By Herb Silverman
I can empathize with religious groups whose mission is to convert everyone in the world, since I think the world would be better if everyone “saw the light” of secular humanism. But whether religious or secular, I believe the best form of proselytizing is to lead by example. I think Matthew 7:16 had it right — “By their fruits you shall know them.”
What follows are two lists that relate to atheist’s interactions with religious people. The first suggests ways we can change people’s views of atheists, and the second is about how, on some fronts, we’re not all that different from religionists.
Rather than seek converts to atheism, I think we atheists mostly want our worldview to be respected in a culture that has at least two pretexts for disliking us.
The first is that you can’t trust atheists because they don’t believe in a judging God who will reward or punish them in the afterlife.
This allegation is foolish and demeaning. I’ve been asked in conversations and on talk shows, “What keeps you from committing rape, murder, or anything else you think you can get away with?” My response is, “With an attitude like that, I hopeyou continue to believe in a god.”
The second pretext: atheists are arrogant intellectuals who belittle well-meaning Christians.
I acknowledge there might be some truth to this allegation. Here are some thoughts on what atheists can do to change this view:
1. We shouldn’t gratuitously bash religion or become atheist evangelists. We can answer questions about and communicate our naturalistic worldview without trying to convince others to adopt it. If questioners are open-minded enough to consider our views thoughtfully, some may convince themselves that atheism makes sense, as many of us did.
2. We should respect the right of every person to believe what makes the most sense to him or her. However, this does not mean we need to respect the belief itself — or condone harmful actions based on beliefs.
3. We ought to recognize that worldviews of religious people are usually more vital to them than ours are to us. For example, some theists believe that this life is just preparation for an eternal life — which is literally more important to them than life itself.
4. We should seek common ground with religionists and work on projects of mutual interest. We are more likely to be measured by what we do than by what we say.
Here’s a personal example that led to common ground. In an op-ed in my local paper, the Charleston Post and Courier, I referred to our “Godless Constitution” and offered $1,000 to anyone who could find the words God or Jesus in it. I knew my offer would spark interest and that my money would be safe.
The newspaper’s former religion editor, Skip Johnson, wrote an op-ed trying to make a case for collecting the reward because the Constitution was signed “in the year of our Lord” (the standard way of signing important documents in the eighteenth century). He also argued that elected officials must take an “oath or affirmation” (not necessarily to God, but to uphold the Constitution). We wentback and forth a couple of times and then readers on both sides wrote letters to the newspaper about our exchanges. People assumed that he and I were bitter enemies, so I suggested that we write a joint op-ed for the paper about points of agreement.