The expression of my atheism has gone through a few changes in the four short years since I officially declared myself an atheist. In 2009, I was completely green to the atheist movement as it had come to be defined by authors such as Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens. I had not read any of their books. Most of my knowledge (and criticism) of religion came from my academic pursuit of it. I read authors like William James, Emile Durkheim, James Frazer, Sigmund Freud, Pascal Boyer, in an effort to understand the origins of religious belief. As I connected with other atheists online, I soon found out that apparently the only “proper” way to be an atheist was to be a rhetorically aggressive one who regularly challenged the faith and practices of religious believers.
I gave it a try. I set aside the one commandment I try my best to follow, don’t be an asshole, and I began attacking not only religious belief, but religious believers themselves. But here’s the thing: I don’t like being that person. It does not bring me joy to make personal attacks on a religious believer’s need to believe in something which gives them emotional comfort. Ad hominem attacks are not an ideal method to persuade a person into considering an opposing viewpoint. My goal is not to deconvert religious believers. My goal is to persuade them into thinking critically about the faith to which they adhere. In turn, it is my task to listen to their (hopefully) reasoned analysis and respond with further rational discourse. There is no reason why atheists and believers cannot discuss the merits and faults of religion without it degrading into a screaming match.
The atheist movement itself on the other hand seems to have undergone a schism in which several camps under the banner of atheism do engage in screaming matches with each other as though there really was only one true way to be an atheist. One of the reasons why I enjoy calling myself an atheist is because there is no higher authority above me, be it man or god, defining the “proper” path of atheism. I do not interpret the tomes of Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens as though they were the atheist versions of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Atheism is anarchic: without authority. I read what I read, and then I decide for myself what I choose to accept. The squabbles among many particularly vocal atheists online have disillusioned me to pretty much the entire atheist movement. If this is how atheists are going to behave, then I don’t want to be any part of it.
Martin Pribble, an Australian atheist writer, recently published a blog post titled “I Quit“, in which he explained why he is no longer choosing to call himself an atheist activist. He writes that “[r]eligion itself, by itself, is not what is harming us. What harms us is fanaticism, and fanaticism in any form tends to be come [sic] blinkered if left to its own.” It’s dishonest, if not downright malicious, for me as an atheist to make the claim to a religious believer that their belief alone makes them a bad person. I know far too many religious believers of all faiths who actively fight for human rights, secular values, equality and justice for all. To dismiss their contributions, and their humanity, just because they believe in something I don’t would make me an asshole, and I don’t want to be an asshole.
This does not mean that I will cease being critical of the religions religious believers practice. I am a religious scholar. I study the origins, development, and practices of the religions of the world. Doing this exposes me to ideas and evidence which challenges many theological claims religions profess, and I want to make light of these contradictions and find out how religious believers deal with them. I think it is in the best interest of all religious believers for them to study their faiths in an academic context because it offers useful historical and cultural insight into their religion.
Though I stand apart from the greater atheist movement, I remain an atheist. I still adhere to the position that there is no place for religion in politics or science, and I will continue to speak out against such incursions. I will still condemn those who justify oppression in the name of religion, and those who sanction violence in the name of faith. But no longer will I dismiss a potential ally in the causees of equality, justice, and secular values just because they are a religious believer. Of course, I still have my own principles to uphold as a nonbeliever, but I would much rather be inclusive than divisive. I may catch flak from other atheists for taking this position, but then I didn’t come out as an atheist to engage in groupthink.