Thursday, November 05, 2009

If Christians Try to "Save" Souls, Should Atheists Try to "Lose" Them?

My friend Lauren has a piece up over at Tina Brown's Daily Beast about atheists and their determining whether or not to "evangelize." A taste:
[Kurtz's] life's aim, he told me, is to “make it so a person can be a nonbeliever in our society and be respected and accepted.” As such, he thinks it’s counterproductive to preach against religion. “You can't begin by calling people names,” says the 85-year-old Kurtz. “It's self-destructive to nonbelievers.” When Kurtz’s own organization supported international “Blasphemy Day” in September (a day dedicated to openly criticizing all things God), Kurtz wrote a column in Free Inquiry magazine, an atheist publication put out by the Center for Inquiry, comparing the day to “the anti-Semitic cartoons of the Nazi era." . . . One of Blasphemy Day's supporters was, in fact, Tom Flynn, Free Inquiry’s editor-in-chief and Kurtz's colleague at the Center. Flynn sees a loud, proud, and socially unacceptable atheism as the best chance to achieve Kurtz's declared goals. He also draws constructive parallels to the raucous gay-rights movement of the 1970s and ‘80s. “If you think back to deliberately outrageous activism like ACT UP and Queer Nation, somehow after 10 years, gay was mainstream,” he says. “There were gay characters on sitcoms. How did this happen? That brashness and outrageousness, it desensitized America. It got everybody over that taboo.”
Lauren even spoke to godlessness' biggest rock star, Richard Dawkins. I find this issue of great interest, as you might imagine, and the comparison to the gay rights movement above is an instructive one. The idea that atheists should be socially accepted, should be allowed to (dis)believe what they (dis)believe, goes without saying. And raucously saying, "We're here, we don't hold God dear, get used to it" is great. But many, including Dawkins, obviously want to do a lot more than that.

And that won't likely change, since it's easy to see acceptance of an inherent identity -- "I'm black." "I'm gay." -- as an act of addition. But religious people and atheists both believe something, and it's natural to think of beliefs as a zero-sum game: If my belief is right, yours must be wrong. It seems to me that it would be helpful to think of religious beliefs (and the lack thereof) as more like sports than like math. If someone says, "I believe that two times three equals seventeen," well. . . . it might eventually be difficult to handle that person, socially. But if you're a Yankees fan and someone says, "I love the Phillies," it's OK to trade some good-natured barbs and then move on and continue to each be productive members of society. Which is just to say that a bar-stool sense of playfulness might be refreshing on both sides, rather than dogmatic screaming about settling on the right formula. Fat chance, I know.


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