I was recently asked how I combat the label of "hateful atheist" or if I care about it. This blog post is thus for those who have at one point or another been referred to as a "New Atheist". It's not enough that atheists face persecution and mistrust, in general. In addition, speaking about atheism and discussing religion have given atheists the derogatory title of "New Atheists", even though there is nothing new about said atheists, except they're not murdered for their disbelief anymore, in the west.
Coming out of the atheist closet takes bravery; any atheist who admits they are a disbeliever can face difficulties in life. If one lives in the Middle East or Africa, one might be attacked, murdered, or forcibly committed to a psychiatric ward to be treated for one's atheism, as if it were an evil disease. Take Mubarak Bala, for example: he was put in a mental hospital for disbelieving in God, but he has thankfully been freed. It's not just bigoted people either, but governments and laws against apostasy and such. In good places like Sweden, it's not a big deal to be irreligious, but speaking out will still mean one is in the crosshairs of politically correct apologists. Then there are the places in between, like the United States of America, where atheists might be disowned by family, lose elections, or miss the opportunity to get a job.
Outspoken atheists who are critical of the indoctrinating belief systems known as religions are often called "militant" by believers and even "bigoted" by the politically correct crowd. It's quite the ironic double standard; the same people who rush to the defense of Islam and say, "Not all Muslims," will criticize the west without a second thought (they are, of course, often right to criticize the west, but the same rules should apply to religion). Of course not all Muslims are bad, just like not all white men are bad, but that doesn't mean there aren't any problems with their ideologies or the systems of oppression built into their cultures and religions.
People seem to live under the impression that religion is just an identity. Religion is seen as something that is very dear and precious, yet something that cannot possibly have any adverse effects, unlike all those godless ideologies. But in the sense of whether ideologies can affect people and the world, there is no difference between secular and religious ones. Thus, neither secular nor religious ideologies are above criticism; religious ideologies may be more deeply cared for, but the more dearly held beliefs are, the more they need to be criticized, not the other way around.
Most of what is called Islamophobia is simply a dirty trick to shame critics into silence. It's gotten to a point where many fellow liberals think blasphemy is something that should be censored, just because it is insulting. Think about that: blasphemy! Seriously... If ideas and ideologies are never criticized, they will also never progress; to be progressive, one must support free speech, even if it's blasphemous.
Religion is not seldom seen as something noble and inherently good. Some like to argue that one must twist religions like Christianity and Islam to justify horrible things. They therefore think criticism of the religion is unfair and wrong. But using the same logic, one must twist these religions to justify good things, like equality for women, LGBT, disbelievers, and apostates. Thus, the point still stands that religion is fair game to criticize, just like any other ideology. Religion is neither noble nor inherently good; it is manmade and often a remnant of a more barbaric time in history.
To combat the label of "hateful atheist"
Anyway, as I said in the beginning of this blog post, I was asked how I combat the label of a "hateful atheist" used for those who question and criticize religions, or if I even worry about such a label at all.
I can start by saying that I do care about the label; my image is important, after all. I don't want to be judged poorly by my peers; I don't want to be shunned from society. But at the same time, I must follow my heart and do what I believe is right; I cannot conform to a standard with which I don't agree. I don't agree that religion is too sensitive to criticize; I don't agree that blasphemy is a good enough reason to limit free speech. I suppose I choose not to care, though I try to listen to both, or rather all, sides of the argument so I can form my own opinion.
But what can one do to combat the "hateful atheist" label? How can we shrug off the "New Atheist" label that weighs us down? Can we do anything at all? Well, yes, but also no. I'm not sure to what degree an individual can affect how the world sees them, if they are outspoken atheists. Mostly, atheism needs to be normalized, as I write about a little in my blog posts "Normalize atheism" and "Let's get secular" (2014). Merely being an atheist is enough to cause mistrust and even hatred. Normalizing atheism is what atheists must do as a collective: atheists must continue to speak out and make themselves heard; only their presence can make it normal for them to exist. This will likely take a while, and even so, religion will probably always be a sensitive topic of conversation.
There are a few things one can do as an individual and decent human being, to help promote one's image. I can't say how well they will work in fighting the label of a hateful atheist; it's enough to say that Muhammad raped a nine-year-old girl to be offensive, even though Muslims know that he did, indeed, have sex with a nine-year-old girl. It doesn't matter how horrible the doctrine of a religion is; if enough people believe it, it's considered bigoted to criticize it—especially if the believers aren't white westerners. If, however, only a few people believe in something extreme, then it is okay to criticize; then it's only a cult. Quite the odd rule, indeed. Anyway, here are some things you should or should not do:
First, acknowledge that there is a problem with Islamophobia in the west. It's true that Muslims are persecuted and oppressed; they are a minority here in the west, and a sizable minority of westerners hates them for the actions of a sizable minority of Muslims. Right-wing nationalism is on the rise and I have seen a few fellow atheists and others express heinous views, such as saying that no Muslims can be trusted. This is often accompanied with the Quran quote that says Muslims can deceive disbelievers if it will help them in spreading Islam. Please stop. Yes, it is in the Quran and there are probably some extremists who pretend to be normal. However, it is just not plausible that all Muslims who come to the west do so just to deceive us; not all Muslims are monsters who follow every rule in their religion; they are cherry-pickers, just like Christians.
Second, if you converse with a theist who clearly does NOT want to keep up the conversation, then stop. Never force conversations about religion on anyone who doesn't want it. Write on your blog or social media accounts however much you want, but don't attack people who express a desire that they don't want to speak with you. That said, Twitter is a public forum, so engage if you wish; just don't take it too far. Atheists are considered pushy and "militant" simply for speaking out; it's absurd, but we should at least not make it worse.
Thirdly, never use insults, ever. I know it's tempting to call certain theists stupid, retarded, or similar. But what does it accomplish? Even if someone insults you, what does insulting them back accomplish? Never let people drag you down; if you can be the bigger person, spectators are more likely to take your side. Not everyone deserves respect, but arguments are won with actual arguments; using ad hominem attacks will only hurt your image. No matter how unreceptive or rude the person with whom you speak is, being courteous will affect how other people perceive you and the conversation.
Lastly, know the difference between criticizing an ideology and hating people. This is vital, but progressive atheists still encounter hate just for speaking about a sensitive topic, unfortunately. Many people don't want to have a critical conversation about religion, even if it's not their own religion; plenty of people don't think criticism of religion should even be allowed, as with satirizing Islam and that rapist of a prophet. It's not enough to argue well and use facts; many people simply don't listen and shout "bigot" more loudly than you can argue. The only thing to do here is to explicitly state that one does not dislike all Christians or all Muslims, but rather their bigoted and oppressive ideologies. One can try to explain the difference between bigotry toward a people and criticism of an ideology, but it might fall on deaf ears.
As progressive antitheists and outspoken atheists, called "New Atheists" as an ad hominem attack to make us less credible, we are in a peculiar position. We face mistrust and even hate from the religious right, and we are labeled racists by many on the left, even though many left-wing atheists criticize the conservative parts of religion the most harshly. As it becomes more accepted to be an atheist and as we continue to speak about religion, we'll be given more leniency, I hope. Only time will tell, though religion will likely always be a sensitive topic.
The best way to avoid friction is to separate one's personal life from one's antitheist life, or in other words blog, tweet, and such using a pseudonym. Many atheists do this and there is no shame in that; we must also be able to live, after all. I don't share most of my work on my personal Facebook page, but at the end of the day, I suspect atheists must expect certain repercussions for finally being vocal about their disbelief and the harm of religion.