November 11, 2020

Reasonable Atheists Inspire Me and I'd Like to See More of Them

inspiration light bulb

Every so often, I find myself wrestling with the following question: "What kind of person do I want to be?" It seems like a strange thing to occupy the mind of someone who has been an adult for some time. I mean, don't most people sort this sort of thing out in their youth? I guess I thought I did too, but that hasn't stopped it from coming back periodically over the years. I think that what has made it come back lately has something to do with my online interactions with other atheists as well as what I have observed from other atheists on social media.

When I see atheists being reasonable, kind to others, demonstrating patience in their interactions with religious believers who say stupid things, and expressing themselves in thoughtful ways, I immediately feel drawn to them. These are the sort of people I want to interact with, and I wish there were more of them. This has helped me to realize that I want to be more reasonable, kinder, more patient, and express myself more thoughtfully. I want to cultivate more of the attributes I admire and appreciate it others. At the same time, I don't see nearly enough of this. I seem to encounter more atheists who behave in unreasonable ways, are hostile to others, who are quick to condemn those with whom they disagree, and who express themselves in ways that few would characterize as thoughtful (e.g., name-calling). These are not the sort of people with whom I want to interact, but they have helped me realize that I don't want to be like them. I suppose that has been valuable too.

The older I get, the less important others' opinions of me seem to be. I have become more comfortable being alone much of the time. At the same time, I think it has become more important that I am the sort of person I'd like to be...for me. I want to be more like the reasonable atheists because I like what they have to offer. I want to be less like the unreasonable atheists because I find much of their behavior off-putting and counterproductive. I no longer feel as though I am chasing others' approval, but I am still chasing my own.

I recently came across an atheist on Twitter who was complaining about low numbers of people following him. I found myself thinking that if I had the choice between being followed by 25 reasonable atheists or 25,000 unreasonable atheists, it wouldn't be much of a contest. I'd happily take the 25 reasonable atheists. Why? They are inspiring in ways the unreasonable variety just aren't.

This whole "reasonable" vs. "unreasonable" thing will strike some as little more than code for "people I agree with" and "people I disagree with." That's not at all what it is, though. I don't always agree with the reasonable atheists. I sometimes disagree with them sharply on important topics. And I don't always disagree with the unreasonable atheists. We may have reached the same conclusions in different ways, but we've often reached the same conclusions. I'm thinking of "reasonable" as things like being open-minded, cognitively flexible, able to tolerate ambiguity, appreciative of nuance, and as treating others with dignity and respect in spite of whatever disagreements arise.

Reasonable atheists inspire me. They help me to identify characteristics I find desirable and provide me with examples of what the implementation of these characteristics looks like. They remind me that my quest for self-improvement will never end even though it has shifted away from trying to win the approval of others. I still need to win my own approval, and looking to reasonable atheists for inspiration makes this easier.