I am sometimes asked what I think of today’s leading atheists, people like Richard Dawkins, Bill Maher, Sam Harris.
I am saying this as someone who doesn’t own a Bible (I suspect the Smithsonian’s replica edition of The Jefferson Bible doesn’t count), but does have copies of Dawkins’ The God Delusion and Hitchens’ God Is Not Great on his living room bookshelf.
I think they’re generally assholes in how they go about doing what they do. I have no issues with their goals of destigmatizing non-belief and working for a religiously pluralistic society that doesn’t favor any particular creed. How they go about arguing their corner, though, is not infrequently painful. Sometimes, I feel they cross the line into bad taste and deliberate offensiveness.
I am not alone in feeling this way. I am not the only atheist who thinks Dawkins is the world’s best argument against becoming an atheist, because who wants to hang their flag on that jerkface? Patton Oswalt feels the same way:
“I feel, as an atheist, about people like Richard Dawkins and Bill Maher the way that Christians must feel about Fred Phelps. Look, being an atheist means you don’t give a fuck about what anyone believes in. I don’t think any of it’s real, but you can go ahead and do it. I’m not trying to destroy religion. I just don’t care about it. I have my own moral code, as twisted as it is, but it’s not a bunch of old, desert fairy tales that I live by.” (Source)
That’s pretty much exactly how I feel. I don’t care what anyone believes; if it makes the person happy and their belief doesn’t harm me or anyone else, what do I care? I have my moral code; very simply, it’s “Don’t be an asshole.”
Where I differ from Dawkins — and a big part of why I think he’s an asshole — is that he thinks that believers are foolish and stupid to believe, while I don’t think that at all. (His “bright” meme — atheists should adopt a new term to describe themselves — made pretty clear what he really thought; if atheists are “bright,” then by extension theists must be “dim.” That’s the reason I won’t use the term “bright,” because I think it’s deliberately insulting to believers.) I don’t think that what believers believe in is true — obviously — yet I recognize that what they believe in gives them meaning, structure, and happiness, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong at all with having meaning, structure, and happiness in one’s life.
I agree with something Ricky Gervais, also an atheist, said in an interview in 2013: “It’s a strange myth that atheists have nothing to live for. It’s the opposite. We have nothing to die for, we have everything to live for.” When you get one shot at life, you better make it count. Spending time being a miserable git or making people miserable just isn’t worth it.
Why be an asshole like Dawkins or Harris or Maher? That won’t convince anyone to abandon their belief in god, and it may push someone who was on the edge of questioning religion away from embracing atheism.
Kevin Smith gave the world the Buddy Christ in Dogma. Maybe we need an atheist comic to give the world a Buddy Percy Bysshe Shelley or Buddy Thomas Paine or Buddy Sagan as the icon of a kinder, gentler atheism.