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Why Do Atheists Have to Talk About Atheism?

Thinking you're right and trying to persuade other people you're right is not intolerant or close-minded -- it's a cornerstone of democracy.

Whenever the subject of atheism comes up, anywhere that isn't an atheist discussion group or something, one sentiment almost inevitably comes up:

"I wish atheists wouldn't talk so much about atheism."

The sentiment gets worded in many different ways. "The new atheists are so evangelical." "This atheist criticism of religion is just intolerant." "You atheists are just as close-minded as the hard-line religious believers you're criticizing."

But the essence of it is the same: The fact that many atheists are talking publicly about our atheism, and are trying to persuade people that we're right about it, shows that we're ... well, evangelical, intolerant and close-minded. So today, I want to explain why so many atheists think it's important to talk about atheism ... and why many of us try to persuade other people that atheism is correct.

The first answer is the most obvious: Anti-atheist bigotry. Atheists talk about atheism because there's a lot of misunderstanding and hostility toward us. It's nowhere near as severe as racism or sexism; but it does exist, and it has real-world consequences.

Parents are denied custody of their children for being atheists; people are harassed and and their homes vandalized by their neighbors for being atheists; teachers are suspended for being atheists; teenagers are harassed and suspended from school for being atheists; politicians whip up anti-atheist fear to try to get elected. (And that's just in the U.S. I'm not even talking about parts of the world where atheism is a crime punishable by imprisonment or death.)

Making ourselves visible, coming out about who we are and what we do and don't believe, is the best way we have to counter that.

That's only a small part of the story, though. Another part -- and probably more important -- is that many atheists see religion not just as a mistaken idea but as a harmful one. We see it as a serious social problem, a type of belief that on the whole does significantly more harm than good ... and one that, because of its ultimately unfalsifiable nature, has little or none of the reality checks that other belief systems eventually have to measure up to.

We see people bombing buildings, abusing children, committing flagrant fraud, shooting political dissenters, etc., etc., etc., all behind the armor of religion ... and we feel a need to speak out.

Even that, though, is missing the crux of the issue. The crux of the issue, the most important answer to the question, "Why do atheists have to talk about atheism?" is this: Why shouldn't we?

Thinking you're right, and trying to persuade other people you're right, is not intolerant or close-minded -- it's a cornerstone of democracy. That's how it works: people explain their ideas, debate them, make arguments to support them, revise or refine or drop them in the face of valid criticism, make snarky jokes in the face of stupid criticism.

The marketplace of ideas won't flourish if people don't bring their ideas to the market. Being close-minded doesn't mean thinking you're right; it means refusing to reconsider your position, even when the evidence suggests that you're wrong. And being intolerant doesn't mean thinking other people are wrong; it means refusing to listen to them, and dismissing them entirely as stupid or wicked, simply because you disagree with them.

Think of it this way. Is it intolerant or close-minded to say that single-payer is the best plan for the American health care system? That public funding for solar power will reduce our dependence on foreign oil? That global warming is real? That the theory of evolution is right? Is it intolerant or close-minded to try to persuade people to come around to any of these points of view? And if not ... then why is it intolerant or close-minded for atheists to explain why we don't believe in God and to try to persuade people that, of all the ideas people have about religion, atheism is the most plausible?

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