Like any other belief group, atheism comes in a number of flavors. Yet, it seems that without fail, one group gets most of the attention and serves to define atheism for outsiders. This group is the anti-theists – those who believe that not only is there no god, but that belief in god(s) is inherently harmful for society. The anti-theists are by far the most outspoken and activist segment of atheism. Many of the most well-known atheists, from the late Hitchens to Dawkins to Penn Jilette to Ricky Gervais, would likely define themselves as such.
To a large degree I understand where these folks are coming from. I’ve read both “God is not Great” by the late Hitchens and “The God Delusion” by Dawkins (the latter of which is far more worthwhile, IMO). I’ve read about many of the bad things that religion has done – justifying slavery, triggering war, relegating women and gays to second-class status. And I think the religious folks, if they are being honest, would admit that horrible things have been done in the name of God. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone eager to defend the Inquisition or the Crusades, and we very rightly retch when radical Muslims use the Koran to excuse terrorism.
But I’m also someone who cares far more about how people act and treat each other. It is my fervent belief that being a good and decent person does not require religion. However, it is also my belief that religion is by no means antithetical to being a good person, and in fact for many spurs it. As someone who spent many years in the church, I met countless people who were given great joy by their faith and driven to be better people and improve themselves. Sure, I also met many who were the opposite – petty, judgmental, and unkind. But then, that dichotomy is found in any group.
I simply know too many people who are given incredible peace and comfort by their faith for me to consider religion an inherently bad thing. Do I disagree with their beliefs? Of course, and if the subject comes up, I’ll do my best to debate it with respect and fairness. One thing I know is that the vast majority of religious folks are not stupid, weak, or foolish. They are simply people who, in their search for truth and meaning, have come to a different conclusion than I have. I spent many years in the theistic ranks, and I see definite merit to pro-God arguments even if I now disagree.
Religion will never go away, as much as the anti-theists would like to believe. We can either do our best to live with each other, or we can live in conflict and division. I reject the culture war that many conservatives claim to exist; but I also reject the culture war that anti-theists see themselves as waging. Prayer is not a threat to me, nor are public expressions of faith, so long as neither is forced on me. And I will continue to count religious folks amongst my dearest friends.