We Can Be Atheists Without Being Jerks

A Greek church sitting alone on a small island.

Here is something that I find deeply puzzling about the modern Atheist Movement: why it’s filled with such jerks. It’s not just that the people involved in it are jerks in general, with people like Hitchens and Dawkins just being generally crappy people (yes, I have no problem speaking ill of the dead), it’s that they are specifically jerks about religion. I wasn’t aware that atheism came with a requirement to be an asshole to people of faith, to mock, belittle, and hurt them for believing in something different than you do — and the hostility towards religion from prominent atheists these days makes me, at times, embarrassed to call myself one even though I stress that am an atheist with a small a.

Look. I don’t believe in G-d, higher powers, prophets, the afterlife, and an assortment of other things that people of faith do. That’s my personal belief, after years of study and reflection on the subject. I just don’t. That doesn’t mean, however, that people of faith are necessarily¬†wrong,¬†or even that, if they are incorrect in their beliefs, I’d be right in being a jerk to them about it. We can live peacefully side by side without feeling the need to tell each other that the other is (isn’t) going to hell. I can accord them basic respect (by, for example, not spelling out G-d, or following Muhammad (peace be upon him) with the proper salutation).

Yet, prominent people claiming to speak for atheism ride hard on the idea that people of faith are brainwashed, backwards, relying on outdated superstitions. They make fun of G-d and the prophets, they call people with religious faith deluded, they seem almost to want to make a point of being as unpleasantly smug and self-satisfied about their atheism as possible. Who they think this endears them to, I don’t know, but it certainly doesn’t endear them to me.

Here’s my thing: I respect people of faith. I enjoy talking with them about religion, not in a confrontational way, but to the end of learning more about their faith and traditions. I’m fascinated by the rich cultural, social, and historical heritage of world religion. I, like many others, including people of faith, am also unafraid to identify situations in which faith is used as a weapon, or when faith becomes the cover for bigotry and abuse; like many Catholics, I’m angry about the abuses of children by priests. Like many Muslims, I’m furious at how fundamentalism is used to oppress women. Like many Christians, I’m angry at the way in which conservative Christianity has come to dominate US politics.

I don’t think that religion is a unilateral force for good — but I don’t think it’s evil, either. And I don’t think that trashing religion is a good way to open up conversations about it, for who, in the face of hostility, wants to have a conversation, or entertain alternative ideas? I certainly wouldn’t, and I wouldn’t blame people who had no interest in talking with self-identified atheists after being subjected to hateful ‘commentary’ from the like of Dawkins.

I’ve talked with other atheists about this issue and how much it bothers me, and the response I often get is ‘well, those people don’t speak for us. Everyone understands that.’ Except, do they? Do they really understand that? Because these are the ‘faces’ of atheism, and the voices that come to mind when people consider mainstream, public representations of people who do not believe in G-d. Which means that when people who aren’t atheists hear these voices, it’s kind of hard not to assume that they’re speaking for ‘us.’

I see parallels with feminism, where people say that ‘mainstream feminism’ doesn’t speak for them, and experience frustration with the way in which they’re painted with the same brush. But people outside the movement have trouble distinguishing these differences — even when those people understand that machinations behind who rises to power and who does not, which voices get to dominate discussion and which do not. Much the same holds true in atheism, where people with certain views, organisational skills, and career-driven motives appoint themselves the spokespeople of ‘the movement,’ thus creating the idea that there is ‘a movement’ (can’t you just not believe in G-d and not belong to a movement? Aren’t many atheists trying to get away from organised religion or lack thereof?).

Thus, I’d argue that it’s up to atheists to hold these people accountable. It’s not enough for us to seethe over here, not if we care about actually creating and maintaining good relationships with the rest of the community. We need to take action, we need to create accountability, and we need to show the ways in which we reject Big-A Atheism and the people who advance it. We can do that without being an organised movement, we can do that without compromising our own beliefs, and we owe it to the world at large to create a clear distinction.

Atheism isn’t evil. And it’s possible for people to be atheists without being jerks, I swear. I see evidence of it around me constantly, but unfortunately, polite atheism doesn’t sell nearly as well as controversial, rude, nasty atheism, especially in an era where the public is looking for reasons to hate religious minorities and mock people of faith. The big names of Atheism have greatly contributed to the spread of Islamophobia and the hatred of people of faith, and they should be held accountable for that, too. Just because someone said it on telly or in a book doesn’t make it right, and the poisonous ideas spread by people who make a profit from belittling religious people are revolting. I want no part of that atheism, or, should I say, Atheism.