Being a Better Atheist


For as long as I have been in contact with online atheism, I have noticed that there are plenty of people eager to tell us how to be better atheists. "You should be nicer to religious believers." Why? "You know, you'd catch more flies with honey than vinegar." But I'm not interested in catching flies. "If you're not as outraged as I am about [insert the speaker's pet issue here], you're part of the problem!" Why must I have the same priorities as you in order to be valued? That does not seem terribly consistent with freethought or humanism.

I think it would be fair to say that most of what we are told about being better atheists can be boiled down to the following sentiment: "You should be more like me." That does not necessarily mean we should be dismissive of everything we hear about being better atheists, though. Some of it probably is good advice. At least, some of it is probably worth considering. So how do we sort through the advice that is out there?

I think it is difficult to say anything meaningful about being a better atheist unless we first make sure we are talking about the same goals. If your primary goal is making more atheists, that might lead you down one path. If your aim is one of persuading religious believers to work with you in maintaining the separation of church and state, that could lead to a somewhat different path. If you understand that you are representing atheism in the sense that people are listening to what you have to say and basing their opinions of atheists on how you behave, then that may bring up some additional considerations. And yes, most of us who are interested in improving our world probably could stand to be nicer to others regardless of their religious views.

Instead of framing everything in terms of being a better atheist, we might instead think about how to be more effective atheists. I suggest this because talking about being more effective takes us to the important question: "More effective at what?" Once we have identified what it is that we are trying to accomplish, it becomes meaningful to ask how we can be more effective at accomplishing it.

"But some atheists are not interested in accomplishing anything." I'd guess that there aren't many atheists like this, but I might be wrong. For those atheists who regard the current state of affairs as perfect or who have or given up, they can simply tune out while the rest of us talk about how to be more effective at doing what we want to do.

Here are some of the questions I often find helpful:

  1. What would I like to change about the world in which I live?
  2. How am I helping to change these things?
  3. Are there things I am doing that I could be doing better?
  4. Are some of the things I am doing making things worse in the sense of undermining the changes I seek?
  5. If there were more people behaving like me, would that be more or less desirable?

The first of these questions is pretty easy. I have a feeling we have all thought about this and have several answers ready to go. But I think things become more difficult the moment we reach the second question. Despite having clear answers to the first, I'd bet that many aren't sure how they are helping to bring about the changes they'd like to see. And the rest of the questions may be things that many of us aren't used to asking at all.