Atheists don't all have clipped British accents and a staggering command of some seriously graceful logic. Some atheists are unremittingly normal. Some people don't bother to call themselves atheists, they just don't particularly care about the idea of God. The term "atheist" can't possibly live up to the hype (both smugly confident and malicious) surrounding it. Just as the term "religious" can't live up to its own hype. Maybe it's time to stop pretending there's really a vicious battle raging between these two supposedly cohesive groups.
I conduct video interviews for the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue, and I called the leader of a thriving atheist group here in New York City to see if he'd be interested in talking about his work with me. He disliked me immediately. As soon as I mentioned the name of the publication I represent, he bristled. I wanted to do a piece on clergy members, and when I used those words, he began to accuse me of being stupid. He told me I didn't know the first thing about either the clergy or atheism, and he suggested that even to imagine that I might be able to have a conversation with him about these subjects was hopelessly naïve on my part.
"Anyway," he said. "I'm going on vacation. Call me in a month if you think of something better, and stop it with the intellectual masturbation. Because that's what you people are doing."
"You won't consider meeting with me?" (I decided not to further discuss masturbation with him.)
He laughed gruffly. "Absolutely not! Wouldn't think of it. Feel free to quote me, though. You might want to work with that. Might help you."
So there, I'm using it. It's helping me.
He hung up. I hung up. I didn't know whether to cry (I'm not used to such painful rudeness) or laugh. If he had asked me, maybe he would've learned that I am both a lay clergy member and someone who does not believe in God. But he heard the word religion, and assumed he was talking to the enemy. And I guess, in a way, we are intellectual enemies.
It's foolish to imagine that atheists own concepts like pragmatism, intellectualism, and thoughtfulness. Or that religious people own concepts like spirituality, awe, inner peace, and even prayer. The debate about God, belief, and religion shouldn't be divided into believers and atheists. It should be divided into people who are willing to listen, and people who aren't.
It's often assumed by many that all the reasonable people are either in the atheist camp or the religious camp.
Like this: "If you're reasonable enough, then you don't need to rely on the idea of God to explain everything about the world to you."
Or: "If you're reasonable enough, then you realize that the mysteries of the universe are much too large to justify the categorical denial of the existence of God."
These arguments take us around and around and around (I could say it a few more times for emphasis) in circles. And ultimately, the only people who "win" are the ones who happen to be better at debating. Being good at debating is a particular skill that doesn't necessarily have much to do with objective facts or the truth (however we're defining that these days). My fiancé was the captain of his debate team in college. Getting in an argument with him is brutal for my self-esteem, even when I'm pretty sure I know what I'm talking about.
As Greg Epstein, the humanist chaplain at Harvard, will tell you, there are a lot of other positions between devout religious believer and atheist. As many people who don't define themselves as atheists but don't consider themselves religious will tell you, "I just don't talk about it." The right language hasn't been developed to accommodate these people's ontological orientations.
I'm tired of people being surprised when some atheists turn out to be jerks. Or turn out to be obviously unintelligent in some way. As though only smart people can choose not to believe in God. Because religion is perceived as inseparable from dogmatism, and dogmatism is obviously equated with thoughtlessness. So then, belief is easy, whereas doubt is much more complex and difficult. Simplifications of religiousness and atheism like this just don't cut it, though. There are too many ways to be religious and too many ways to be non-religious to allow for this sort of uneducated, underdeveloped assessment of either. Even belief and doubt aren't really opposites.
So in defense of the blatantly rude and ignorant man I spoke with over the phone about his role in the atheist community in NYC, atheists are people, too. And people can be pretty ridiculous, regardless of whether they've aligned themselves with the camp that's supposed to be more intellectual or not.
Maybe we need some new terms for the camps. How about this: "people who are willing to have a conversation," and "people who just want to hear themselves talk."