Should I be a nice atheist or a nasty atheist?
Honestly, I haven't decided which side of this purported divide I'm on. Should I be conciliatory and inclusive, or abrasive and critical? Am I trying to have a dialog or give a diatribe?
Last week I wrote a blog criticizing a Christian web site because although their motives were good, the language of their web pages gave a bad impression of their philosophy. A reader Jerry Ballwell, responded, "It's made me look closer at my own arguments and how they can be perceived by Christians. ... If Christians think that we're calling them idiots, and if they get offended with what we say, perhaps we should look at our presentation too?"
I really try to be friendly to everyone (unless they're overtly rude to me). I welcome all points of view and appreciate it when theists take the time to comment on my blog. I try to listen to all viewpoints and to treat everyone with respect.
Most importantly, I try to always remember that most religious people are sensible, thoughtful people who are sincere in their beliefs for good reasons. In other words, I try to stay on the "nice" side of the nice/nasty atheist divide.
And yet ... sometimes it's hard.
I'm falling victim to the cynicism that seems to pervade the non-theist community. I get outraged at fools like William Lane Craig who has a magnificent intellect and wastes it, an entire lifetime of study and thought, developing his devious and dishonest apologetics. I'm infuriated by Christian homophobia that drives teens to suicide. I'm appalled when a rape victim is stoned to death for adultery.
And if all that isn't enough, I read the news. Religious extremist terrorists are spreading anarchy and killing hundreds of innocents. Creationists are diluting our science, sociology and history books and crippling our children's intellects. Evangelical Christian politicians are still blocking stem-cell research (and not preventing a single abortion) and condemning an unknown number of people to suffer diseases that we could have cured. And worst of all, I hear preachers soothing everyone, telling them "God works in mysterious ways ... Faith is stronger than reason ... God will reward your suffering." These are words of enslavement, words designed to keep people from thinking.
These things make me mad. They make me want to be a mean atheist. They make me want to ridicule religion, to be nasty, rude, condescending and snide. It's so obvious to me ... why can't everyone see things the way I see them?
But then I remember why I started writing The Religion Virus in the first place. A lot of good, intelligent, thoughtful people whom I respect immensely are religious. They're not fools. They're not anti-science. They want the same things that I want: A peaceful world, a safe place to raise their children, prosperity and happiness. These are good people, and they deserve a respectful debate.
I'll never forget the first feedback I got from the first draft of The Religion Virus. A good friend marked one passage and wrote in the margin, "This is offensive in the extreme – what are you trying to achieve?" It really made me think: What was I trying to achieve? Did I want to be one of those intellectuals who takes the easy path of sarcasm and ridicule, or did I actually want to communicate with religious people? And the answer was clear. I sat down at my computer, adopted a whole new attitude, and started rewriting.
I think there's a place for both types of atheist. We need abrasive, nasty atheists because there are abrasive, nasty religious people who have managed to make atheists the most reviled group in America. These nasty atheists are breaking ground that's never been plowed before, and it's no job for the meek.
But behind those front lines, we need a real dialog. We need respect. We're not going to get far if anyone who approaches is immediately insulted. And to achieve that, we need to be genuinely respectful. We have to remember that for every extremist, there are a hundred reasonable people. We have to remember that for every William Lane Craig, there are a thousand honest intellectuals who don't resort to tricks. We have to remember that creationists are being kicked off the school boards, even in states like Texas, by citizens who actually appreciate that science is important.