Confessions of an Evangelical Atheist: Part One

Greta Christina recently wrote a much-discussed blog post asking (and answering) the question, “What Are the Goals of the Atheist Movement?” In this piece, Christina argues convincingly that much of the internal debate over what kinds of tactics help or hurt “our cause” stems from the fact that “we may not be talking about the same one.” I think this diagnosis is dead on.

The two main “causes” Christina focuses on are “[reducing] anti-atheist bigotry and discrimination, and [working] towards more complete separation of church and state,” and “persuading the world out of religion.” Not only does Christina think the latter is “a hugely worthwhile goal just for its own sake,” but she also thinks it is “the best strategy for achieving our other goals.”

I’m not convinced that ending religious belief would be easier than cooperating with religious believers toward shared goals, but I’d like to set aside the question of achievability for the moment and focus instead on what goals are worth pursuing and what tactics are worth using, assuming all are equally effective.

Chris Stedman has already written eloquently for the Huffington Post about his opposition to the second goal: “If being an atheist activist means ‘persuading more people out of religion and into atheism,’ as Christina wrote, than I am not one.” Chris has been weirdly accused of surrounding himself with a wall of young people (the NonProphet Status panelists) who defend his every move. If the following bombshell doesn’t put an end to that stupid idea, I don’t know what will:

I subscribe to both of Christina’s goals.

This seems like a good time to remind everybody that the opinions expressed in this piece reflect only the views of the author, and not of Chris Stedman, the other NPS panelists, the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard, the Interfaith Youth Core, or anybody else.

Now that that’s taken care of, let me reiterate, just so I’m extra super clear.

I wish religion would go away. I think it’s wrong, I think it’s a net negative presence in the world, and if all else were equal, I would prefer a world without religion to one with it. I agree whole-heartedly with Voltaire’s warning that “qui est en droit de vous rendre absurde est en droit de vous rendre injuste” (whoever has the power to make you absurd can also make you unjust). I fully support “persuading more people out of religion and into atheism.” I am, you might say, an evangelical atheist.

If you’re surprised by hearing this from somebody who spent the last year heading up her college’s Interfaith Council, organizing interfaith service projects and discussions, working with chaplains and students of many different beliefs, and volunteering at leadership institutes with the Interfaith Youth Core, you’re not alone.

A few weeks ago, I was talking with my friend John Figdor, the Assistant Humanist Chaplain at Harvard. John, like many (perhaps most) atheists, is used to distinguishing between “New Atheists” (or “anti-theists” or “confrontationalists”) and “accommodationists.” (He considers himself emphatically the former.) He was absolutely shocked when I, the interfaith kid, told him I thought the world would be better off without religion. Many atheists assume that those of us who engage in interfaith work “believe in belief,” or wish we were religious, or otherwise relegate our atheism to a dark and lonely corner.

But I’m just a pragmatist. I wish religion would conveniently disappear, and if there’s anything (see below for qualifiers) I can do to help make that happen, I will. But I certainly won’t see that in my lifetime, so I might as well try to find the most constructive ways to deal with religion as long as it’s around. Interfaith work – bringing people of all beliefs together to respectfully work toward common goals – seems to me like a great way to do that.

Chelsea Link is a senior at Harvard University, studying History and Science with a focus in the history of medicine. She recently founded and currently writes for two other blogs, The Unelectables (following religious minority candidates in the 2012 election) and Blogging Biblically (documenting her attempt to read the Bible in a year). She is the Vice President of Outreach of the Harvard Secular Society, the former President of the Harvard College Interfaith Council, and a Volunteer Ambassador for the Be the Match bone marrow donor registry. She likes to cook while pretending she’s on Top Chef (hasty breakfast? more like Quickfire Challenge!), adores word games of all kinds (and was once the President of the illustrious Harvard College Crossword Society), and tends to kill the mood at parties by unnecessarily reciting Shakespeare. This summer she interned at the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard. You can ask her what she’s doing after graduation, but she’ll give you a different answer every time.

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