Positive Atheism Is Not Friendly Atheism
by Bjorn Watland
Face it. Just by identifying as an atheist, you will offend some people. If you go one step further and voice your opinion and one more step to actually question what someone means when they say, “I’m a believer,” you’ve already turned a lot of people off.
This is the main reason why people engage in self-censorship. I’ve done it myself. I would rather keep my mouth shut than cause a rift between friends or family. However, how can we benefit from keeping quiet? How can we benefit from speaking out?
If we stay quiet, the people we know will form an opinion of what atheists are like from what they read or what others tell them. If we shut up, our friends and family will think that having a Christmas pageant at a public school is a nice idea or that Intelligent Design deserves a fair shake with evolution. Not all of our friends and family will behave this way, but your opinion matters. Your point of view shouldn’t be hidden just because you don’t happen to believe in a god.
So, how do we benefit from speaking out? Many friends and family I’ve spoken to are surprised that I’m an atheist. This means that the stereotype in their mind of what an atheist is, is something different than what I represent. The best way to break down stereotypes is to let people know you’re an atheist. It doesn’t have to be in an assertive way. Maybe you have an atheist t-shirt or sticker. Maybe you read an atheist book in the lunchroom at work. If you’re talking with someone and they say something like, “I just can’t believe how someone can deny God’s existence when there is such diversity of life on Earth,” you can respond with something like, “I think life on Earth is fascinating, but I don’t think that God exists.” This may spark a heated debate, but what is most important is to explain your position and listen to your friend make theirs. It’s not your job to change their mind. What is most important is that they understand your perspective.
Atheists can gain so much with such small discussions. We’re not running around insulting family and friends for their beliefs, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t consequences. Some family and friends will think differently about you. Some may feel it is their duty to change your mind about believing in God. What I’ve found helpful is if I remind them that I respect their right to believe and I deserve the same respect in return.
Despite these risks by taking small steps, atheism can begin to stop being a curse and become a dignified position. We don’t have to be concerned with “winning” every discussion, but the better we are at presenting our opinions the more people will develop their stereotypes about atheists from you, rather than from somewhere else.