Some people are disturbed and even shocked when there is a discussion about religion, and someone mentions that he or she is an atheist. It catches people off guard. After all, conventional wisdom has it that good people are religious and bad people are not. Those who don’t fully engage with religion typically apologize for not attending church services and giving religion much thought. Sometimes they say “I need to make my faith stronger.”
So it’s unexpected when a person pipes up and unabashedly states that he or she is an atheist. Even people who consider themselves tolerant may be surprised that they reflexively think of the person in a negative way. A normally enlightened person may push equality for minorities, women, the poor, old, fat, ugly and gay people, and even people of religions other than their own. But an avowed atheist – that sets off the alarm bells!
OK, so people don’t like it when atheists talk about atheism. But does that mean that they shouldn’t talk about it? Should they keep their beliefs to themselves? We know the answer to that here in America, the land of free speech and religious tolerance. Freedom of religion allows everyone to openly practice and promote a religion of choice. And promote it they do!
Religions organize by creating memberships for church groups. They construct large and ostentatious buildings. They have a hierarchy of dedicated and often full-time people who run the show. Priests and ministers have jobs that consist of staging get-togethers at least once a week, during which they promote the religion. Many organizations have additional people who travel around proselytizing – attempting to convince people to convert to their religion. In addition, the more avid members evangelize – promote their religion - with friends and strangers alike. Many now also use the Internet for that purpose.
How do atheists promote their own ‘life view’? Well, other than casual conversations, there is almost no promotion. There are a few casual atheist and ‘humanist’ organizations, but the vast majority of atheists don’t belong to them. There are no ministers of atheism, few towns have a building of any sort dedicated to atheism, and there are no full-time missionaries travelling around proselytizing. Atheism is a grass roots movement, and it's only method of promotion has been that an atheist participates when someone discusses religion.
It is surprising then that atheism is growing. Something has happened lately to spark an atheist renaissance. I think it is this: The introduction of Internet web sites and forums brought together normally anonymous, reticent and isolated non-believers. They began describing their ideas with others, and those ideas began reverberating all over the web. This information coalesced into a sounder and more comprehensive case for atheism. As they found kindred spirits, atheists became more comfortable with their life view, and became less apprehensive about expressing it when they encountered religious discussions.
As the Internet sparked interest in atheism, authors compiled current thinking into books, some of which became best sellers. Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Victor Stenger wrote influential books that reached the public in a way not seen before.
The situation today is that most atheists still do not often initiate discussions about atheism when talking to people or posting to forums. But more and more are less hesitant to join a discussion in which religion is brought up, and to state a case that is clearly having an effect on others. Some people write articles and post them on general discussion forums.
Some atheists are going a step further and are promoting atheism, as religious people promote religions. There are several reasons for this. One reason is that they have become convinced that religions are not as benevolent as its adherents claim. Members of religions often discriminate and use passive aggressive tactics against people of other religions and atheists. Religions continually attempt to gain political power, and use it to force their views on everyone in a society. Science is often a victim of religious obstruction, from the beginning of the scientific revolution when the Catholic Church threatened to burn to death Galileo for the ‘heresy’ that the Earth revolved around the Sun, to the U.S. Bush administration that prevented scientists from doing stem cell research. Religions spawn a certain percentage of fanatics who cause serious problems, killing people, becoming terrorists, or trying to turn a religious leader into a political leader in order to create a religious state and force their religion on everybody.
Mostly though, atheists have the view that we are much better off living in the real world, one without any make-believe Gods. Knowledge is based on truth. Progress requires it. Life is better when the philosophy of life is based on reality. Governments can’t convince people to start wars, obstruct science or pass anti-something legislation based on convenient interpretations of religious beliefs. The corrosive ‘us versus them’ attitude based on religious tribalism disappears.
Yes, a majority of people feel more uncomfortable when a person promotes atheism than they do when a person promotes religion. It's not possible for a religious person to merely nod his or her head and agree with whatever is said. But it's the kind of uncomfortable feeling that occurs when you think objectively. Atheists are good people who are brave enough to speak up despite the intolerance against them.
So why does it bother you when someone promotes atheism? It's because your religion has told you that atheists are evil, of course. But it is also because of the uncomfortable realization that what he or she says might make sense to you. Then you will have to reevaluate your belief in a God objectively, based on evidence and reason. It's hard to think for yourself rather than obediently accepting what you were told, and it's unsettling to consider that what you were told as a child and believed for so long might not be true. Abandoning the religion that you grew up with might disrupt your life, so you are afraid that if you talk to an atheist, you might become an atheist too.