Recognizing Our Commonalities

I can empathize with religious groups whose mission is to convert everyone in the world, since, conversely, I think the world would be better if everyone 'saw the light' of secular humanism. But whether religious or secular, I think the best form of proselytizing is to lead by example. Matthew 7:16 had it right with 'By their fruits you shall know them.' We are more likely to be measured by what we do than by what we say.

We shouldn’t gratuitously bash religion or become atheist evangelists going door-to-door spreading the word that there are no Gods. Since many religious people view atheists as arrogant and anti- religious, we should come out softly, or at least wait for the right opportunity. It won’t take long. Perhaps you’ll be asked which church you attend or how you’ll be celebrating a religious holiday. We can describe and answer questions about our naturalistic worldview without trying to convince others to adopt it. When you plant seeds of doubt, religious believers might get into arguments with themselves. When you win an argument with yourself, you save face.

Many atheists, myself included, have been overly optimistic that rational arguments will change minds. We should make good points in a reasonable and pleasant manner. I emphasize 'pleasant' because many are affected more by our personality than by arguments. This was difficult for me to understand, since it’s so different from my world of mathematics, where smiling and a sense of humor are useless.

Many believers seek emotional solace, answers to practical everyday questions, and someone to listen to them. If all we offer are reasons to quit religion, which often includes 'quitting' one’s community, family, and support system, we won’t find many takers.

Atheists have more in common with some believers than many of us realize. Atheists have no God beliefs, but many theists believe in a God who is not engaged in the workings of the world, a God who doesn’t judge actions in this life to decide how to punish or reward a person in an afterlife. Such a God has little or nothing to say about how we should conduct our lives. Practically speaking, these God believers behave like atheists. I classify them as functional atheists: people whose God beliefs are independent of their actions. And many functional atheists are halfway to atheism. After all, they are already good without God. —Herb Silverman