Cut it out, atheists! Why it's time to stop behaving like Bill Maher and Richard Dawkins

A dominant strain of atheism just loves to throw mud at the religious. Here's why it needs to stop

Published September 20, 2014 7:00PM (EDT)

  (HBO/Simon & Schuster/Ray Garcia/Reuters/Chris Keane)
(HBO/Simon & Schuster/Ray Garcia/Reuters/Chris Keane)

If you're at all familiar with atheism in America, then the following two scenes should probably come as no surprise: Biologist Richard Dawkins exhorting his followers to mock and ridicule believers with contempt, Bill Maher telling MSNBC host Joe Scarborough that “religion is a neurological disorder.” As an atheist who grew up in a fundamentalist Christian milieu, I admit that this rhetoric is not without its appeal. But the atmosphere this kind of animus creates has become as pungent and disagreeable as the stale bread and cheap wine of the church I grew up in.

So I got to thinking: First there was the Ice Bucket Challenge, then there was the Positivity Challenge (wherein you have to write 3 or 4 positive things as your Facebook status every day for 7 days). So why not get into the act and start my own?

I’d like to challenge all atheists, myself included, to refrain from posting disparaging commentary about Christian newsmakers on Facebook and other social media sites — including blogs — for one month. Let’s call it The Atheist Positivity Challenge, or the APC for short. The purpose of this challenge is to draw attention to two things: The fact that gloating about the lunacy and misdeeds of specific Christians is not only unnecessary, but probably counterproductive; and the need to rehabilitate the reputation of atheism in America.

The idea for the APC came to me when I read a post last week from atheist blogger Libby Anne, who wrote about the continued downhill slide of mega-church pastor Mark Driscoll. In this post, Libby Anne draws our attention to something Driscoll had said on a message board in 2001, where he opined about the relationship between men and women from an allegedly biblical perspective. He wrote: "Knowing that His penis would need a home, God created a woman to be your wife and when you marry her and look down you will notice that your wife is shaped differently than you and makes a very nice home." I don’t doubt that Driscoll wrote that, or even that he sincerely believes it. But the problem with focusing on clowns like Driscoll is that it’s much too easy to single out for righteous indignation the most visibly disgraceful member of a group. And the unavoidable implication that others get from this is that the entire group must hold those beliefs as well.

In the parlance of philosophers, the temptation to view an individual as representative of a group is called a “hasty generalization.” It’s a weak analogy and a type of informal fallacy. It’s basically guilt by association. But I don’t want to live in a Fallacious Fool's Paradise, however emotionally satisfying and cathartic it may be. The simple fact is that Driscoll is an outlier in the Christian world. Like atheism, Christianity is an incredibly heterogenous movement — from biblical literalists to liberal believers whom the literalists wouldn't mind seeing burn at the stake for heresy. And though Libby Anne incorporates an important caveat when she says that she's not surprised that this is the viewpoint taken by at least some evangelical men and not all evangelical men — the implication is still there, and it will be taken that way by Christians nonetheless.

Refusing to indulge our desire to vilify the easy targets will make us look less arrogant and therefore less aversive. Not only should this make us less susceptible to open animosity, but it should help accomplish atheist goals which, as author and blogger Greta Christina put it, are about “reducing anti-atheist bigotry and discrimination, and to work towards more complete separation of church and state.” I know it seems like blasphemy to refrain from criticizing loonies like Driscoll, but we need to have “faith” that the cultural forces currently in play will accomplish what we want.

Polls have generally shown a decrease in the importance of religion in America. And with regard to evangelicalism in particular, The Pew Forum Religious Landscape Survey from 2008 “confirms that the United States is on the verge of becoming a minority Protestant country; the number of Americans who report that they are members of Protestant denominations now stands at barely 51%.” The Pew Forum also noted that in “the last five years alone, the unaffiliated have increased from just over 15% to just under 20% of all U.S. adults.” So the bigots we upbraid simply aren't having the influence they'd like to have — and that we're scared they might have.

Furthermore, the religiously unaffiliated already say that “religious organizations are too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules and too involved in politics.” And things are even worse for Christians like Driscoll when it comes to the Millennial Generation, who see traditional evangelicalism as being too judgmental. To them, Christianity “feels stifling, fear-based and risk-averse.” And they see that “churches are afraid of the beliefs of other faiths” as well as unfriendly to those who doubt the faith. The important thing to note here is that their opinion of modern Christianity isn’t based on the vitriol of atheist bloggers or the disparaging posts of their Facebook friends. It’s based on their own experience of Christian culture. This has led millennials to simply view evangelical Christianity as "too political, too exclusive, old-fashioned, unconcerned with social justice and hostile to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.”And this is why I think the APC can be successful. The work is already largely done for us. Religion literally speaks for itself, even in the mainstream media — and, increasingly, it's not what people want to hear.

While many millennials are de facto atheists or agnostics — or at least politically secular and socially tolerant — atheism still doesn't enjoy a very good reputation in America. In a 2011 survey, for example, atheists were distrusted as much as rapists; and even this year atheists and Muslims are in a statistical tie for most disliked. This is the main impetus for the APC. I think that we outspoken atheists, the ones who actively contribute to the culture wars by blogging, writing articles and engaging in public debates, have to ask ourselves: Are we sincere when we say we have a positive worldview? I mean, it's not enough to just have positive beliefs — that is, beliefs in something, as opposed to not believing in God — what is needed is an emphasis on positivity itself.

I said before that atheism, like Christianity, is also a heterogenous movement. When a sub-movement that calls itself Atheism Plus (A+) came on the scene, many thought that it would be a good place to start in the rehabilitation of the atheist image. But for this branch of the atheism community, it means atheism plus social justice — a noble and needful cause, no doubt — so it's a little misleading. A+ believes that it can “incite curiosity among the actively and passively religious, perhaps ultimately driving more people away from religion and toward the methods of secular humanism." But A+ still just tells us what its proponents believe in, not how they conduct themselves in the culture wars. Merely stating that I'm an atheist who believes in the value of feminism, for example, doesn't guarantee that I will be viewed with favor by Christians — or that they will be motivated to change their own beliefs about the value of feminism. And what many of us want is to change their beliefs — that's why we blog, tweet, and share other atheists' articles on Facebook.

By Steve Neumann

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