The word atheist is charged with controversy. In both definition and application, it’s a bit of a negative word (especially in Western religious circles) associated with an amoral people who believe in “nothing,” who threaten the values of the faithful. Even among non-religious people, the term is often passed over in favor of phrases such as “secular humanist,” “spiritual but not religious,” or “none in particular.” The negative perception of the term is mostly undeserved, but continues due to the behavior of a segment of the atheist population who discredits the name of atheism by being arrogant, militant, condescending or intolerant.
I have always been aware of the smug sense of superiority that frequently comes with being an atheist. I was a child who became a self-determined atheist at the age of eleven, and I was a snob. I believed that faith was for those feeble of mind and weak of conviction. I was satisfied knowing I had evangelized my mother, a former member of the Church of God in Christ, with my agenda, and made her see the naïveté of her religious ways. I arrogantly took it for granted that I likely knew more about the religions of most other people than they do themselves, simply by virtue of a cursory study of theology during recess.
Over the years I’d like to think I’ve done a decent job of shedding the pride and dogmatism, but the lack of definitive faith in a deity stuck with me. Today, I consider myself an “enchanted naturalist”, one who is generally spiritual and values the spirituality of others. While I am careful not to idealize my perspective, I believe this is a pretty decent way to practice atheism.
I’m still the kind of person who believes, from an empirical and historical standpoint, that agnostic atheism seems the best fit for me. I’d like to think I have a nuanced view of faith and religion–I accept that it is perfectly rational to be religious, it is easily possible to be wise and competent while religious, and most importantly, that faith and spirituality do not define a person.
So what should an atheist do to avoid being insufferable?
1. DO use your irreligiosity as an opportunity to look upon people of other walks of life with a relatively neutral point of view.
The great thing about being a contemporary atheist is that you’re pretty unlikely to kill someone over their interpretation of a religious text, or (let’s hope) the language they speak and the way they choose to dress. Be appreciative of the fact that you haven’t been conditioned to see someone who practices a different religion as in dire need of salvation or cleansing. Since you should have a fairly neutral view of most belief systems (at least relative to each other), consider taking the opportunity to study different religions–you might just learn something.
2. DO uphold secular values and the right to live free from religious interference.
One of the political topics I’m passionate about is the issue of the separation of Church and State, and I think other people should be pretty passionate about it, too. This is not because I loathe religion and want to live free of it, but because keeping personal faith out of the legislature and government is an important concern for people of non-dominant religions, people who don’t believe at all, and even people who practice with a slightly unpopular interpretation. It’s only fair that the government remain secular and free of any religious associations, as it governs over a diverse population. Religion and dogmatism frequently encroach upon individual rights (such as the right to an abortion or the right to certain types of marriage and union). Respectfully defend the right to a government free of religious ties, and get serious about it. There’s nothing hateful or militant about that.
3. DO recognize that faith and religion serve a purpose.
Just as atheism reflects your perspective, so does theism for the religious. There are a variety of reasons why someone chooses (and it is a choice) to be religious–social benefits (such as finding a mate), discovering a sense of purpose, or legitimate concerns such as fear of the potentially lethal consequences of infidelity in some theist cultures. It is not anyone else’s place to judge a spiritual decision. Organized religion and faith may have functional benefits, and the case can be made even from an evolutionary viewpoint: Those who choose faith in an afterlife are ultimately trying to forestall death, a biological imperative innate to us all. The argument that religion serves no useful purpose demonstrates a profound lack of insight.
4. DO be a skeptic.
Make empiricism and reasonable doubt your philosophies: believe in something not because it sounds good, not because a clever person said it, but because it’s demonstrably true. Facts are treasures; cherish them. Be skeptical not just about religion, but also about science, politics, and other subjects frequently misunderstood. You may find that the more you learn, the less you feel like you know, and that’s okay! Just don’t be that atheist that accepts everything other atheists say as true, because you believe (consciously or not) that atheists are smarter. Even “skeptic” communities are subject to the pitfalls of excessive credulity (as well as out-of-control incredulity) sometimes.
5. DO rally against wrongdoing and injustice, and not just when it’s tied to religion.
As the cliche goes: fight for what’s right. Avoid a bias against religion when establishing your ethical paradigms. I’ve met many atheists that are far more incensed by circumcision as a social issue than, for example, rape culture, because of the former’s ties to Abrahamic tradition. So many of the pressing social justice concerns, such as LGBTQA issues, in today’s socio-political climate have ties (however tenuous) to religion, it becomes too easy to forget about the many secular social inequities at play. If you find yourself going to war over whether creationism should be taught in schools, but can’t be bothered by the way young men are socialized to be aggressive or hyper-dominant in most societies, you should seriously examine your priorities.
6. DO share your beliefs and the lack thereof if you feel comfortable doing so, without the goal of deconversion.
Neither act ashamed of nor take pride in your lack of faith. Contrary to common thinking, atheism is not exactly a belief system or religion. But a lack of faith is entitled to the same benefits as the presence of faith, and should be respected and welcomed equally. I still at times struggle with being open about my atheism; I don’t want to be perceived as an arrogant evangelist, so I feel the pressure to be humble. One person’s lack of faith should never threaten the faith of another person. Don’t insert the fact that you’re an atheist into your conversations at every possible opportunity, but also do not be afraid to affirm your lack of belief if prompted, or if it’s relevant to the conversation.
13. DO avoid the pretension that people need religion to survive.
One of the few arguments by the writer and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins that isn’tneedlessly pretentious and belittling–and one that I agree with–is that no one truly needs religion. A person should not be judged for their choice to believe, but ultimately belief is a choice. While religion is something that can enhance many people’s lives, it does not sustain life. One of the most self-righteous arguments made by atheists is that religion remains relevant because the foolish masses cling to religion out of desperation. Often, spirituality is conflated with religion. People need hope and a sense of purpose (spirituality, that is), but not necessarily religion. Atheists gain a better understanding of the religious when they recognize that religion is voluntary, and those who choose to practice it are not desperate and do not need to be rescued.
7. For the love of God (who may or may not exist depending on your personal worldview), DO NOT have a persecution complex.
I’ve often found myself at odds with the religious and irreligious alike on the issues of persecution and oppression. In my experience, one of many things that the religiously pious and piously irreligious have in common is feeling oppressed. This is especially the case with the Christian Right, but is also a feature of many atheists’ diatribe, evidenced by the great number of blog posts and listicles about how systematically mistreated atheists are by the majority of religious people. In many cases, the claim of oppression is a gross exaggeration or an outright falsehood. While atheism and secular thought is significantly underrepresented in some areas (e.g., counseling, public office, home education), and is a minority religious identification worldwide, atheism is frequently in a position of privilege. Identified atheists skew male and white, are are (generally) better educated than religious people, and often find strong allies among people on the left when voting.
8. DO NOT conflate spirituality with religion.
One of the most egregious mistakes made by religious people and atheists in tandem is the confusion between spirituality–the quest for meaning and significance in life and the self–and religion, a structure of worship, beliefs, and cultural values that often involves an element of spirituality. Although an atheist rejects religion almost by definition, it is neither necessary nor helpful (or particularly healthy) to reject spirituality. A sense of purpose (whether self-constructed or inherent) is usually considered a requirement for general mental well-being, and I am disappointed when I meet an atheist who proudly proclaims “I’m not spiritual.”
9. DO NOT attack an aspect of a faith if you do not understand it.
Do your research before you mouth off. Jesus likely did exist, according to a wealth of archaeological data, no canon Biblical work refers to a young earth (that is, a world that is 10,000 years old or younger), and the Catholic Church was not at odds with scientific inquiry in the middle ages. If you’re going to attack religion (and I caution strongly against “attacking” it), make sure you know the facts. This also applies to casting judgement upon religious rites and customs. As is often parroted in anthropology 101, it is impossible to completely understand a culture without having lived in the cultural milieu in which it takes place. This does not at all exempt rituals and beliefs from critique, but it should at least make you think (and study) twice before you levy criticism.
10. DO NOT masturbate to Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and other famous atheist proponents.
Richard Dawkins has gone on record as being a (“mild”) pedophile apologist and an anti-feminist, and routinely dismisses and invalidates the social justice concerns of people less privileged than himself, as in the case of Rebecca Watson. He is arrogant and his tone and manner of speech is condescending, repeatedly equating religion to mental illness and idiocy, and disseminates a general sense of blind hatred for religious belief rather than fostering a greater understanding of it. The renowned thinker and journalist Christopher Hitchens is not much better, and is known as an anti-muslim misogynist, with an arrogant and intolerant affect, similar to Richard Dawkins. While people like Dawkins and Hitchens have made notable contributions to atheist visibility, these men are not worthy of significant praise, and are an embarrassment to the cause of civil secular humanism. The greatest way to alienate yourself as an atheist from anyone remotely faithful or sympathetic to the faithful is to align yourself with men who think religion is a cancerous delusion, offering absolutely no merit to society.
11. DO NOT be dogmatic.
Do not claim to know definitively that there isn’t a God. I would even go so far as being “almost certain” there isn’t a God. An atheist who is dogmatic is arguably as irrational as a theist who is absolutely certain that God exists. The only rationally sound atheist philosophy is agnostic atheism, the belief that it is impossible to determine whether God exists. Arguments such as “God is about as likely as the flying spaghetti monster,” are petty, trite, and annoying, not to mention unscientific.
12. DO NOT be that agnostic who makes a solid distinction between atheism and agnosticism.
“Agnostic” describes someone who believes the existence of God or another deity is unknowable. It is not atheism lite, nor is it atheism for polite people who dislike the term “atheist.” Almost all the self-described “agnostics” I’ve met, by definition, are actually what are called agnostic atheists, although I respect their decision not to identify as such. Contrary to popular belief, most atheists are agnostic by nature, and are uncertain whether a deity exists. It is not “un-atheist” to want to avoid the issue of God entirely, and atheism is not some movement dedicated to proving to the world how idiotic the idea of a deity is. This misconception is mainly derived from a stereotype, and is perpetuated primarily by obnoxious atheists. It is possible to be religious and agnostic, although most religions that demand faith generally expect a strong believer to be gnostic or nearly so.
14. Do Not assume that the faithful need to be educated on the merits of atheism.
This is just another form of proselytization, and that kind of makes you an evangelist, doesn’t it? Don’t be condescending or take it for granted that people need an education from you on all things atheist; your arguments are likely not original. Someone who wants to become an atheist or is on the fence about it will probably decide whether it is right for them after some introspection and an Associate’s from Google University, so spare yourself the embarrassment of coming off as a complete snob and reserve it for /r/circlejerk.
So there are some quick and dirty tips on how to be an atheist and not be a total douche. Just remember to be respectful in general, listen more and speak less, treat people as you’d want to be treated, and defend what’s just and fair becauseit’s the right thing to do. Make these practices a habit and you’re well on your way to becoming an emotionally-intelligent and wise atheist, or simply a better person.