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Should Atheists Slam Religion or Show Respect?

As the atheist movement expands, we need to consider whether non-belief will gain more traction if prominent atheists are more respectful of religion.

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Atheist visibility is more than ad campaigns.  In 2009 psychologist Dale McGowan, author of Parenting Beyond Belief , launched the  Foundation Beyond Belief , a tool that lets the non-religious visibly contribute to nonprofits working on education, health, human rights and the environment. Last year, the foundation add a donation category called “Challenge the Gap” that builds bridges by contributing to the work of religious groups with shared values. Hemant Mehta of “ The Friendly Atheist ” hosts news and commentary of interest to young nonbelievers—absent the edge that characterizes an earlier generation of blogs. He brings more humor than anger when he talks with secular student groups about outreach.  Small local groups are doing their part. Seattle Atheists dress as pirates and carry a Flying Spaghetti Monster in summer parades. But they also participate in food drives and blood drives. They hand out water during an annual marathon. The aim is not only to make themselves more visible but to show that they too are compassionate members of the community of humankind.

As nonbelievers gain recognition as normal and ethical members of society, I think we will find that confrontation diminishes and bridge building grows.  It’s not only that both are necessary but that one paves the way for the other. The Stonewall riots and San Francisco drag scene laid the foundation for  Feather Boa Fathers and It Gets Better and  pride parades that include local businesses and church banners. Early feminists who stayed defiant even when beaten and jailed made way for the apple pie tactics of  Moms Rising, which has stenciled messages on  onesies and delivered  cookies to congressmen to get their equal pay message across.  In the words of Ecclesiastes, “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.” The questions are in each case, to whom, how, when, and where.

Greta Christina has estimated that atheist visibility is about thirty-five years behind the gay rights movement. That sounds close. We’ll have caught up when a majority of Americans know they know a nontheist – and that friends, family members, and fellow citizens really can be good without God.

Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington and the founder of Wisdom Commons . She is the author of "Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light" and "Deas and Other Imaginings." Her articles can be found at

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