In a previous post, Should Atheists Evangelize?, I defended the position that nonbelievers should speak out publicly in defense of atheism. It seems obvious to me that, if we are to act in accordance with that principle, we should come to a general agreement on how to go about it and what methods are most effective. With that in mind, this post will be the first in a three-part series on evangelizing for atheism, offering suggestions on how we should present ourselves and how to deploy our arguments in a way that best achieves our goals.
The most immediate problem faced by people who would identify themselves as atheists is the negative connotations attached to that word. Due to the lack of a strong, unified atheist presence in the media, appalling stereotypes about us spread by some theists have flourished and gone unchallenged. As a result, anyone who speaks out as an atheist is almost immediately tagged with a variety of noxious caricatures – atheists are nihilists, atheists have no morals, atheists are angry, atheists are unhappy and hopeless, atheists are unpatriotic, atheists hate religious people, and so on. Usually, we have to spend considerable time and effort just clearing these out of the way in order for our message to be heard.
To reverse this deplorable situation, we must challenge these negative stereotypes strongly and often, both on an individual level and a societal level. Though it will take a strong and sustained effort, I believe it is possible to overturn these prejudices and replace them with a positive, alternative view. It is unlikely that we will be able to eliminate them completely, since there will always be hardcore religionists determined to believe the worst about us, but the majority of people are not like that, and are amenable to persuasion.
So how do we bring this about? The first thing I strongly recommend is that all atheists who have not already done so step forward and announce their nonbelief to friends, family and acquaintances, if their situation at all permits it. While I would not ask any atheist to speak out if there was good reason to believe that real harm would follow from doing so, atheists who remain in the closet about their nonbelief are indirectly harming not just themselves but all atheists. This is so because prejudice, like all human vices, flourishes in the darkness of ignorance. It is very easy to demonize a nameless, amorphous other; it is much more difficult to hold and maintain prejudice when one has a personal connection with a member of the group being scapegoated, and an opportunity to see for oneself that they are ordinary people just like everyone else.
I do not suggest that atheists shoehorn a reference to their atheism into every conversation, or that they attack the beliefs of their friends and relatives at every opportunity. Such tactics are rarely effective or appreciated. Instead, I suggest that we speak out when the circumstances are appropriate, without harping on it and without hostility. Stick to the basics: I am an atheist, I’m not interested in being saved, but I would be happy to answer any questions you might have. If people do have questions, do your best to address them fully and in a civil manner; if you don’t know the answer to something, say so, and look it up and get back to the questioner when you have time. If people become hostile or combative, tell them that you won’t deal with those who will not treat you with respect, and do not engage them any further. Otherwise, if no one pursues the matter, drop it. If at a later time someone makes a thoughtless anti-atheist remark, or an issue comes up where an atheist’s perspective offers a unique benefit, that is the time to remind those present of your nonbelief, and offer your opinion. And if a religious acquaintance asks you to read an apologetics book, do so, but only on the condition that they agree to read a book of your choosing in return. (Most religious apologists will not accept this offer, in my experience, which saves you time and effort.)
Speaking out in public, in whatever forums are available to you, follows similar principles. Identify yourself as an atheist, plainly and without apology, and define briefly what that means to you if it is needful to do so. Spend whatever effort time and space permit to refute the stereotype of the day (concise and effective delivery is a great virtue here). If possible, emphasize that atheists are ordinary people just like everyone else, who don’t want anything different than what most people want for themselves, and urge people to form their opinion of atheists by asking actual atheists what they think and believe and not by relying on religious stereotypes.
Most important of all, in both cases, is to speak without rancor or hostility. This does not exclude passion where appropriate, and indeed, expressing one’s views with passion is the best way to get others to take them seriously. Make it plain what you care about and what you stand for, and if you are criticizing a religious belief that is wrong or ethically abhorrent, by all means say so. But appearing to be motivated by hatred or bitterness, or calling people stupid or ignorant, is a sure way to reinforce those stereotypes, instead of weakening them, and will probably cause listeners to ignore the content of your message. Whether fairly or not, if you speak out as an atheist, people will tend to judge all atheists by your example, and so it is vital to set a good one.
Conversely, when we do set a positive example that does not conform to religious caricatures, it catches people’s attention and encourages them to listen to us. Many theists, believing what they have been told all their lives, expect atheists to be gloomy, amoral misanthropes. When we show them that this is not true, both by argument and especially by the examples of our own lives, it shatters these stereotypes and sways people’s opinions more than any number of purely dispassionate logical arguments ever would. For that reason, I believe the most effective thing an atheist can do is to promote a robust and exuberant humanism, and make it clear that yes, we are happy to be atheists. We should always strive to show that atheism is fully compatible with morality, love, meaning, purpose and all the other intangible things that make life worthwhile. And what is more, we should point out that most atheists are like this! As soon as more people realize that, there will be a revolution in society, and it is within our power to help bring that about.
Other posts in this series: