I’ve been thinking about this whole “angry atheists versus friendly atheists” thing that many of us keep nattering on about in the atheist community. And I’ve been having a thought:
I don’t think these things have to be mutually exclusive.
I was at the Atheist Film Festival a couple weeks ago. (Awesome, btw. If you’re in the SF Bay Area, be sure to go next year. If you’re not, start one in your area!) I was watching a film called “Join Us,” a documentary by Ondi Timoner about an abusive Christian cult and a deprogramming facility that helped one family leave it.
As I watched the film, I was filled with rage. Literal, physical rage. Heart pumping hard, fists clenching, sweating, the works. Watching the vivid, detailed accounts of the terrible abuse, physical and emotional, that was inflicted on these people by their religion; seeing the difficulty and pain they had prying the cult from their minds, even after they’d left it behind; seeing the trauma that lingered, especially in the children, and the way their lives had been stunted or twisted… I wanted to leave the theater immediately and write a dozen blistering blog posts about why religion is a toxic idea. Hell, I wanted to leave the theater immediately and start a vigilante army.
And at the same time, I was realizing that what these folks needed was not a vigilante army, or indeed a scathing atheist blog post. What they needed was a community. A community that wasn’t based on mind control and blind obedience and severe physical punishment when they don’t obey. What they needed was to be surrounded by people who could keep them company, and share their joys and sorrows, and help take care of them when things went badly, and treat them as if they mattered.
What they needed was a safe place to land.
And some thoughts I’ve been having in a vague sort of way began to crystallize.
I think you can be an angry atheist — fiery, furious, enraged about religion both in its theory and its practice — and have your response to that anger be to organize the atheist bowling team. The atheist picnic. The atheist sewing circle. The atheist potluck supper. The atheist blood drive. The atheist book club.
I think that is an entirely appropriate, wildly useful response to atheist anger.
Many of us keep saying this, and we’ll keep on saying it: The reasons people typically join religions have nothing to do with the theology. The reasons people typically join religions have everything to do with community. Are the people friendly? Are the services welcoming? Are there pleasant places to socialize, and good opportunities for doing it? Do they have activities I want to participate in? Do they offer support services I need? Is there good coffee? Is there child care?
And by the same token, the reasons people leave religion, and embrace atheism, often don’t have a lot to do with theology, either. Some of it does, obviously — most people leave religion when they decide that it isn’t, you know, true. But for a lot of people, a big part of their process of leaving religion is finding out that other atheists exist, and are good people with happy meaningful lives, and if they come out as atheists they won’t be alone. For a lot of people, all of this seems to be necessary before they can consider the possibility that their religion is bunk.
So making this easier — making atheism more visible so people can see it’s an option, and creating an atheist community that people can come out into — is an entirely appropriate, wildly useful response to feeling angry about religion.
There’s a talk I often give to atheist groups, titled “Why Are You Atheists So Angry?” Unsurprisingly to anyone who’s read my writing, the answer I give to this rhetorical question is a fiery, impassioned rant: Atheists are angry because we have legitimate things to be angry about. And we’re not just angry, or even mostly angry, about how religion hurts atheists. We’re angry because of how religion hurts believers.
When I give this talk, one of the questions I get asked is, “What should we do with this anger? Now that you’ve got us all riled up — what do you want us to do about it?”
I usually make a joke here about how there should be pitchforks and torches ready for the post-talk angry mob. But my sincere answer is this:
You should do what you’re inspired to do.
If you’re angry about religion, and you want to picket the Mormon Church, or draw stick figures of Muhammad on your campus, or stick a nail through a communion wafer and throw it in the trash and post the pictures on the Internet… you should do that.
And if you’re angry about religion, and you want to put up billboards saying that atheists are good people, or help organize fun social events at your local atheist meetup group, or simply come out as an atheist to your friends and family… then you should do that, too.
We need all of that.
And all of that helps to dismantle religion.
Speaking out passionately against religion and its evils helps to dismantle it. Persuading people that religion is mistaken helps to dismantle it. Fighting against the unfair privileged status that religion enjoys in our society and in our legal system helps to dismantle it.
But making atheism more visible, and projecting a positive public image of atheism, and creating a fun, supportive atheist community… these also help to dismantle religion. They refuse the social consent that religion relies on to perpetuate itself. They let people know that atheism is an option — and not only an option, but a valid and satisfying option, with joy and meaning. They provide people a safe place to land when and if they do leave their faith.
So if you’re angry about religion, what should you do?
You should do whatever floats your boat.
You should do whatever form of activism you think is fun and inspiring. Wear an atheist T-shirt to the airport. Organize a same-sex kiss-in at the Mormon Church. Organize a canned food drive for your local food bank. Organize an atheist outing to a karaoke bar. Write a letter to the editor about anti-atheist bigotry in custody cases, or religious proselytizing in the military, or why you support the local atheist billboard campaign. Sponsor an atheist billboard campaign. Show up at your local atheist meetup group. Come up with ideas for activities for your local atheist meetup group… and help make them happen. Show up for the activities that your local atheist meetup group is already having. If there’s no local atheist meetup group in your area — start one. Go to a show of an atheist musician, or artist, or slam poet. Link to funny/ inspiring/ enraging bits of internet atheism on your Facebook page. Go to a school board meeting and insist that evolution be taught in science classes. Go to an atheist conference. Organize an atheist conference. Organize an atheist film festival in your town. Host an atheist movie night in your living room. Donate atheist books to prisons. Donate money to American Atheists or the Secular Student Alliance. Donate money to Camp Quest or the Foundation Beyond Belief. Start a blog. Put an atheist bumper sticker on your car. Get into fights about religion on the internet. Tell someone you know that you’re an atheist.
I pretty much don’t care what you do.
As long as you do something.