The rise in atheism in the public consciousness, called New Atheism, has begun to fade a bit, and has certainly had backlashes from all sides. The largely implicit goal of New Atheism is to combat, counter, and criticize religion wherever and whenever a reasonable argument exists. Indeed, I have felt an almost ‘witch hunt’ mentality in certain circles toward those who commit harm in the name of belief.
However, in the zeal and bandwagon mentality of the ‘movement’, a sense of inclusiveness was lost. During the Civil Rights era, the creation of white allies was important for the Southern Blacks to spread their message of freedom and equality. Secularists must do the same. By stopping the vilification of all who believe in a god or gods and by acting in accordance to secular values—which are often shared by both religious and nonreligious alike—seculars can work toward broadening the audience of their message.
To do this, I provide five guidelines below. Whether in person, on the internet, or in a book, one should be very careful how one presents one's self if identified as a non-theist.
1. Don’t be aggressive, reactionary, or extremist
Let’s face it, whether you call yourself an agnostic, an atheist, a secular, a humanist, a freethinker, a bright, etc. many Americans have stereotypes about non-theists. The best way to combat such stereotypes isn’t to lecture about how ‘A doesn’t necessarily imply B’, or how ‘morality and religion have nothing to do with each other’, or anything else that’ll take more than a few breaths or Twitter updates. No, the best way is simply to not exemplify such stereotypes.
Don’t present radically different ideals or solutions and don’t perpetuate what others may think of you.
2. Don’t attack faith or belief directly
In the U.S. today, a vast majority of Americans consider faith in something ‘greater than oneself’ to be an important part of a good person. Such strong beliefs can’t be knocked-off directly. I’m sorry to report it, but people simply aren’t wired to give up years of values for a good rational argument.
Regardless of how dangerous you think they are, try to avoid criticizing faith or belief directly.
3. Don’t try to convince others of your ‘rightness’
Even if you could reduce your argument to mathematical clarity and certainty, some people won’t agree with you simply because they don’t want to. Again, dissonance theory shows that people simply aren’t wired to DEAR (drop everything and reason).
Trying to prove yourself right—or worse, someone else wrong—will simply alienate much of your audience.
4. Highlight agreement and use human illustrations
Remember, secularism is simply the removal of religious influence from non-religious life. Many religious people agree fully with these ideals. When defending your views, use concepts like fairness and freedom, and give examples of children who simply want to be treated the same way as everyone else, or some other illustration which rests on common humanity.
Most people want what’s best for America and for our children; remind them that you share such values.
5. Become a part of the process
Debating in public forums can be great. Rallying supporters can give a boost to any group or idea. But, at the end of the day, the only people to directly decide the amount of religious influence in our laws and policy are lawyers and judges, politicians and their staff, and lobbyists. For secular positions to advance, seculars must seek employment in these fields and become the decision-makers they have long petitioned. Currently, I believe there is only one member of the House of Representatives that would identify as at least a non-theist, Pete Stark. This part of the change will be slow, but it will be most important.
Become involved in government and the decision-makers of our society directly.