In the marketplace of ideas, atheists and atheism are still fighting to carve out a place. We have made some dramatic gains, but our long-term success is not yet assured. The sheer novelty of our message has, no doubt, attracted much interest and attention, but we must still work to win an established place in society's halls of power. When media organizations routinely invite atheists along with religious leaders to give the secular humanist perspective on issues, or when politicians seeking office cater to our interests, then we will know we have arrived. Until then, we have much work left to do.
Part of this effort, side by side with the effort to defend our civil rights, must be outreach. TV appearances, best-selling books and other mass media communications are helpful, but naturally not every atheist can do that. At least as important, and possibly more so, is advocacy on a grassroots level - reaching out to people on an individual level, the people around us and the ones we meet in everyday life, spreading the good news of atheism one person at a time. It may be slow, but to truly change people's minds, there is no substitute for it. The best way to banish prejudice is to show people whom we personally know that atheists are ordinary, decent citizens - for strangers can easily be dismissed and demonized, whereas someone whom the questioner knows personally is far harder to stereotype in this way.
A major part of any atheist outreach effort must be to burnish our public image. Making people aware of our existence is the most important thing, of course. But close behind that must be a conscious effort to appear friendly and approachable. It is our adversaries' fondest dream to portray atheists as bitter, hostile misanthropes, and we give them ammunition when we act and speak in ways that can be exploited to depict us as such.
Take this editorial, Does God live on the Coastside?, recently published in a local California paper, the Half Moon Bay Review. The editorial itself is unremarkable, but consider the following reader comment by one Arlene Flick:
I just think it would be so sad to be a non-believer in God. How alone you must feel if you didn't believe in an after life. What prevents you from doing bad things in life? How do you determine right from wrong? I see quite a few people, especially in the Bay Area, that "feel" like they have the right to do whatever "they feel" like doing without examining the consequences on their family, their neighbors, their community. It is a very selfish attitude and it seems to run amuck especially out here in the Bay Area. The more I see, read and hear out here, the more I see a return to Sodom and Gomorrah. History does tend to repeat itself.
Certainly, there's much in this comment that an atheist could take offense at. But regardless, this is not the way to reply:
Have you actually read Dawkins, Harris, or Hitchens? Your post is really uninformed and needlessly insulting. Please educate yourself on the subject of ethics and don't simply regurgitate mindless Christian right propaganda. Atheists are some of the most ethical people you will ever meet. Or don't you know any atheists?
I don't mean to hold this atheist up for public criticism, but as understandable as his offended comment is, it is not the right course of action. Replies like this will only cement a negative image of atheism in the mind of the original commenter, as well as in the minds of others who may be reading and listening.
I certainly don't deny that the original post was both uninformed and insulting. We have heard these stereotypes so many times before that, to us, they have become irritating and tiresome, which explains why many atheists give snappish replies when confronted with them yet again. But we must keep in mind that, to the religious people making them, these claims are both brand-new and persuasive. In all probability, Ms. Flick has never heard an actual atheist in her life, and finds these anti-atheist arguments to be cogent and convincing.
But because she has probably never heard a real atheist, this reflexive prejudice may not be deep or strongly held. There are obvious counters to these arguments, well-known to us, but probably not known to her. If we realize this and respond to her, not with anger but with understanding, we stand to gain two achievements: first, defusing these anti-atheist claims with a well-reasoned response, and second, jarring her negative attitude toward atheism by showing that we can be civil and friendly - even likable - even when challenged.
When we do not give reason for a person to take offense at our response, we make it much harder for them to dismiss that response without considering it. Instead, we should show that we understand their criticisms while simultaneously showing that they are unfounded. This is how I responded:
"I just think it would be so sad to be a non-believer in God. How alone you must feel if you didn't believe in an after life."
I appreciate your sympathy, but I can assure you it isn't necessary. As an atheist, I find more than sufficient reason for happiness and contentment in this lifetime. There's enough wonder and beauty in this world that I see no need for any other. On the other hand, I feel concern for you, if you're so unhappy with this life that you've staked all your happiness on the existence of another. Rather than putting all your effort into wishing there's an afterlife where your troubles will be magically resolved, I think you'd do better to strive toward making this life what you wish it to be.
"What prevents you from doing bad things in life? How do you determine right from wrong?"
The same way as anyone else: we use reason to evaluate the consequences of our actions, coupled with the sense of compassion that lets us imagine what it would be like to be in the position of other people whom our actions affect. It's not difficult. Frankly, I'd be concerned by someone who prefers to be told what to do, rather than letting their own conscience guide them. That sort of morality is far too easily turned to evil and wrongdoing.
"I see quite a few people, especially in the Bay Area, that "feel" like they have the right to do whatever "they feel" like doing without examining the consequences on their family, their neighbors, their community."
That is a sorry attitude, I agree. But it has nothing to do with atheism.