How do you practice your atheism? At first glance, this seems like a silly question, since atheism is defined by the lack of practice—specifically, the lack of religious practice. When you think about it, though, there are two deeper levels at which this question is sensible. The first is that atheism is generally a result of skepticism, and maintaining skeptical habits of mind, resisting blind faith and evaluating sources of knowledge, is an active pursuit. Many have written about this form of the “atheist practice,” and I will not dwell on it here.
The second interpretation of the question is what I want to discuss: as members of the atheist movement, how do we relate to the larger world? In other words, beyond simply interpreting our lives through an atheist lens, what contributions can we, as atheists, bring to society at large? How do we represent ourselves and “the movement” to the rest of society?
My contention in this essay is that in the pride of the New Atheism, not all our actions contribute towards the goals that we hold.
First and foremost, we seem to snicker a lot at theists. We do this because we’re so obviously right and they are so obviously wrong….but what does this accomplish? It reinforces the us-vs-them exclusivity, marking our membership in the in-group and their status as outsiders who just don’t get it. It is a way for us to be comfortable in our superiority. How useful is this sneering? It speaks to our basest impulses, those of demonizing the other, the very root of the ills we often decry in religion. As a practical matter, it does not make theists more receptive to our arguments: are you willing to hear someone else on the merits of their position when they are calling you stupid and baseless? Though we may get some enjoyment out of this ridicule, it does not advance rational discussion and makes us complicit in further fragmenting the town hall into a series of echo chambers.
Second, we proselytize. We tell people why atheism is the better choice, and why they have no grounds to be theists. Why do we do this? Because we’re right, of course! But now step back for a second. Think about the Christian proselytizers, or for that matter anyone who defends their religion. Why do they do this? Because they think they’re right, too. We are coming from the (eminently reasonable, to us) position that there’s no reason to believe things for which there is no evidence, and that it’s alright to admit ignorance of things we do not yet understand. Theists, however, are of the mindset, all too historically human, that the unexplained must involve supernatural agents and that traditional explanations must be true even if unverifiable. Given these fundamental differences, proselytizing is just loudly speaking past each other.
Third, we seek to make ourselves known to those who are seeking. There are those who are unsatisfied with the theist world view but don’t know of a better alternative. There are those who do but who are daunted by the prospect of being alone and ostracized by the social groups in which they are embedded. Knowing that there is a community of like-minded people who have thought about and are comfortable with these issues is a huge help for these folks. Note that this third point is somewhat analogous to the previous point about proselytizing, but the difference I am making is this: proselytizing is about converting people who have a different worldview and are not necessarily troubled by it; making ourselves available is about receiving with open arms those who are already predisposed to become atheists.
Fourth, we seek to gain acceptance and humanize ourselves to others. A common trope is that atheists are evil, and that we cannot possibly be moral without a revelatory holy book to guide us. Debunking these myths is an important and critical part of who we are. It dignifies us as individuals in the face of others’ contempt. It protects us as a movement of like-minded individuals. It helps us in welcoming newcomers, by removing the fear that we might be some strange, inhuman “other.” And it is the foundation for fighting for a place at the political table, which brings me to the final point:
Fifth, we argue for public policy. While minority religions are often good about supporting the separation of church and state, that support often wanes as those religions gain ascendancy. From our non-religious perch, we are in a good position to fight for the underdog, for those world views that are not those of the majority religion. At some point in the (unfortunately) distant future, should we ourselves become a majority, we will have to remember these lessons in tolerance as we allow others to hold what views they will, even if we personally think them wrong.
As atheists come out of the closet and gain more visibility in America, we face an important opportunity to present humanism as a viable world view for individuals, one that can act as a strong defender of a secular society that makes decisions rationally while protecting freedom of conscience. We’re more likely to achieve this if we stop the sneering and the proselytizing, and instead focus on visibility, outreach, and public policy. Given the theocratic bent of current political discourse, it is vitally important that we get this right—the stakes couldn’t be higher.