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'Evangelical Atheists:' Pushing For What?

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Last Friday, a New York Times headline declared: "Atheists Debate How Pushy to Be." This ongoing debate among atheists -- "Just how much should we confront the religious?" -- is nowhere near resolution.

Last year when I visited Minnesota to spend the winter holidays with my family, I spoke with a Christian friend about my budding efforts as an atheist promoting religious tolerance and interfaith work. She too was excited about the idea of bringing people together around shared values in spite of religious differences, but near the end of our conversation she asked me a pointed question: "I'm a little confused. Isn't part of being an atheist trying to talk people out of their faith?"

She's not the first to ask me that. In fact, it's one of the questions I get most often. It seems that because many vocal atheists cite "the end of faith" as their goal, atheism is often perceived as being actively anti-religious to the point of being almost evangelical. Reza Aslan lays the case out well:

There is, as has often been noted, something peculiarly evangelistic about what has been termed the new atheist movement ... It is no exaggeration to describe the movement popularized by the likes of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens as a new and particularly zealous form of fundamentalism -- an atheist fundamentalism. The parallels with religious fundamentalism are obvious and startling: the conviction that they are in sole possession of truth (scientific or otherwise), the troubling lack of tolerance for the views of their critics (Dawkins has compared creationists to Holocaust deniers), the insistence on a literalist reading of scripture (more literalist, in fact, than one finds among most religious fundamentalists), the simplistic reductionism of the religious phenomenon, and, perhaps most bizarrely, their overwhelming sense of siege: the belief that they have been oppressed and marginalized by Western societies and are just not going to take it anymore.

I'm not sure I'm in full agreement with Aslan. In my first piece for Huffington Post Religion, I noted the undeniable reality that atheists do in fact face discrimination in America. But his critique of the zealous nature of "new atheism" is difficult to deny. When a large and vocal number of atheists say that their number one goal is convincing people to abandon their faith, it comes as no surprise that our community is construed as extreme and aggressive.

This is a major problem for the nonreligious because it limits our reach. In the words of Carl Sagan: "The chief deficiency I see in the skeptical movement is its polarization: Us vs. Them -- the sense that we have a monopoly on the truth; that those other people who believe in all these stupid doctrines are morons; that if you're sensible, you'll listen to us; and if not, to hell with you. This is nonconstructive. It does not get our message across. It condemns us to permanent minority status."

The reason I do interfaith work is because I want to erode this kind of "Us vs. Them" thinking. The day before the New York Times raised the issue, I spoke to the Secular Student Alliance at Yale University about my work and addressed the question of whether the nonreligious should engage in interfaith work. Inevitably, our group conversation turned to the subject of "evangelical atheism" and whether this was an appropriate description of tactics applied by "new atheists."

"I may lose all of my credibility for saying this," I said with a chuckle, "but I have zero interest in talking people out of their religious beliefs. The only religious beliefs I take issue with are ones that infringe on individual freedoms -- for example, when someone's religious belief informs their conviction that I, as a queer person, should not be free to marry whoever I choose. But their belief in God, when it does not contribute to actions that inhibit my liberty, is of no concern to me."

All the more, I added, I actually celebrate religious beliefs that motivate people to engage in social justice work. Historical figures like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Thich Nhat Hanh, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Monsignor Oscar Romero cited their faith as the primary impetus for their social justice work and launched their efforts through interfaith coalitions. Because of their efforts and the efforts of others like them, I actually believe that the world would suffer a serious loss if religion disappeared.

To my delight, many students in the room expressed their agreement.

The nonreligious have gained a lot of traction due to the voices of "new atheism," but I believe that we are at a crossroads: We have come to a point where we can continue to express our legitimate frustrations in a way that alienates the religious, or we can look inward to find a comfort in our own convictions that will enable us to begin the courageous and important work of looking outward to respectfully engage with others.

I am encouraged by a new generation of humanists, atheists, agnostics, skeptics, freethinkers and others who wish to operate in a way that is constructive instead of deconstructive. We are led by people like Lucy Gubbins, an atheist who co-founded the University of Oregon's Alliance of Happy Atheists, who is working to both create secular community and identify opportunities for collaboration with the religious. Gubbins and those like her are more concerned with these positive efforts than with striving to de-convert the religious. And our numbers are growing every day - several Yale students approached me after our discussion to ask how they could get involved in interfaith work.

A few days before my talk at Yale, I met with students from Tufts University's Freethought Society, which has been actively working to get a Humanist Chaplain for several years now. Inside Higher Ed wrote an article on their efforts last year that highlighted the need for nonreligious communities. In the article, Greg Epstein, the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University, said, "A lot of students come to campus knowing they're not religious, but also not knowing what they do believe. [Humanist communities can] help them learn more about the positive aspects of their identity, not just what they don't believe in."

It's just a hypothesis, but I wonder if fewer nonreligious people would actively try to dismantle religious communities if we had a more coherent community of our own. Perhaps if we spend less energy negatively "evangelizing," we'll find ourselves well positioned to reach out in ways that build bridges instead of tearing them down.

"How pushy should we be, then?" We're asking the wrong question. Instead, let's ask ourselves: What are we pushing for?

Is our top priority trying to do away with religion altogether, or is it trying to make the world a better place? If it is the latter, then we must change our approach, reach out to religious liberals and moderates and work together.

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