When I first became an atheist, I was more than a little bit timid. I was practically apologetic. I was painfully aware that I lived in a religious world surrounded by religious people, and that I was the aberration. I was content to just see things differently and keep my head down.
Then I read Dawkins’ The God Delusion. This changed everything for me. Suddenly I no longer felt the need to apologize for my lack of belief. Suddenly I no longer felt the need to keep my head down. I no longer felt alone. Instead I felt bold, energized, alive.
But more than that, I also felt angry. Religion, I suddenly felt, was the root of all evil and needed to be eradicated. If only we could rid the world of religion, the world would be at peace, full of butterflies and flowers and music.
But then I realized something. Two things, actually.
First, there have been plenty of awful things done without religion. Stalin is an excellent example, or Mao. While religion can and does serve as an exacerbating factor (think of suicide bombers or Christian parents who disown gay children), our ability to cause harm and hurt stems not from religion but from, well, being human. Timothy McVeigh, who blew up the federal building and killed over 150 people, was not religious or acting from religious motivations. Eliminating religion would not at all result in an automatically sunshine world.
Second, while plenty of harm has been done in the name of religion, good has been done as well. Antebellum abolitionists, for example, relied on religious motivations for fighting slavery (even as their opponents also invoked religious arguments, of course), and religious organizations have fed the poor and dug wells (even as other religious organizations have opposed condom use in places like Africa, of course). From a strictly utilitarian perspective, religion causes both harm and good, and thus, it could be argued, becomes in some sense neutral.
Even as I continued to develop my position and views in the years following my reading of The God Delusion, Dawkins activated me in a way I hadn’t been before. He showed me that I didn’t have to be timid or ashamed for my lack of belief. He showed me that I don’t have to keep my head down or hold back, that I wasn’t crazy or alone. He showed me I didn’t have to apologize for being different. And for all of that I am grateful.
I’ve done a lot of thinking since reading Dawkins, and have asked myself a lot of questions. How do I feel about religion? How do I feel about religious individuals? What future ideal do I envision? What is my role in all this? I’m not at all sure I’ve settled where I’ll be forever, or that my views and approaches as an atheist won’t continue to shift as I gain more experience and a greater understanding of the world. For the moment, though, my approach to religion is as follows:
Second, while I can and do work with progressive believers in combating religious fundamentalism and in forwarding other goals like social justice, that doesn’t mean I have to think their religious beliefs are rational or sound. While some religious beliefs cause a great deal of harm and others are more neutral or even do positive good, I don’t believe in giving any of them a “pass” because I do value objective reality. I don’t let my atheism mess up my relationships with the many progressive Christians I count my friends by mocking or continually bringing up their “silly” beliefs, but when the topic does comes up I am completely honest about what I think.
Third, I see any kind of superstition or “faith” (i.e. believing something in the absence of evidence) as inherently problematic. This goes beyond religion proper into all sorts of other areas of culture and politics (think of birthers or truthers, for instance). Any time a person doesn’t care about things like evidence or refuses to consider that he or she could be wrong, that’s a problem. Ideology held on complete certainty without reference or care to facts or evidence is dangerous. Anyone can do this, whether religious or not, whether on the right or on the left, and I oppose it wherever I see it.
I try not to get into battles over whether there is such a thing as a “militant” atheist or whether some atheists are “accommodationists.” No two atheists are going to be identical, and that’s okay. That’s good, actually. There are no “Tenets of True Atheism” or popes of atheism ready to excommunicate heretics in the atheist fold. There’s diversity, discussion, and disagreement, and that’s exactly what should be expected. And furthermore, there’s room to change your position, to grow, and to keep an open and active mind.