One of the most powerful reasons that atheism has become so prominently featured in public debate recently has been a series of high-profile books and other media efforts by the likes of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennert, and Christopher Hitchens that are openly critical of religion and which, by extension, urge people to adopt an atheistic world view. I’ve always thought the idea of an “atheist evangelist” is a little bit silly; after all, an evangelist proselytizes because his religion has told him to do so and atheism is, by definition, the absence of any religion.
Today, indirectly responding to the astonishing bigotry of Ann Coulter, Prof. Ilya Somin points out that an atheist is not compelled to adopt any particular moral world view; the forces that impel the atheist to oppose injustice and immorality are themselves moral forces and the only thing distinguishing the atheist from the theist in that regard is that the atheist will not accept as a starting point to moral reasoning the arbitrary dictates of a religious text. So, there is no moral imperative or any other integral part of being an atheist that impels an atheist to seek to ‘convert’ others to that particular world view. Moreover, Prof. Somin suggests that atheists are relatively weak compared with other more politically-organized and popular religions, and proselytizing might tend to anger or upset those who disagree with atheists – and therefore if atheists are to proselytize at any point, they must wait until they enjoy more political currency than they do at present.
I agree with his first point, but I disagree with the second. While we yet have rights in this nation, we should exercise and enjoy them. That there may be some political price to pay for the exercise of one’s rights is part of the picture, yes, but if we allow our rights to lay fallow, they will eventually evaporate. And many big ideas that are well-accepted now began as very unpopular ideas – for instance, the idea of a floating index for currency (rather than a gold or silver standard); the complete abolition of slavery; and even within the world of religion, the idea of Protestant Christianity in the face of a supremely powerful Catholic Church. There is no reason that atheism should remain as unpopular as it is now, unless atheists are afraid to identify themselves and speak up for themselves, and therefore cede the field of political and social relevance to religionists.
The reason atheists should not evangelize is that there is no reward for doing so. Atheism is not an organized belief structure. There is no “church of atheism.” Yes, there are some prominent people who are public with their world views, but they do not always agree with one another about exactly what it means to be an atheist (Sam Harris, for instance, sees value in meditative experiences such as that offered by Zen Buddhism, while Richard Dawkins does not) and the social implications of atheism are different from place to place and time to time. Atheism offers no cosmic protection racket (“Believe in and follow the teachings of [insert name of appropriate deity here] and go to eternal paradise; disbelieve and suffer eternal damnation”) and disbelieving in a deity does not impose any kind of a logical, moral, or even emotional duty on the part of the disbeliever to attempt to convince others to also disbelieve.
Atheists should, I think, not proselytize their world view – but they should also speak up for themselves about it. You, Loyal Reader, may never become an atheist yourself no matter what I say. Your belief is not the result of anything logical or based upon substantial evidence; consequently, it doesn’t matter what evidence or logic I offer to you. And that doesn’t make it bad – I can’t offer you any logic or substantial belief to explain why I love my wife. But I do love my wife and that is an experience and a facet of my world view that is not subject to evidence or logic. If your faith in God is the same way, I can understand that. But even so, I can demonstrate to you by both word and deed that I live a happy, interesting, meaningful, and morally upright life without religion. You either will or will not realize that this demonstrates that religion is distinguishable from happiness, morality, or meaning, and if you do so, you either will or will not internalize and act upon that understanding. I can’t do that for you, and I don’t think I should try.