One of the problems with controversial movements is that they tend to be defined by their enemies. By this I mean that the common perceptions are crafted by those who feel most threatened by these groups. Think of stereotypes of illegal aliens, feminists, gays, and devout Muslims in our society. This especially applies to atheists in American society.
Most atheists I know barely acknowledge themselves as such. They rarely think about God or religion, but go about life, making an honest living, loving their partners and families, volunteering and voting. Yet in conservative Christian rhetoric, I hear that this minority is a threat to our society, more closely allied to Stalin and Hitler than Lincoln or Jefferson. A recent Gallup poll shows only 14% of Americans think that the country is ready for an atheist president.¬ Although only gays ranked lower in the poll, there are more “out” homosexuals in prominent elected offices than there are “out” atheists.¬ Clearly, atheists have a serious image problem in our country.
Their situation isn’t improved by the prominent atheists. When you have public skeptics like Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins who deliberately provoke the religious and who have a tendency to group all of the billions of believers in the same category of stupidity, there is little wonder that atheists are vilified.¬ I feel a visceral reaction whenever I hear fundamentalists label me and my fellow skeptics as the source of the world’s evils and worthy of eternal hellfire. You don’t win friends and influence people by questioning their integrity and morality and by explicitly making a demon out of a person for their world view.
I realize that Dawkins and Harris aren’t out to make friends, at least not with believers. But I think that they should be. Skeptics are a tiny minority in a democratic society dominated by people who believe in God. I’m not saying that non-theists shouldn’t be uncompromising in our beliefs, but we can certainly be more diplomatic in our critiques of religion. We need to look to the religious left as allies.
First of all, liberal believers have more in common with most atheists and agnostics than they do with the fundamentalists in their respective traditions. Skeptics and left-leaning believers share fundamental values. Both groups realize the need for the separation of church and state and the importance of free speech. We all have a deep respect for the tolerance and pluralism that form the basis of our civil society and the science that has both empowered humanity and transformed our perspective of the universe and our place in it.
The fundamentalists, Biblical literalists, and Christian dominionists who wield so much power in our society do not share these values with the spiritual left. They share some words (“God” and “salvation”) and stories (Christians all share the Bible, though there are many variations and translations), but these are interpreted so differently that sometimes they might as well be speaking different languages.
I am not saying that atheists and other skeptics should compromise their beliefs and integrity. But we have much to gain by differentiating between many shades of religiosity and reaching out to those who share many of our most cherished values.