UPDATED Introduction, February 2012: This two-part essay was originally written for an "atheist pride day" on Facebook. Back in 2009, several thousand atheists and other nonbelievers changed their profile pictures to the "Scarlet A" of the Richard Dawkins Foundation (http://outcampaign.org/promotions). In making this tiny gesture, we hoped to start productive dialogs with each other, and with our more religious friends and loved ones.
At the time, I wrote the following to address some questions I'd received--first from believers, then from nonbelievers--about the origin and purpose of the day, which we called, simply, "I am an Atheist". The second of two parts begins below:
In Part One, I gave some of my reasons for being a part of this event, and put forward some ideas that I hope theists will read and consider
In Part Two below, I want to address some things I've heard from some members of the atheist community in response to putting together an event like this.
"My friends already know I'm atheist"
A pride day is not just about coming out of a closet. As I wrote in part one, the strength to say for the first time, "I am different", can be hard to muster. Atheists who raise the objection above have already been through this trial: their nonbelief is a matter of public record.
But are our memories that short? Surely we can recall feeling alone or scared or angry or something when we first came to face our new understanding of the world. Those of us who are "out" have a duty to be a part of the support structure for those yet to join us. The more we make clear that there is a strong, supportive atheist community out here, the more we can assuage the fears of others.
"I don't want my friends to know I'm atheist"
I don't think people who've said this really mean it. Instead, I think it's something more like
"I don't want my friends to judge me unfairly for being an atheist. I don't want to get into any fights about my atheism."
...and I understand. It is hard to realize that someone we thought was a friend predicated that relationship on a lie. It's hard to realize that someone we thought respected us no longer does.
And it can be even harder to watch as friends and loved ones we respect seem to move further and further away from reason as they begin to wield their beliefs like a weapon whenever we're around. I get it, it's tough.
But is what you're saying really "I don't want to do this because it will be tough to deal with the consequences"? We need to--atheism is a core to our philosophical beliefs and our moral actions. Our lack of belief is a driving force behind many of our major life decisions. I can't content myself with a world where I had to hide integral parts of myself just to make the day go by a little more easily; neither should you.
"I don't want to rub my atheism in anyone's face"
As you just read, I will advocate strongly for the need for atheists to use their backbones and say "we're here, we're a part of your life, we're not going anywhere", and it's equally important to say "we're not bad people, we don't need to be changed". Note though that none of this is about imposing our beliefs on others.
I truly think that religious followers are mistaken in their beliefs, and I will gladly engage in seemingly endless conversation and debate about this.
But that's for tomorrow.
Tomorrow, we can go back to saying "I think you're wrong"--though I would ask you all to do it in as respectful a way as you can. But today we simply say "I think you're wrong to think us lesser"
That's not "rubbing it in". If today my status message read "Neil is proud to be a teacher" or "Neil is proud to be an Eagles fan", no one would think I was trying to impose these things on others. Why so worried when it's about belief?
"This won't work; assembling atheists is like herding cats"
It turns out that when you're willing to question religious belief--the heart of many people's lives--you're willing to question just about anything. Perhaps for that reason, atheists tend to be very independent of spirit and diverse in their personal, political, and "religious" thoughts. I fiercely value my independence, and will fight in word and action to defend it when necessary.
But there's a big difference between being independent and being stubborn. It's silly and naive to think that because you and I are both independent spirits, we have little in common. In fact, some of our commonalities are likely to be caused by this independence.
Nonbelievers resistant to group affiliation seem to misunderstand this point. I'm standing together with more than 4,000 of my fellow atheists today--do you think we all get along? Do you think we all necessarily like each other?
That's all besides the point! In life, we go our separate ways; some of our paths will converge, and some will not. But we are all united by our rejection of the supernatural, a decision that has implications that we all must deal with--even if we do so in different ways.
As to the original saying: we aren't herding cats. We're asking cats to meow--to make it clear to the world that they're cats.
As it turns out, cats do that.
"Doesn't this turn atheism into a religion?"
I confess that I've never fully understood this objection. Clearly, this event does not turn atheism into a religion. We're not imposing any beliefs, traditions, or dogma. We're not asking you to tithe; we're not asking you to conform.
To revisit my earlier example: if I got all the Philadelphia Eagles fans on Facebook together to turn their profiles green for a day and proclaim "I am an Eagles fan", have I created a religion devoted to my local sports team? Absurd!
Here's the point: "Religion" does not equal "community".
Any atheist who has moved away from religion solely because they don't like all the "meeting on Sundays" may have a point. Fortunately, I think that kind of atheist is a fiction.
Community is a good thing! It unites us in common purpose and allows our voices to carry further. It allows us to carry out acts that would be beyond the means of one person acting alone.
There are plenty of things to find objectionable in most religions. But soup kitchens, community outreach, church philanthropy? These are all examples that we, the atheist community, should aspire to. I say again, it is possible to maintain our independence of thought while uniting to further a common good.
"This won't accomplish anything"
It is beyond debate that the gay pride movement has done much to advance the cause of equality. Our young atheist pride movement is often consciously mirrored off this movement. Things like our Facebook event, the Out Campaign, or the Coming Out Godless project may be little steps, but they are steps forward. As more people join, our message grows louder and our prospects for getting the word out next year increase even more.
You know, one of the nastier stereotypes about atheists is that we are simply selfish, lazy hedonists, denying god so that we can more easily reject morality and responsibility. When I hear atheists say things like "meh, that seems like a lot of work" to the idea of changing their status message, or "I don't want to be a part of any group", well...I start to understand where that stereotype comes from.
We can do better! Skepticism does not need to equal cynicism. For any nonbelievers who think this event to be a waste of time, I urge you to consider carefully both parts of my message and contrast the effects with the minimal effort that participating requires.
Part One, on why the principle of this event is important