First, a disclaimer. While attending a boarding school that proudly called itself non-denominational (but was most certainly Protestant), I became an atheist when I came upon the realization that I saw little difference between Greek myths and Biblical stories, both painted with ancient age and mysticism. Jesus gets a bloody ode to guilt and sacrifice from a pre-crazy Mel Gibson but Hercules gets a cartoon musical with the comedic stylings of Danny Devito from a pre-3D Disney? What made Jesus so special? Did Jesus defeat a Hydra on a flying horse? Didn’t think so. So I made it my mission to pour over Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris to prepare for what I saw at the time as a cosmic battle between a logical reality and a collection of fairy tales told by dead men who didn’t even know what a germ was or how babies were made. I got in a lot of arguments with students and faculty, the sort of debate where both sides walk away feeling as if they’d won. It was a bit like that episode of Hey! Arnold where he learns karate for self-defense only to beat the hell out of a guy who was asking for directions to the bus stop. In short, I was an asshole.
I was reminded of my juvenile ways recently while overhearing an Evangelical neighbor discuss the current state of the world with a friend. They professed a belief that Obama was a sign of the end times (and that this was a good thing because they could finally “go home”) and “all that going on in the Middle East” lined up perfectly with what their Left Behind books had taught them. While at that boarding school, I actually read the Left Behind series in its entirety. It consists of 13 books following a group of people who only found Jesus after the Rapture had taken their friends and loved ones, thereby being forced to live through the major steps of the Apocalypse as laid out in the Book of Revelations. The books were actually really exciting to read and had enough background and myth to make George R. R. Martin jealous, what with the invisible cavalry army torturing non-believers and the plague of locusts screaming out the name of their creator (“Absalom! Absalom!”), not to mention Nicolae Carpathia, the Antichrist stand-in who uses charisma to win over the UN and form both a world government and a world religion only to die then resurrect in front of millions. I took these as works of fiction and at best speculation of what Revelations means or predicts. Little did I know tens of millions across the country (the books have failed at finding an audience outside the US) were reading them as a survival guide.
But as I leaned against my door and snickered at my neighbor’s theologist tomfoolery, I was reminded of the feeling I got in high school when my Catholic best friend would attempt to disprove evolution by saying macroevolution was impossible (meaning a single-cell organism doesn’t just grow feet) and therefore there was a divine creator. Before attempting to respond I would laugh uproariously at his naivete, much like I was on bended knee giggling at my kooky neighbor. With both scenarios the internal thought was nearly schadenfreude at their stupidity, getting joy from how much smarter I felt. In short, I was an asshole.
Being an elitist atheist can be all-too easy. You get to use words like “science” and “logic” with the full belief they are on your side and your side alone. This is why a popular meme amongst theists is atheism is a religion. It’s not because it relies on the same style of faith and belief (it doesn’t), but because the dogma that comes to surround it makes the argument seem even-keeled. As an atheist, you are not going to win any hearts and minds calling religion the root of all evil or comparing believers to herd animals. You’re attacking something deeply personal. That’s not to say it should go without questioning, but a little tact can go a long way. In short, don’t be an asshole.
Find some things within religion or that were inspired by religion you enjoy. Read Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Blessed are the poor? The meek? The peacekeepers? Realize that you are not immune to the same self-satisfaction theists get when they feel they will be saved while your sinful body will burn. Listen to “Ode to Joy” at top volume, or for that matter “My Sweet Lord” by George Harrison. Realize your religious parents or neighbors had as much to do with 9/11 or the Crusades as you did with Stalin’s gulags or the Killing Fields of Cambodia. Realize that war is first and foremost a product of economic issues, not dead men in robes. It’s okay to be inspired by the story of Joan of Arc. The chick was 14 when she led victories against England. Who cares if she heard voices in her head? Admit to yourself that at least some of what intrigues us about atheism is we may be able to get away with what they may call “sins.”
But what to do if a theist confronts you on religion? I actually dated a Christian girl in college who loved to engage me in these debates years after I had tired of them. My most useful response was “Do you have any proof for a god?” Sure, you can get some platitudes about proof being in sunrises and the smiles of infants. But is there any actual proof? A typical response to this is so much of science relies of faith and assumption, and this is at least somewhat correct. Humble yourself with a simple phrase: “I don’t know.” A lack of knowledge is certainly not an excuse to make up things about talking snakes and whale-dwelling men, but one of the core differences between science and religion is the phrase “I don’t know.” Scientists happily admit when there are gaps in information, seeing them as an opportunity for more exploration further down the line. Religion is finite, eventually relying on only the original texts or interpretations. If a theist gets huffy and demands an answer from you on how life was first formed, remember that the smartest men and women in the world don’t know that answer, but any of the dozens of theories out there seem far more likely than the Book of Genesis. You can memorize as many quotes from Bertrand Russell and Benjamin Franklin as you like, but few will put the argument to rest as quickly as “I don’t know.”
You’re not going to change anyone’s mind. Remember that. There’s a reason society frowns on talking about politics or religion or the end of Lost and it’s because few have a full understanding of what they are saying and even fewer are open to new positions. Opinions this inset are changed by months of reading and research and thought. I used to be a libertarian before I spent five months in 2008-09 watching the free market stick its Invisible Hand up its own Invisible Ass. I had the intellectual curiosity to do the research I failed to do before and reach new conclusions. Belief and nonbelief are separated by a two-way door, and it’s even possible you the elite atheist may someday find yourself on the other side, but about as likely I’ll see my neighbor at my next Christopher Hitchens book club meeting. So relax. It is not up to you to de-convert the masses and save them from themselves. In short, don’t be an asshole.