At a party the other weekend, I was talking to a friend and mentioned my blog (which he was already aware of) in passing. Actually, I only mentioned it because I was saying how relieved I was that the looming Markuze threat had been neutralized -- here's hoping Dennis is feeling better, by the way! In any case, this prompted him to say, "That reminds me something I've been meaning to ask you," and for clarity, I'm going to loosely paraphrase him in the first person:
I'm an atheist, but I have no desire to engage religion on any level. The whole idea just seems incredibly silly to me, and I'm just not really interested in discussing it.
But lately I've been thinking about third-wave feminism, about how a lot of young women today don't appreciate, or even want to disassociate themselves from earlier first-wave feminists like Susan B. Anthony, or second-wave feminists like Gloria Steinem. They've grown up with the default assumption that women and men ought to be treated equally, and it's disappointing when they aren't willing to acknowledge how hard their predecessors had to fight for this basic notion.
I started to wonder if that's me in regards to my atheism. Am I obligated to be outspoken, to be part of the struggle? Or can I just be myself?
Hopefully it is not too unseemly to have a pair of thirty-something guys discussing how young women are "doin it rong" in regards to feminism! But I think the analogy is clear -- who has not had the cringe-inducing experience of hearing a young woman declare that she is "not a feminist" or "not one of those feminists"?
I think it is a very good question, and my answer was this: You have absolutely no obligation to do anything you are uncomfortable with, to be more of an "activist" than you are naturally inclined to be. The only thing I think is important is that you don't throw other atheists under the bus because of their own way of expressing it. To extend the analogy to feminism, I don't think that every single woman ought to feel compelled to get out there and "burn her bra" (to use the popular metaphor), but I do find it unseemly when women are critical or dismissive of those who do. By the same token, you can just be an atheist and you don't have to make a big deal out of it or push for greater acceptance or try to highlight the flaws of religion. You are totally fine just ignoring it -- but please don't make other atheists out to be villains because they have a different approach.
The one thing I did say I thought was useful for all atheists to do, if they can -- although situations vary and this is not always practical -- is to be open and forthcoming about their lack of belief, to be "out" as it were. Drawing an analogy this time to the gay rights movement, I don't think there is pressure for every LGBT person to march in Pride parades, to campaign for marriage equality, etc., but there is at least some pressure to come out of the closet, if they can. And I think this is appropriate. Obviously some circumstances dictate remaining in the closet, whether it be an LGBT person or an atheist -- a young person living at home in an unaccepting family, the possibility of damaging one's career, etc. But generally speaking, this is something which everyone ought to do if they can, as it can have such a powerful effect on public perception.
Beyond that -- be yourself! And let other people be themselves too.
The Rosenhouse post today quotes from a bridge-building atheist -- as opposed to an I-don't-care atheist like my friend -- but the principle is the same: Everyone has their own approach, and that's okay. What's not okay is telling somebody else their approach is wrong and they should shut up. We ought to all be on the same side here. It's this throwing-under-the-bus that separates nice guys like Bruce Hood from dickheads like Nick Matzke.
"I'm not one of those atheists" is just as unseemly as "I'm not one of those feminists." Look, you don't have to be. Just don't demonize us.