A reader writes:
I’m enjoying the discussion about atheists and morality. Unlike some of your other atheist readers, I’m not particularly offended that we’re often seen as immoral. It’s fairly obvious that the reason we’re viewed that way by the faithful is that they haven’t had much real-life contact with good, moral atheists. It reminds me very much of how conservatives who haven’t interacted with a real gay person often call that community immoral. It’s simply fear of the unknown. My own experience speaks to this.
I grew up a Christian in the Bible Belt, surrounded by a conservative peer group. In my Christian elementary school, atheism was literally unthinkable – it didn’t even occur to me that people didn’t believe in God. In high school, I met my first atheist, and he was one of the warmest, kindest people I’ve ever met. He was super nerdy like me, and we bonded over our similarities. The fact that someone could be so kind and also not believe in God was somewhat shocking to me at the time.
As I slowly deconverted to atheism during college, I would always think back to him as my model of a truly good atheist.
My own view of morality slowly evolved away from needing a God and towards a naturalistic explanation. We are social animals in a harsh world. To survive, we needed to establish rules of conduct that allow us to work together against the elements – a moral code. No God needed. I do hope that, eventually, this will become the prevailing view.
In order for this to happen, we need more people like my high school friend. We need more atheists who are soft-spoken and genuinely good, loving people who can demonstrate by example that atheists aren’t frightening anarchists. Conversion doesn’t happen in debates or through legislation – evangelicals have known this for a long time. Conversion occurs through many personal interactions over years.
I dislike the approach of the New Atheists not because I disagree with their views, but because their methods push the faithful away from atheism. It’s insanely counterproductive. Who wants to be friends with the self-righteous bully? As much as I love Hitchens’ passion, clear-mindedness, and brutally logical arguments, I think my high school friend was a much better advocate for atheism than Hitchens. And don’t get me started on Dawkins. What a fucking asshole. In the same way that the gay community slowly won the argument by being out and showing that they’re just like the rest of us, we atheists need to be out and demonstrate kindness and love to our neighbors.
By the way, the fact that I’m not completely out tears me apart. My mother is a very devout Christian with an anxiety disorder. I fear that telling her about my true beliefs would cause her enormous emotional strife. She might truly believe I’m going to Hell. Who could put that sort of burden on his mother? I hope that, eventually, our religions will evolve to a more accepting view of atheists, so that people like me won’t have to be in the closet.