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The annual convention of the Atheist Alliance International (AAI) is coming up at the end of September in Washington, DC. Included on the be-still-my-heart roster of speakers are Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Julia Sweeney, Daniel Dennett, and Eugenie Scott.

Oh, and me.

I’ll be the one in bobby sox and a poodle skirt screaming, “SAM!! Over HERE, Sam!! I have ALL your records!! I know all the lyrics to End of Faith, listen, listen: ‘The young man boards the bus as it leaves the terminal. He wears an overcoat. Beneath his overcoat, he is wearing a…’ OMIGOSH, HE BLEW ME A KISS!!(Faint.)

But it’s another AAI convention that’s on my mind at the moment — Kansas City ’06, where I sat listening to an articulate and thoughtful twentysomething lad at the podium as he suggested atheists ought to show a friendlier face to the religious world than we often do.

He made the case that intentional ridicule and insult directed at religious folks are especially counterproductive. Included among his examples was the “Smut for Smut” campaign at the University of Texas San Antonio, in which atheist students offered to trade pornography for Bibles.

“BULLSHIT!” screamed a sixty-ish audience member near me. The speaker continued, so the guy in the audience stood and yelled again. “THAT’S BULLSHIT! Those people have courage, they’re out there fighting for your rights, and you ought to be honoring their courage!! For you to stand up there and…”

You get the idea. A kind of atheist “Support Our Troops” thing.

The speaker, seemingly unrattled, simply expressed his reasons again, while Mr. Bullshit sat, shook his head side to side, and bitched to his tablemates.

It was a powerful moment, a genuine clash between different visions of atheist activism. Both seek to move atheism out of the margins, but only one sees force of one kind or another as the way to get there.

Mr. Bullshit isn’t alone in thinking that a two-by-four between the eyes of religious folks is a good tool for advancing freethought. But neither is the speaker alone in thinking otherwise.

A few weeks ago I received a heartfelt email from a gentleman who saw the Newsweek article about PBB and wanted to express his hope that it did not focus on combating religion:

What I fear is that the momentum there appears to be today [in the popularity of freethought books] will hit an impassable wall of resistance because most people will still see Atheists and Agnostics as negative-oriented “spoilers”….I just don’t think we’re going to win this ideological war with criticism, argument, attack, and anger….I believe the only way Atheists and Agnostics will ever grow as a group is by offering people a joyful, wonderful alternative to religion….And in our own lives we should lead by example of how fulfilling one’s life can be without God.

Sadly, I can’t seem to find people who want to take this approach. I do not believe we can get [out of the margins] by attacking religion and people’s belief in God. Nor can we get there by assuming that Believers are usually stupid, ignorant, or brainwashed. I believe we can get there by offering an alternative that is as viable as religion and belief in God. I believe we can also coexist with Believers.

I gently suggested that, if he couldn’t find others taking that approach, he should look a little harder. There are scads of people out there working toward exactly the vision he advocates. I offered, as a shining example, this guy:

In addition to being the aforementioned speaker in Kansas City, Hemant Mehta is the author of The Friendly Atheist, one of the sharpest, wittiest, and most informative blogs on the block; author of I Sold My Soul on Ebay, a thought-provoking and fresh look at religious belief through a nonbeliever’s eyes; chair of the board of directors of the Secular Student Alliance; and one of the foremost advocates of nice-guy atheism. He was kind enough to take a moment to answer a few prying questions.

Why so friendly?

Most religious people I know aren’t doing the things atheists are so opposed to… They’re not pushing an anti-evolution agenda. They’re not trying to stop gay marriage or impede embryonic stem-cell research. But they do pray and they do have faith in God. I wholeheartedly accept that they are wrong in their beliefs, but they’re not the major problem.

I think we can reach out to those people and get them on our side. We need to do that. They already are on our side about most social issues and they believe in separation of church and state. Those concerns are much more important to me than their belief in the supernatural.

And the way to reach out to those people is to be friendly and to explain who I am, why I’m an atheist, and why that’s ok. It doesn’t mean I agree with their beliefs or that I am conceding anything to them.

Hemant is one of those rare people with whom I seem to agree constantly. You know the type? Read his blog and see if you don’t find yourself nodding like a damn bobblehead.

I know some non-religious folks (UUs, mostly, come to think of it) with a sort of “universal friendliness” toward religion and religious ideas. You seem to strike a more careful balance, discerning between those things that deserve respect and those that deserve critique. How do you strike that balance?

If their beliefs are personal and they’re not hurting anyone else, I’m not too worried about it. Sure, I can debate with the people and try to convince them that they’re wrong, but it’s not going to do much good. Even if you “win” the argument, you haven’t accomplished much.

On the other hand, when supernatural beliefs start causing harm, we have a problem. I’m referring to terrorists who act in the name of God, “psychics” who con vulnerable (and gullible) people out of their money, or certain Christian leaders whose clout helps bad legislation to get passed. Those people deserve to be criticized. Their faulty thinking and ignorance — due to their faith — is hurting others. By calling out their beliefs, we’re helping others who may be victims of their actions.

Atheist meetings of all kinds, from local chapters to national conventions, are often far too self-congratulatory for me. I’d like to see the same critical balance struck when we look in the mirror. What is the biggest whack in the head (or two or three) you’d like to give to atheists as a group?

Here’s a story for you. There was recently a poll on the website for Larry King Live, asking people about their religion affiliation. Initially, “Christians” were in the lead and “atheists” were in second. Some websites, mine included, encouraged atheists to submit a vote in the poll. A day later, the number of atheists was *overwhelming* — apparently, we were over 70% of the population.

Obviously, that’s not a scientifically accurate poll. But as one astute commenter mentioned on my blog, the results showed that we can get atheists to work together when it comes to irrelevant stuff, like this poll. When it comes to “rallying the troops” during election time or supporting national organizations who can speak on behalf of atheists on a large stage, we’re pathetic. I wish we could get our act together and convince other atheists that by ourselves, we’re not going to be able to accomplish much. We won’t be respected or accepted. But by supporting common causes and like-minded organizations, we could change that.

It’d also be nice if atheists would work harder at pointing out the benefits of a Godless worldview (as opposed to a religious one) and how you don’t need religion to be a good, moral, happy person. Instead, we just find joy in telling religious people how stupid they are. It gets us nowhere. But it does create more enemies.

And how about the other side — I mentioned the heckler in Kansas City. Do you get much of that kind of flak from atheists who think you’re too accommodating of religion?

The flak I get isn’t as bad as the Heckler 🙂 There are some atheists who think I’m too easy on religion. We may hold the same (non-)beliefs, and I’d say we also have the same passion for atheism, but like I said, I don’t think we’re focusing our energies where we should be, and they disagree.

One thing I do want to point out: I get very *little* mail from Christians who tell me I’m going to Hell. That was very surprising to me. Not all Christians love what I wrote in the book, but most of them write very civil emails. I was told by other atheists to expect a barrage of angry Christian letters, but it never happened. Most Christians that write me resonated with the tone of the book.

You know, I heard the same dire warning and got the same civil result. I think we pay so much attention to the nuts that we begin to expect that of all religious folks. Okay, another question. Give me two visions of the future, 50 years down the pike—one pessimistic, the other optimistic. You’re in your late seventies, I’ve been dead for 49 years, the Hilton Administration is in its third term. What’s the religious state of affairs in the U.S.?

Pessimistic vision: You’re dying in a year, and I’m supposed to be pessimistic?! 🙂

Okay—the world in this state wouldn’t be very different from where it is now. Our government may not officially be a theocracy, but the Christian Right has the power to make decisions for all of us. We’ve made no progress in obtaining rights for all people. Scientific research in the field of biology is all but halted because we can’t get federal funding for the most promising research there is. And I wouldn’t be surprised if abortion was made illegal.

Optimistic vision: Religion’s not going to go away, but ideally, in 50 years, I could see a country with a higher percentage of atheists (from ~15% now to possibly 30% in the future). We would have more seats in local and national government. We’ve helped acquire rights for all people and passed legislation that helps all people, religious or not. We’re not interfering with the private decisions of Americans, as long as they’re not stopping anyone else from living their own lives as they wish. And when a person says publicly, “I’m an atheist,” no one flinches. I think that’s entirely within reason. But it won’t happen if atheists continue acting the way we have been for so long.

One more: how’s I Sold My Soul on Ebay doing?

It’s going well… I have yet to see exact numbers (in terms of sales) but there is a lot of response from people who have read the book. Many bloggers and mainstream media have written about it, and there are still some projects stemming from the book in the works. It has also helped me transition into writing my blog, which I probably would not have started without the eBay auction. At many atheist conventions I’ve gone to since the auction, more people have heard about my website than the book! And I think that’s wonderful; it just speaks to the message I’m trying to convey, that we could achieve more success with a “friendlier” image.

Helluva guy, don’t you think?

One of the trickiest bits to negotiate in raising kids without religion is engendering the right attitudes about religion and religious people. Some aspects of religious belief deserve a helluva lot of loud and direct critique. I want them to learn to do that fearlessly, like Harris and Dawkins. But other aspects and actions deserve loud and direct applause. I want them to learn that as well [LIKE DAWKINS AND HARRIS. More on that later]. Discernment is called for. While never hesitating to criticize religious malignancies, we should bend over backwards to catch religious folks being and doing good if we ever expect them to notice us being and doing good. It stands to reason.

I feel a coinage coming on: Let’s call that hemantic discernment.

No marginalized group in history has gained a place at the table by telling the majority it is too stupid to live, or by closing its eyes and telling the majority you better damn well be gone before I count to ten. Imagine the dead end that gay rights would have encountered if the movement spoke of working toward a world with no heterosexuals. Imagine the grinding halt to civil rights legislation if black Americans insisted that white be recognized as inferior to black. By instead seeking nothing more or less than a shared place at the table, these movements moved. Until we realize the same thing and extend a far friendlier hand to the more reasonable representatives of the (most likely shocked and surprised) religious majority, we will be deservedly stuck on the margins.

Don’t worry. People like Hemant just might manage to save us from ourselves.

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.