01/15/2014 01:55 pm ET Updated Mar 17, 2014

An End to Arrogant Atheism

As an atheist who is also a humanist, I find that in our efforts to point out the dangers and failings inherent in religion, we sometimes fall into the language of arrogance. I read a recent quote from famed evolutionary biologist and past Humanist of the Year awardee, Richard Dawkins, which, upon reflection, showed that even he can fall prey to this tendency. He stated that "religion is an organized license to be acceptably stupid." While Dawkins certainly has a valid point regarding mainstream religion's frequent opposition to critical thinking and empiricism, he makes his point in such a way that is likely to leave religious people offended by, instead of interested in atheism and rational thinking.

Dawkins did something similar when he stated that the combined number of Nobel Prizes won by Muslims was less than that won by a single English university, implying that the notoriously nonreligious achievements of academia are superior to those of adherents of an entire religion. Yet again, Dawkins has a valid point -- that the anti-science mentality of many religions has limited its adherents from learning about science and working in the scientific field, but by saying it in such a way, he is less likely to inspire mainstream religious people to care about science, and more likely to offend and antagonize them.

I know Richard Dawkins to be a self-effacing and warm person, but when he says things like that above, it harms more than helps. Unfortunately, he is not the only atheist to make these kinds of statements, as our movement has a history of sometimes blatant elitism. Past American Humanist Association Honorary President Gore Vidal once said, "There is not one human problem that could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise." Clearly, even humanists aren't immune from such arrogant behavior.

It's important to note that the subset of atheism I think is a problem isn't the so-called "militant atheism" that encourages evangelizing disbelief; there's nothing inherently wrong with promoting one's position to others. And I'm definitely not talking about the so-called "angry atheism," because the nonreligious should be mad about abuses by religious organizations and discrimination against religious and irreligious minorities. What's often holding us back is "arrogant atheism," which is seen when atheists speak as if their view is infallible, and act as if their unwavering non-belief makes them superior to those who do believe.

The problem with arrogant atheism is that it scares away those who would otherwise self-identify as atheists, and it prevents us from building the alliances we need in order to achieve our aims. This is an argument about tactics and attitude. Religion is by no means beyond criticism, so we should feel free to critique and even poke fun at the occasional absurdity. Most people appreciate humor, whether it's in the form of stand-up or just friendly banter. But when that humor is used to hurt others, it becomes a form of derision that is inconsistent with humanism's compassionate principles. When critique becomes belittling, when poking fun becomes ridiculing, the respect that is the foundation for any meaningful conversation is lost.

Encouraging is the fact that a new generation of nonreligious public figures from diverse backgrounds have emerged to spread the word about disbelief in a compassionate and unpretentious way, as exemplified by groups like the Secular Student Alliance. The emphasis on a less monolithic and more empathetic strand of atheism is one of the main reasons that the number of self-identified atheists is rapidly growing and relations between the religious and nonreligious communities have never been better.

If we ever want to truly reach the general public with our message of skepticism, scientific inquiry and a conviction about the importance of basic civil rights and liberties, we need to recognize that you can respectfully disagree, but you can't respectfully ridicule. Let's drop the arrogance and reemphasize the humanist values that appeal to so many people of varying faith traditions. We can still be vocal about our disbelief and should seek to challenge ignorance (be it religious or otherwise) whenever it rears its head, but we should do so in the way that opens minds instead of closes them.