I have a question for the Christians out there: If you could pick one living person to be the face of the entire Christian faith, who would that person be? Even if you could pick three, or even five people, it would still be a challenge. I imagine it would be hard to figure out whether you wanted to pick those Christians who think most like you, or if you would pick people who could better represent the many colors of Christianity, the subtle differences and big-picture similarities.
I am an atheist, a humanist, a secularist, a person of no religion. I am nothing. And I ask the question above because in recent months, the word "atheist" has become synonymous with one kind of non-believer: the kind that writes books about atheism and is not very nice about religion.
Many of these books have been written by atheists who are tired of being silent, who are sick of being reviled and who are no longer willing to play the religion games according to the rules of the devout. That means that they no longer consider religion off limits to criticism.
The authors of these books have chosen titles that re-set the stage, with new scenery, new production and new lyrics. God is Not Great, The God Delusion, The End of Faith. These titles tell the reader right away that religion is being looked at from a different, far less reverential, view.
But there is more than one kind of atheist. And even in the pool of (mostly male) writers who are called "atheist fundamentalists," there are many differences. Don't confuse your Sam Harris with your Daniel Dennett, and although Victor Stenger or Richard Dawkins may mostly agree with Christopher Hitchens, there are many disparities as well.
I take a different approach altogether. Although I do not believe in God, I have no interest in telling anyone else what he should or should not believe. I am more interested in dialogue, and I hope that conversation will get us to respect and understanding. I cannot see dialogue happening with someone who tells you that your core beliefs are wrong, so I refrain from telling anyone what to believe.
It isn't that I am not angry at some believers. These days, many atheists are angry. And we should be.
We are not liked by most people in our own country, and we couldn't win an election unless the other guy was a child molester. We are regarded as threatening, unethical and downright evil. We are rarely even invited to the table when discussions among different religions (or beliefs) are held. We have no representation, and we get very little respect.
Yet the believers want us to be nice; they want us to respect them and leave them to their religions, to their worship, and to their hope that we will see the light and become like them.
The road to understanding between those who follow a religion and those who do not is fraught with difficulty. The difficulty is compounded when the sides involved in the journey resort to name-calling, finger-pointing and the blame game.
It is true that we all need to learn to get along. It is true that the atheists need to be included and respected. But how to start? Where to begin?
It would help if everyone could stop fearing the differences. If people admitted that they don't know the answers to all the big questions and stop being frightened by the possibility that there is more than one answer (or no answer at all), then we might be able to start a discussion that would be worth having.
In the meanwhile, when people think about the atheists out there, it would be helpful if they at least acknowledge that there are numerous approaches to non-belief just as there are a wide variety of ways to believe. Because if you really want to understand Judaism, you have to talk to more than one Jew; you can't ask a Protestant what a Baptist does or doesn't do; and even one kind of Presbyterian is not the same as another kind. And so it follows that no single atheist, or one approach to atheism, represents all the atheists out there.
With that in mind, let's invite more of everyone to participate in the discussion. In fact, the discussion should not be held in some far off conference room with only those invited seated at the table. We should all be having the discussion, within our communities and neighborhoods. At the park, in the coffee shop, at the community center, even at each other's dinner tables.
Once we start, we might see that we have more in common than we all think. Once we all agree to disagree, once we set the rules that no side is trying to convince the other of its rightness or wrongness, once we clarify that we are simply trying to understand each other -- and then move on to other topics of common interest -- then the conversation about religion and its place in our society can really begin.
This post first appeared in USA Today.