As atheists, do we need to proselytize? There is a cute YouTube video about atheists going door-to-door in a Mormon community, spreading the "good word" that there is no hell, and there are no sins. There is only the here and now, and isn’t it great? In reality, people born into a religious environment can live their entire lives without their beliefs ever being questioned or an alternative being postulated.
Religious conservatives are right to fear the role of science in school. The classroom may be the first place that a child from a religious household is exposed to ideas that contradict their worldview. This is probably why there is growing support for private schools where people of a certain faith can shelter their children from such disruptive influences, at least until they are ready for college and the outside world. The hope of these parents is that by that age, they will be fully committed to the faith of their parents.
So atheists fight to keep science in the public schools, and the nonsense of intelligent design out. We also post the occasional billboard, TV commercial or radio show. But religions have shown us that the best way to get the word out is through personal contact. Sometimes, this is based on a desire to convert the gullible. But with atheism, we need to emphasize the truth, which means talking about science, history, and archeology, among others. We need to educate, not indoctrinate. It’s a harder path, but one which must be walked. We need to do more than tell people what is not there; we need to give them perspective on a world without fear of damnation, but which retains its wonder and beauty without divine inspiration.
Going door to door is hard for many people to do, and there is often a highly negative reaction. So maybe we need to start smaller. Like setting up information stalls at local fairs, community centers, everywhere there is a public event, we should be represented. By being there, we give people who are curious a chance to talk to us. Only those with doubts will come, but they are the ones most likely to listen to the message. And the message is that you don’t have to profess faith to know where you came from and where you are going. You need the strength and conviction to accept the truth, and to know that once you do, you will not be alone in this.
Being an atheist in public can be hard, especially when you are in the minority. We should not fight back when attacked. We are not there to fight or argue; we are there to educate and to acknowledge that potential non-believers need not feel that they are alone. When someone tells us they will pray for us, we say “thank you,” in acknowledgement of the positive spirit in which such a statement is intended. When we are told that we are going to hell, we smile and say “that’s nice.” We don’t need to argue about it, since it’s not real. But mostly, we need to turn the discussion to what is positive about being an atheist. Atheism is freedom from fear, freedom to accept the truth of science and history without the bitter aftertaste of outdated religious teachings that are logically irreconcilable with our modern knowledge.
Religions have an easier task. Eternal happiness and life is a strong selling point–but only if it’s real. By contrast, atheists are not here to tell people what to believe, but rather to tell them that they don’t have to believe in a religion, and if they don’t believe it, they will not be alone in this. With the internet, it is easier to communicate than ever before. But it also makes us complacent. We know that there are others like us in the world, so we don’t always make the effort to develop local friends of similar convictions. We need to do that. Each of us is like a teacher, someone who is available to help others come to a new understanding, if they are ready. Sometimes, you don’t even need to say anything. When someone who has had doubts knows that you are not a “believer,” they start to tell you about all their doubts and fears. Things they can’t say to family or friends who are “believers.” They want to know that they will not be alone if they admit that they do not believe what they were raised to accept as truth.
Many of us have had the experience of losing friends or even family connections once we defected from the congregation. Social ostracism is not easy in any culture. And when you make the decision, it’s hard on those who support you as well. It’s a burden often shared with those who love you.
For atheists to become part of the mainstream, we must actively promote our view of the world. Merely opposing the stance of the religious is not enough. Yes, we do not want religion being imposed on us. But also, we need to recognize the virtue of gaining adherents. Look at the atheist web sites today. Much of what is there attacks religion. We have a positive message too, but often this is overlooked in our rush to condemn the intolerance or ignorance of religion. Our message to the world should not be wholly negative, it should be positive. It is a noble goal to free each person of the chains of fear of an all-powerful god, or of endless rebirth if one is without merit. To understand that morality comes from people, it always has, and over the centuries we have come to recognize the value of each individual in many cultures – regardless of the prevailing religion.
I dream that someday there will be a “house of knowledge” in each community, where speakers come to give presentations on science and philosophy to an engaged congregation every week. The children attend a sponsored summer camp that teaches about nature, outdoor skills, handcrafts, athletics, and environmental protection. They will sing songs and enjoy each other’s companionship. They will be an accepted part of the community, and will sponsor local sports teams in softball and be a force in local charity work. Other people, who are curious or who wish to belong to an active community, will know where to go to find out more information about them. Politicians seeking election to public office will come to speak to them, to seek their support. Maybe there won’t be a name for them, any more than there is a specific name for someone who likes to read books. Maybe they will be called “seekers,” because they seek knowledge and the truth, wherever it can be found. Maybe they will still be called atheists. History should define us by our actions, and not by how others see us in reference to their own beliefs. Pagans were only pagans to Christians.
There may currently be enough atheists to support such a community in many places, but there is typically not enough organization and little acceptance by the rest of society. We need to promote ourselves as being equal to persons of faith, and we need to be active in our local communities. This is harder than posting a message on Facebook or YouTube, but it is the local action that will generate the most long lasting and tangible results. There are more of us then people think, and we need to make that known at all levels of society. Make the effort. Reach out in person to others, and don’t be afraid of rejection. We are growing in numbers every day. You are not alone.