By definition, I am technically an agnostic. I don’t believe in god or ghosts or spirits or an afterlife, but I cannot say with complete certainty that any of those things do not exist. It’s a big world, and a bigger universe, and the older and wiser that I get, the more stupider I realize that I am.
That said, there are some things that I am pretty sure about. I’m pretty sure that some dude named Noah did not build a boat to save the world’s animal kingdom from drowning. I’m pretty sure that the reward for detonating a bomb in a crowded marketplace is not an eternal blowjob from 72 virgins. I’m pretty sure that gay people are not walking abominations. And I’m pretty sure that every organized religion in the world that makes supernatural claims about the origins of our universe is wrong.
That doesn’t mean that I know what the origins of the universe are, but you don’t have to always know the correct answer to a question to know an incorrect answer when you hear one. Author and thinker Sam Harris has made the analogy that, while we can never know what John F. Kennedy was thinking in the moments before his assassination, we can still know some things that he was certainly not thinking—like, for example, if Donald Trump would make a good 45th president or whether or not more than 12 people would read this blog post. Likewise, even though I cannot be sure that there is no god, I still feel pretty confident that the Christian God does not exist.
This is what makes me an atheist. Even though I can’t explain the mysteries of the universe, I don’t think that religion can either. What is more, even though I don’t know whether or not there is a god, I definitely don’t believe that there is one. Agnosticism is about knowledge, or in this case, lack thereof, but atheism is about belief. And when it comes to what I believe about the universe, it’s that it is all just one big, random accident.
There is another belief that I hold about religion: It’s bad. It’s bad not only because of the wars and the hate and the human rights abuses that it inspires, but because of the millions of nice, peaceful people to whom it promises a better life on the other side—a promise that I believe goes unfulfilled. This promise can lead people into a middling existence, never fully taking advantage of or appreciating their brief moment in the sun due to their belief that they will live under a brighter one in the next life.
Because I subscribe to the belief that religion is cumulatively bad, and that the world would be better with less of it, I also subscribe to a certain amount of the philosophy known as “militant atheism.” Militant atheists don’t believe in god, and they don’t think that others should either. That may sound elitist (because it is), but if you put yourself in the mindset of someone who truly believes that religion causes massive amounts of unnecessary pain and suffering (which militant atheists do), it would be hard to argue that they should not push an agenda that they feel could help to reduce that unnecessary pain and suffering.
What is more, militant atheism, as I understand it, is not so much about “converting” the religiously devout as it is about inspiring other non-believers and skeptics to speak out against religion’s more harmful effects. I know a lot of smart people who shy away from the “atheist” label because of the arrogance and pretension that it is often associated with. But while their humility is admirable, it could also be argued that this silence is part of the reason why atheists have had so much trouble in pushing their agenda. In the United States, even though non-religious people make up more than 20% of the population, lack of religious faith is still one of the biggest hurdles to holding public office, as evidenced by the huge lack of representation of openly non-religious people in the United States Congress—1 out of 535 to be exact.
However, in pushing our atheist agenda, militant atheists like myself often exhibit one major flaw—we are enormous douchebags. Our arrogance is unbearable, our presumed certainty, laughable, and the condescension with which we treat the “unenlightened” makes our supposedly benevolent intentions far less than apparent. This perception of atheists, whether deserved or not, obviously has an adverse effect on our ability to push our agenda, in many cases making the intended audience more hostile to our ideas than they otherwise would be.
And this is where us atheists need to do some introspection. If the goal of atheism, militant or otherwise, is truly to make the world a better place, than we need to start behaving like it. Treating religious people like shit is hardly making the world better. If anything, it’s doing the opposite, contributing to the pain and suffering that militant atheists are purportedly against. It also contributes to the extraordinarily harmful divisiveness that currently plagues American society, and once again, exacerbates a problem that atheists are supposed to be trying to solve.
This doesn’t mean that atheists shouldn’t push their views. While the goal should not be to antagonize, the job necessitates some feather ruffling, and no matter how humbly or respectfully one goes about articulating the atheistic worldview, some people will still get offended. But what atheists cannot do is resort to the mean-spirited mockery that dominates so many online message boards. Atheists must keep in sight what motivates their militancy in the first place—a steadfast commitment to peace, coexistence, and human happiness—and realize that many-to-most religious people share that commitment too.
The devoutly religious Martin Luther King once said that, “Peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek, but a means by which we arrive at that goal.” I think that atheists would be wise to emulate those words in their own advocacy. If a better world is truly our commitment, than we should behave like the people that we imagine that better world to be made of. If we cannot do that, than we are no less fraudulent than the outdated dogma that we seek to disprove and dispel.