The Renaissance of Atheist Evangelism

In one of my first posts on Daylight Atheism, I asked whether atheists should evangelize. My conclusion was that, while it would be foolish to go door-to-door on Sunday or pass out fliers on street corners, we can and should appear in forums like TV, radio and print media to press our case before the public.

In the two years since I wrote that post, I’m glad to see that many prominent atheist groups have come to feel the same way. In the U.S., there’s the Freedom from Religion Foundation’s highly successful atheist billboard campaign, which has brought the message of freethought to public places across the country. Even the occasional setbacks, far from hurting the cause, draw coverage and controversy that brings more attention to the original message. Similarly, the wildly successful atheist bus campaign that started in the U.K. is going global, giving rise to spinoffs in countries including Spain, Italy, the U.S. and Canada. Next up, I’ve heard, are subway ads.

Now more than ever, atheists are making a splash and getting our message out. And that’s just what we should be doing: it’s in the first generation of activism, in the renaissance of the modern atheist movement, that we have the most potential to cause change. Our newness, and the shock of our message to a society that’s not used to hearing it, is just what we need to pierce the bubble that surrounds many religious believers.

But, as always, there are concern trolls who fret that we’re being too radical, too controversial. Tyler Wolfe is one:

While this ad campaign may be refreshing in its originality, at its base it is no different than the religious advertisements I have already criticized. The atheist campaign, too, attempts to tell you what to believe and how to live your life… [These ads] are mimicking a strategy long criticized by the atheist community.

They are? What strategy would that be? The strategy of explaining what you believe and arguing that others should do likewise? That “strategy” is simply called persuasion, and I know of no atheist who opposes it. (What’s the alternative – sitting at home and never talking to anyone, lest you inadvertently expose them to a point of view?) What atheists object to is not communicating one’s opinions, but the manipulative, coercive, and often deceptive tactics used by so many proselytizers to advance that end.

Next up, Mark Fefer of the Seattle Weekly tells us how “atheists are botching their war on religion”, in reference to the FFRF’s winter solstice sign:

The sign read in part “Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds” — exactly the kind of boneheaded provocation that undermines the cause.

First of all, what’s routinely overlooked about the FFRF’s sign is that it was deliberately provocative. It was placed in the Olympia, Washington state capitol as a protest against the state government’s plan to install a nativity scene there. The message is that atheists don’t appreciate religious endorsements on government property, and to show why that’s a problem, we took advantage of the open forum to post a statement that most religious groups would similarly find shocking and upsetting. A more mildly worded sign would not have driven that point home.

…religion is no different from sports, music, or any other part of our culture. It can be a life-enriching experience that promotes community feeling and social values. It can also lead to destructive extremes. Should we Imagine No Sports because of steroids, concussions, and Pioneer Square knife fights?

If the rules of sports – not the occasional violent excesses, but the written rules of the game itself – promoted violence and discrimination against non-sports fans; if sports fans sought to deny non-sports fans the right to marry or to hold political office; if suicide bombings and holy wars were routinely waged against fans of rival teams; if sports fans sought to water down or outlaw science and instead teach their belief that an Intelligent Referee created the world: then yes, we would have to question whether the benefits of sports were worth the costs.

People who cling to the homophobia in the Bible do it because…they’re homophobic. If they couldn’t justify it through Leviticus, they’d find some other way; atheism sure isn’t going to cure them.

This analysis is far too glib and naive. Is Fefer saying that religion has never changed anyone’s moral opinions, but only gives them a way to express the views they already have? How do we reconcile this with his previous statement that religion “promotes social values”?

In contrast to this simplistic view, an honest accounting would have to conclude that there are many cases where prejudices like homophobia are shaped, encouraged, and sustained by religion. When a believer is taught from birth that homosexuality is a terrible, revolting sin which God hates, then yes, it is fair to conclude that their homophobia stems from their religion, and yes, it is fair to conclude that these people would lose this prejudice if they became atheists.

Lastly, and on a somewhat different note, there’s this report from Jocelyn Bell, a liberal Christian journalist who attended the last Atheist Alliance International convention. Personally, I recommend giving the friendliest reception possible to reporters seeking to learn more about us, but the reactions she did receive from atheists were the next best thing. They ran the gamut from sharp confrontation to warm greeting, such that she concluded that atheists are “actually as diverse a group of people as you’d find anywhere”.

This is just the message we should want to communicate – that atheists are a diverse and freewheeling group, united by our lack of religious belief and our opposition to bullying fundamentalism, but otherwise not in ideological lockstep. Bell left the convention with a better understanding and greater sympathy for atheists, and possibly even with some seeds of doubt planted in her mind. As a practical goal for atheist evangelism, there’s no higher goal for us to aspire to.

The Hidden Garden of Ex-Muslim Atheists
New on the Guardian: Atheists Are Diversifying
The Atheist Community Is Diversifying
How Low Will It Go? The Continuing Decline of American Christianity
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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