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How to Get on an Atheist's Good Side

Here's nine tips for believers who want to reach out. After all, atheists are a growing movement and may soon be a force to be reckoned with.

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Remember that not everybody is a religious believer. And I don't just mean that not everybody belongs to a traditional religious organization. Many people have no religious or spiritual beliefs at all. So if you're talking to a group, don't ask people to pray. Don't talk about "our Creator." Don't talk about the spirit that moves within all of us. I don't have a creator, and I don't have a spirit, and I don't pray.

If you want to talk about your own religious beliefs, then please, by all means, go ahead and do so. Say that you're going to pray. Tell us about your creator. Talk about the spirit that moves within you. But don't assume that everyone you're talking to shares your beliefs, or indeed has any religious beliefs at all. Don't -- as a commenter in this blog observed at a No on Prop 8 rally -- talk about the wonderful work churches are doing for your movement, and the wonderful work being done by people who don't go to church but still believe in God, and neglect to mention the people who don't believe in God but still passionately support your cause. In the same way that (I hope) you try to remember that there are probably people in your audience who aren't white, or college-educated, or able-bodied, or whatever, please try to remember that there are probably people in your audience who aren't religious or spiritual.

(And don't do fake inclusion, either. Saying, "No matter what your religious beliefs or lack thereof are, let's all pray or meditate," is like saying, "No matter what your religious beliefs are, let's all give thanks to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ." No matter how good your intentions are, it’s not inclusive. It's a back-handed slap.)

Cut 6: Don't divide and conquer, and don't try to take away our anger.

Don't divide us into "good atheists" and "bad atheists" based on how vocal or angry we are. Don't say things like, "Well, you seem reasonable -- but that Richard Dawkins and that Christopher Hitchens, they're just so mean and intolerant!"

I hope I don't have to tell you about the ugly history of dividing activists for social change into "the good ones" who are polite and soft-spoken and easy for the privileged power structure to get along with, and "the bad ones" who are angry, rabble- rousing trouble- makers. I hope I don't have to explain about the not- no- subtle message behind it: "We're fine with you as long as you don't speak up too loudly, and don't make us too uncomfortable, and don't ask for too much."

Like every other movement for social change I can think of, the atheist movement has its more diplomatic members and its more confrontational ones. And like every other movement for social change I can think of, the atheist movement needs both. It's more powerful with both. Both methods together work better than either one would work on its own.

Besides, we all know that Hitchens is an asshole. It's not news to us.

Lack_of_respect 7: If you're going to accuse an atheist or an atheist group of being intolerant -- be careful, and make sure that's really what they're being.

Atheists often get accused of being intolerant for saying things like, "I don't agree with you," or, "You haven't made your case," or, "I think you're mistaken -- and here, exactly, is why." Atheists often get accused of bigotry when, in fact, they've been very careful to criticize specific ideas and actions rather than insult entire classes of people. Atheists often get accused of being close-minded for firmly stating their case and saying that, unless they see some good evidence or arguments to the contrary, they're going to stand by it. Atheists, as Richard Dawkins recently pointed out, often get accused of being insulting or hateful for discussing religion in the kind of language that is commonly accepted in political opinion pieces or restaurant reviews.

 
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