In Defense of Atheist Evangelism


I originally wrote this in response to a discussion I had with a roommate.  I have not decided whether I will ultimately share it with her, but it is still an important issue that anyone who is out as an atheist will have to confront again and again.

Why I am atheist proselytize

Yesterday, we had a conversation where you shared a lot of your feelings and thoughts about my faithful lack of faith. You started out by saying you were pretty sure I wouldn't like what you had to say, and I'm glad you trust me enough to tell me anyway. It's really awesome that you are my roommate – totally worth the extra $25/month you negotiated me into!  You've also been a friend and reliable source of support and emotional strength during a really difficult time in my life. Thank you.

I originally titled this 'Why I am atheist,' but I realize you're also an atheist, and as you said several times, your discomfort wasn't with my atheism, but the fact that I proselytize, to borrow your term.  So instead, this letter will address why it's important to come out of the closet and face religious thought head-on and headstrong.

I think there's some context that's important to understanding where I'm coming from.  Atheists are the most distrusted group in the US. We get the same skeptical sidelong stink-eye normally reserved for rapists. Atheists are consistently at the bottom of the list when people are asked, “Would you vote for candidates that had one of the following traits?”. Survey after survey demonstrates that people tend to see atheists as suspect. In some states, language barring atheists from holding office is still present in state constitutions. In most elections, is a de facto religious test, of course.

But atheism is not at all like being a woman or a black person, where you cannot hide that you belong to those groups. Being a gender non-conforming,f emale-bodied person has been the source of most of the overt prejudice and bullshit I've had to deal with.  Having an invisible disability ranks at a close second. Have I experienced bigotry and mistreatment for being atheist? Sure. But I don't think it poses the kind of direct threat to my health and well-being as, say, being a woman in a time where fetus-fetishists are trying to take away my equal right to medical care.  Being atheist is more like being gay; you can smile and nod when your aunt asks you when you're going to marry a nice young boy and you can bow your head when your grandma wants to pray. Or you can come out.

And as with personally knowing a gay person, knowing an atheist causes people to rethink their attitudes about atheists : Finding the faithless: perceived atheist prevalence reduces anti-atheist prejudice. Distrust goes down as atheist salience increases.

That's the short answer why I proselytize. The funny thing about having something like the atheist club in high school or college is that, when you first start putting “atheist club” in the morning announcements, people do tend to lose their shit. They see you as being aggressively confrontational, and invariably show up at the first meeting shouting. But after that, you become part of the landscape, and the person who saw your first meeting as an attack on their core self and a threat to their ability get into heaven becomes desensitized to the existence of atheists.

So while I enjoy it immensely, t's not just about me; it's about atheists generally. It's about the kids who come after me, who inherit a school where everyone's aclimated to the radical idea that atheists exist.

I founded my high school's atheism club when a student in one of my classes, a Mormon, said that if he were an atheist, he would feel a profound sadness and see no reason to go on. Four heads immediately turned and gawped; it turned out he happened to be literally surrounded by atheists. We atheists recognized each other, too.  Similarly in college, we get many people who come to our table saying how relieved they are that we exist; they thought they were the only atheists.  Or they are atheist but cannot tell their parents.  Or they recently told their parents, and are coping with the groundswell of animosity or overweening hell-fearing terror on their behalf they face whenever they go home.  By being out tabling regularly, we expose an entire school to the idea that atheists exist and we're not going away just because they decided to be the 800th person to tell us we can't logically prove a negative (an odd assertion given that “You can't prove a negative” is also a negative and must also be unprovable).

People get used to us and stop seeing our sign that merely states our opinion on the god-question (“There is no God – so relax, and be happy!”) or our sign suggesting passers-by “Imagine No Religion,” or the cardboard “It's ok to NOT believe in Jesus” sign as a personal affront. They get bored. They don't feel as offended as they were the first time they saw it, and so their estimation of the inherent offensiveness of the sign diminishes. In the future, they'll think of the boring atheist girl with no life who was always tabling, rather than the baby-eating demon-fluffer image they may have had previously. They just walk on by.  To me, that's progress. 

The people who are happy to see an atheist outpost in a sea of Christian clubs still come up and high five us, though.

Another angle is purely economic. Why exactly is it untoward for atheists to attempt to increase their market share through advertising? An unstated assumption behind the idea that by publically existing, we're intentionally and exclusively targeting and confronting Christians (or Muslims) is that everyone is already a member of one of the religious camps. They're already spoken for, and it's simply rude to try and persuade someone to bat for the other team.  And no matter what our advertising method – even if it's simply the word "Atheists" on a bus line – we're being horribly arrogant and condescending and nasty, and must be stopped – or at least told, yet again, that some people need to believe in impossible nonsense to cope with tragedy in life.  This is generally said with an inflection that's a mixture of "first world problems" and "You're too young to understand that bad things happen."  Atheists apparently lead charmed existences of chocolate toothpaste and frolicking rainbow puppies. 

The truth is that despite what most people are raised to believe, a lot of people aren't really decided either way. Letting Christian and Muslim and Jewish students dominate the airwaves sends the message that they're the only legitimate options. Notice, also, how the assumption is never that Christians are coming out to deliberately confront me. They've planted their flag, called dibs on the student body, and New Atheists should just accept that. Religious texts actively propagandize against atheists qua atheists, but we're not allowed to criticize their texts, let alone the choice of individuals to carve out this massive exception from their normal critical thinking faculties for impossible nonsense. My favorite confrontation perfectly demonstrates this double standard.

A Christian group had set up a table and brought a guitar, as they did most days. The guitar player strummed the same brain-bleaching rhythm while his friends sang suspiciously repetitive hymns. The only open spot happened to be right next to them, so we set up. I greeted the pastor, and he responded with the unnerving warmth of a charismatic cult leader. As I held my sign, I began to dance the dance of a thousand nerds on fire.  It wasn't pretty, but damn if it didn't amuse passers-by. The juxtaposition makes people notice and remember both of our clubs, so my antics were mutually beneficial, and there was absolutely no enmity between us as individuals.

Then Bobby Busybody showed up. He was absolutely livid that I would be there holding a sign saying there was no god when this Christian group was clearly saying otherwise. He accused me of denigrating their beliefs and expressed his outrage that I would ridicule them. He had no idea who had set up next to whom, mind you. I needed to respect other individuals, he shouted at me, and in his mind, my presence was somehow an expression of intolerance towards the Christians.

I simply asked, “Are you being respectful to me? Is this how you respect other people?” He leaned in and hissed, “Fuck you.” Then he tromped off in a fantastic meatspace flounce.

But we're a growing group, and we're becoming increasingly organized. The Secular Student Alliance represents over 250 campus organizations in the contiguous US. And the religious groups see us and know we're a threat – otherwise, why all the propaganda against us, all the stereotypes about how rude and aggressive and strident and shrill and just plain insufferable we are? I hate to say it but I think you have accepted some stereotypes about atheists without really questioning it – you no doubt think that, because you aren't outspoken about your atheism, they aren't really talking about you. But all it takes to find yourself the target of that vitriol is to come out as an atheist.

An atheist group in Pennsylvania wanted to test the theory that they were really just so ill mannered that they couldn't see how offensive their previous bus ads had been, so they submitted an ad that merely said: “Atheists.” It was rejected for being too offensive.

One thing you've said several times is that you don't feel I see the 'irony' in being against religion, yet still telling people that they are wrong and I am right. I don't think I've articulated myself well verbally, so I'm hoping this will be more effective: I don't at all have a problem with the fact that religious people think they are right. My objection is that they are not right. And further, that they have no good reason to think they are right (and I have plenty of excellent reasons to think they are wrong).

That's why I asked you for the difference between education and proselytization; it's not ironic that an atheist math teacher would object to religious belief yet still insist that the sine of an angle is the opposite over the hypotenuse. If you are actually right, and have good, compelling, substantiated reasons to think you are right, you don't just have the intellectual freedom to be certain, but an ethical duty to educate others. My belief that the Earth is 4.6 billion years old is not equivalent to a creationist's belief that the world is 6000 years old; people benefit from learning the truth about how old the Earth is. People should strive for an accurate understanding of the universe and their place in it. And learning how old the earth really is will also involve learning HOW we know how old the Earth is. It will open doors to many other scientific disciplines and new epiphanies.

Accepting the soothing salve of faith might make you feel better, but it's no real antidote to the diesase of ignorance.  Try asking a priest how we know that the Earth is only 6000 years old; the answer will be “Shut up, that's why!”  – or if you're lucky, "Because an old book says so, that's why!"  Instead of seeing the world as that much bigger and more beautiful, the lesson is instead that you've bumped up against the permanent boundary of your understanding.  Questioning is discouraged; too much questioning could, after all, lead to learning things the pastor disapproves of; that could lead to doubt, the only unforgivable, automatically damnable sin.  But what a small world you have to navigate with each new concession and each further submission you make. 

Another point you made was that for some people, religion fills in the gaps of their knowledge and gives them some measure of confidence that things happen for a reason and
that everything will turn out all right. I don't disagree, but I do have two questions.

The first is: who is entitled to confidence and hope? A happy ending is never guaranteed, and lying to people that it is is a way to encourage complacency. You don't really need to fight with your sibling to get him into rehab; god will change his heart if you pray. You don't need to have chemotherapy to treat your cancer, because Deepak Chopra said you can just attract health to you. Your coma wasn't caused by a virus, but by some elaborate past-life drama that your thetan has pulled in for you.

Hope comes from real solutions. False hope, while it may temporarily ease your mind, has real consequences.

The second is: if I am right about this whole materialistic, indifferent universe thing, I don't have to give up the ability to get through trials in my life, because that ability is something my brain does. If God is really just the abstraction of your own idealized self, imputed with superpowers and credited for what is really a fundamental capacity for self-love, then I don't really lose anything through that realization. In fact, I gain a deeper understanding of the modular nature of my brain. I have the same experience of wonder and beauty in the world that any religious person has. That strength was in me all along. As the tinman said, I already had a brain. And because I'm an atheist, I have that last 10% of my income, too.

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