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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.

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See, here's the thing, atheists see religion as a lot of things. But for many of us, religion is, above all else, a hypothesis about how the world works and why it is the way it is.

Obviously, we think it's a mistaken hypothesis: inconsistent with itself, inconsistent with reality, unsupported by any good evidence. We can't prove our case with 100 percent certainty -- that's pretty much impossible, especially when you're trying to prove a negative -- but we think we can make a pretty good case.

But more to the point: We see no reason to treat religion any differently from any other hypothesis about the world. We think it's valid to ask it to support its case just like any other hypothesis ... and just like any other hypothesis, we think it's valid to poke holes in it in public.

And we think one of the main reasons religion has survived for so long is that it's so impressively armored against criticism and indeed against the very idea that criticism of it is an acceptable thing to do.

So we therefore think criticizing religion is not only valid, but important. It doesn't just chip away at religious beliefs themselves. It chips away at the idea that religious beliefs should be immune to criticism. It chips away at the armor that religion has used so effectively for so many centuries to shield itself from any and all questions and critiques.

Now, playing devil's advocate for a moment: Some may argue that I'm being hypocritical; that I'll decry the evangelism of evangelical believers, but am willing to defend it in atheists.

But I don't, in fact, have a problem with evangelical believers trying to persuade others that they're right. Don't get me wrong: I think many of their specific beliefs are mistaken. I think many of their specific beliefs are bigoted, hateful and harmful. I have serious problems with many of the methods they use to persuade, with their reliance on fear and false promises and, in some cases, outright lies.

And I think far too many of their rhetorical devices simply deflect legitimate criticism instead of answering it. But I don't think it's wrong of them to express their beliefs and to try to persuade others that they're right. Again -- that's the marketplace of ideas. And I'm in favor of that. I can disagree passionately with someone's ideas without thinking they're jerks simply for wanting to share them.

I think a little historical context may be in order. This "I'm so tired of hearing about (X), proponents of (X) who advance their views in the public eye are intolerant" trope has been used against every major social-change movement I can think of.

Queer activists were "in your face"; civil rights activists were "hostile"; feminists were "strident." And now atheists who make our case are "intolerant" and "evangelical." When people speak out, not against atheism, but against the very idea of atheists persuasively expressing their views, I always want to ask if that's really the side of history they want to end up on.

Besides, it's not like we're standing outside anyone's window with a bullhorn at 3 a.m. We're not holding a gun to anyone's head and making them read Pharyngula. We're not even knocking on people's doors at 8 o'clock on Saturday morning to share the good word about Darwin. (Well, except for that one guy...)

If people don't want to hear what atheists have to say, there is a wide, wide world of blogs, newspaper articles, magazine articles, YouTube videos, movies, TV shows and oodles of other media available with just a flip of the page or a click of the remote or the mouse. If someone is seriously angered because they occasionally see the word "atheist" in a headline, or have to change the channel if Richard Dawkins is on, then I have to wonder if what's upsetting them is not the evangelical intolerance of atheist activists, but the very idea of atheism itself.

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