Jason Streitfeld gets to the heart of the matter of why some of us are so adamant about publicly advancing atheism:
For atheists like me, there is one issue that matters most in all of this: the role of religious authority in society. I’m not saying atheists are concerned with this issue above all else. Not at all. They might be more concerned about global warming, say, or human rights violations in third-world countries. What I am saying is that, for many atheists, atheism is first and foremost about the rejection of religious authority. Public atheism is first and foremost about putting religious authority in its proper place. For us, to be a public atheist just is to deny that there is any objectively valid moral authority which religions could claim and to deny that religious authority is similar to, equal to, or in any methodological or philosophical sense compatible with scientific authority. If we cannot argue these points in public, then we cannot be public atheists in the way that is meaningful to us.
Ophelia Benson adds:
And, honestly, this would matter to me even if it never rose to the level of society. False beliefs about the world and ethics based on bad ossified false beliefs and an authoritarian method of inculcating them are harmful to many individuals without their ever having to rise to the level of social influence.
Indeed; and more: atheism is first and foremost about the rejection of religious authority, in an existing context in which religious authority is not just not rejected, not even just welcomed and embraced, but made all-but-mandatory. If religious authority weren’t always being shoved at us, it might seem otiose to bother rejecting it, but that’s not the situation we’re in – not in the US and not entirely in other parts of the Anglophone world either, let alone more frankly theocratic states. The pope thinks he has every right to order women to bear children they don’t want to bear, and to tell hospitals not to save the lives of pregnant women if it takes an abortion to do that.
And the idea that any question is off limits to public discourse, and especially the questions religions raise, is anathema to me as an Enlightenment man. All beliefs and all authorities must be questioned and forced to give justification before the tribunal of reason. What is of any value in the Western tradition if not this ideal?