to put into words exactly who needs to be called out, and who needs to keep it up. It's like pornography -- i know it when I see it. Difficult to put a finger on exactly what it is that makes one individual or group's approach more valid than another's -- or why Dawkins being uncompromising and in-your-face is more acceptable than somebody's atheist uncle on Facebook.

    Your point above (about one person's antagonism is another person's argument) was made very clear to me last night. I had tweeted a link to this post earlier in the day. And then later, I had tweeted a link to a story by Christian writer John Shore (mentioned above) in which he relayed a story about a pastor who told a girl who was raped that if she had died during the attack then at least she would have died a virgin. An acquaintance saw my tweeting this link as being hypocritical after writing the above blog post that same day. So, even though I felt that the John Shore post was simply a very good Christian perspective on some of the misguided applications of religious ideology, someone else saw it as an antagonistic tweet making generalizations about religious people.

    So, yes. This is a problem, and it was certainly one of the reasons why I included the cartoon.

    I'm not quite sure what to do about that problem, other than to try to be consistent. I *try* (I am very often not successful) to attack the aspects of religion that bother me (or, rather, harmful applications of religious ideology) instead of attacking religion.

    That's more or less what I am speaking to in the above piece -- the wish that more atheists/humanists could perhaps narrow their focus and combat the things that even our progressive Christian friends agree deserve ridicule, rather than just taking a sledge hammer to religion as a whole.

    I realize that many, including Dawkins and Harris, believe that moderate religion is just as much of a problem in that it it leads us to respect and "cherish the idea that certain fantastic propositions can be believed without evidence." (to quote Harris)

    I tend to disagree. And maybe this is, in part, due to the fact that I don't like offending family members and friends who are devout, and who are awesome people. But these people, at least the ones I know, are not part of the problem, in my view. I see them as wise folks who can be instrumental in leading many fundamentalists and scriptural literalists into a more rational religious approach, one that embraces science, evolution, equality, pacifism, empathy, etc.

    Certainly a topic that deserves more than just a single blog post.

  5. Squidocto, Reason is a practice, not a worldview. Eric, you are a plurationalist, along with other atheists, theists, conservatives and liberals who believe in using reason as the interface between their personal worldviews and the society in which they live:
    Plurationalsim: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Circle_of_Reason
    Society for Plurationalism: www.circleofreason.org