Of all the questions that we Atheists get asked, of all the unintentional criticisms, perhaps the most common and the most confounding is, “Why bother with Atheism?” It often gets posed with utmost sincerity by our most like-minded friends and associates. Implicit in the question is their bewilderment as to why we would focus so much attention and efforts on something so – “hollow.”
They think Atheism is just another expression of belief, but even worse, they see it is a negative position, a belief in nothing. They think of it as offering nothing affirmative to improve the human condition. It is a waste of time that seems unworthy of our efforts, they say. Our preoccupation with Atheism seems to them as misdirected as dedicating one’s energies in fighting against a belief in the Easter Bunny.
This questioning of the value of Atheism as an important social cause is legitimate and deserves a really good answer.
You might start by pointing out that opposing belief in god isn’t comparable to opposing a belief in the Easter Bunny. People don’t actively worship the Easter Bunny and base their social and political decisions on egg-mythology. They don’t organize to impose laws on all of us based upon divining Easter Bunny droppings. They don’t insist upon teaching the Great Colored Egg story of creation as science in our classrooms. If they did, then it would be quite necessary to become a reluctant warrior standing actively in opposition to bunny beliefs.
Then you can point out that there is nothing base or ignoble about standing in opposition to something dangerous or wrong. We consider it quite laudable to stand in principled opposition to all sorts of ideas and behaviors in our common social ecosystem. Movements stand in proud opposition to war, bigotry, racism, poverty, drug-abuse and all manner of social ills. Those who believe in god stand in principled opposition to abortion and religious discrimination. Why are those principled oppositions somehow more admirable than standing firmly in opposition to scientific ignorance and superstition?
Standing in opposition is not a hollow stance. Atheism is not a shallow worldview lacking its own deeply rooted underpinnings. Standing in opposition generally means that you stand firmly in support of a richly affirmative alternative. For Atheists, standing in opposition to belief is inherently a passionate advocacy of a world based on science, reason and profoundly humanist values.
But while our friends might sympathize with our passion, many might still consider it unfortunate that we do not dedicate our efforts to some other social cause that is more worthy; a cause like fighting cancer or improving education or any number of social issues that are far more attainable and important. With so many vital and important causes that deserve our attention, why Atheism?
It is not difficult to address this question of priority. Most Atheists pick their battle over Atheism because they judge that fact and evidence-based thinking is a fundamental prerequisite to overcoming the great host of challenges we face as a species. Many choose it precisely because far too few are willing to push back publicly against our debilitating deference toward religion, new-age thinking and faith-based beliefs of all kinds.
Lastly, be sure to discuss what may be the final concern of your dear friend. This is the assumption that religion is essential to accomplishing good works in the world–that a society based on secular values would be cold and heartless. Certainly many churches do good works and our Atheist community must continually strive to do more. But it is not a given that faith is necessary for good works. One might argue that some people do some good with guns, or that some armies fight good wars, but to suggest that guns and wars are essential to a humane and sustainable planet is simply not a valid conclusion.
You can close by pointing out that if one day, belief becomes marginalized, if it becomes relegated to the lunatic fringe who hold no sway over public policy, then Atheists will be happy to lay down the burden of this particular struggle. But that would not mean their lives would be suddenly devoid of purpose. Rather, they will still continue to stand in support of a world based on facts, on science, on humanist ethics and sane, realistic responses to the very real struggles we face as a species.•