April 18, 2020

Call Us Passionate Atheists, Call Us Atheist Activists

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Ever drawn to conflict (real or imagined), some in the mainstream news media seem to be fond of trying to make it sound like there is a great split among atheists with respect to how vocal we should be in our criticism of religion. I am not convinced that this is a real conflict; however, I think it is clear that there are some differences of opinion among atheists. Some believe that criticizing religion is an important part of our responsibility to society. Others prefer to steer clear of religion altogether in what might be characterized as a live-and-let-live approach.

The mistake the news media (and plenty of others) often make is one of oversimplification. Sure, there are many atheists out there who just want religious people to leave them alone and who have little interest in expressing opinions contrary to religion. There are also many outspoken atheists, some of whom are secular activists working toward meaningful change. The problem is that most atheists probably fall somewhere between these points on the continuum such that any artificial dichotomies will be misleading. There is also the common scenario where an atheist may ignore religion right up until they are confronted with a direct threat and feel that they can no longer do so.

The question of what we should call atheists who tend toward the outspoken and activist pole has received considerable attention and has itself been a long-running source of disagreement. One rarely hears people asking what we should call the atheists who just want to avoid any meaningful debate or controversy. Might this be due to the fact that this is closer to how most religious believers wish we would all behave?

As I have previously tried to show, there is no such thing a "fundamentalist atheist." This is a contradiction in terms. Similarly, while it may be possible to imagine a "militant atheist" taking up arms against believers, this is mostly the stuff of fiction and can be discarded rather easily. There may be a tiny minority of atheists who could possibly warrant the label "atheist extremists" because they cling to the sort of irrational thinking which characterizes all forms of extremism. But even if this is possible, it seems to be rare and is not something exhibited by any of the news media's favorite scapegoats (e.g., Dawkins, Harris, etc.). These men are passionate and periodically say things with which some of us disagree, but their arguments are far from irrational.

So what should we call the outspoken atheists who rightly criticize religion and work toward positive change in the form of secular activism? Call us "passionate atheists," "atheist activists," or something similar. And yes, I am happy to count myself among them. We are passionate about what we are doing because it is personally meaningful to us. We care about our fellow humans and want to help make the world a better place, free of superstition. We are activists because we work for positive change. We have seen that sustained activism is often necessary to bring about equality, and we are interested in equality for atheists.

An early version of this post appeared on Atheist Revolution in 2007. It was revised and expanded in 2020.