Thursday, February 01, 2007

History's on Our Side, but We Must Be Careful

Vjack at Atheist Revolution has a great article warning atheists about playing into the hands of the Religious Right by appearing too extreme. Here's a short excerpt:

...there is a very real risk that atheism will be equated with another form of extremism in the minds of many Americans. Our more confrontational tactics must be balanced with an emphasis on education, critical thinking, and more subtle criticism. I am not suggesting that we abandon the assault on religion launched by our colleagues but that we supplement it with other approaches. If the American people come to perceive us as simply another form of extremism (and there are indications that this is already happening), our credibility becomes no greater than that of the Christian extremists we oppose.

I certainly agree with Vjack on the need for atheism to not look like just another version of a religious zealotry. Whenever we atheists take an opportunity debate our case in front of others, the best way to win in the audience's minds (since that's where one truly wins a debate) is to be the calm, reasonable one. Let the other person look like the raving, irrational fool. When debating strongly religious individuals, it usually doesn't take long for them to let their true colors show. Indifferent observers will almost always side with the calm, collected, and rational individual. You might even plant a seed of doubt in the mind of the believer. Even if the other person stays mature and calm, you will be able to articulate to others what being an atheist actually means. It probably won't win converts, but it will educate others, making acceptance more widespread.

However, we shouldn't be afraid to point out injustices when we see them and be ready to point out intolerance when we see it. It will certainly inflame the Religious Right, but we have history
on our side. It may come in fits and spasms, but progressive ideas have endured throughout American history. Look at the abolitionist movement prior to the Civil War. Slave holders made an uproar over the issue and even resorted to war to preserve it, but progressive thought won out. Look at the civil rights movement. Segregationists became more vocal and outspoken, but progressive thought won out. Look at the gay rights movement. The Religious Right still raises a stink over the issue, put polls show that most Americans support gay rights. To me, it seems the recent outbust of conservative Christianity is the Religious Right's attempt to stop the next inevitable wave of progressive thought. Its leaders are scared of losing their sacred intolerances and their control over their congregations. It might seem bad, but, as history shows, it always gets worse right before the next great step forward.

That doesn't mean we can become complacent. It still takes work, but as Vjack said, we need to be careful of benefiting the Right by making them feel persecuted. Even though atheists pointing out the flaws in religious thought is far from actual persecution of religion, perception is reality, and when someone buys into propaganda, it becomes real in his or her mind. To win the acceptance of the majority of Americans, we need to ensure they see the messages of the Religious Right for what they actually are: mere propaganda.

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