Once upon a time, yours truly was walking down the crowded streets of Las Vegas when a man way too enthusiastic about life in general started shouting at those passing by, training his eyes on me as he proceeded with his rehearsed speech. “I used to be like you!” he proclaimed as he tried to channel a televangelist’s spirit, “boozing, gambling my life away, whoring around!” to an otherwise perfect stranger, who by that point was yet to have a drop of alcohol, won a couple of bucks after putting the princely sum of $10 in a video poker machine, and was holding his wife’s hand, wedding bands visible to anyone paying the slightest bit of attention. Far from urging the wounded soul of a broken man addicted to life’s vices to examine itself then pledge its future to the forgiving embrace of Jesus, he was trying to “save” a man on his honeymoon with the less than appropriate assumption that him being in Vegas was a sign of a moral failing and ignoring the woman next to him, implying that her presence was either billable by the hour, or the result of some other wayward soul looking for a way to forget her worries and fears in intoxication.
Now, were I posting this in r/atheism, this is the part where you’d get some grand debate on the streets of America’s party town for grownups where I publicly berated this zealot to the cheer of an appreciative crowd. Of course this isn’t what happened; you don’t reason with people on the street yelling things at you and you most certainly don’t start yelling things back because you’re still sane and familiar with the basic rules of public decorum. My significant other and I made a few jokes for each others’ entertainment and went on our merry way without a word to him. But from a standpoint of pure curiosity, why would someone yell at random strangers to fix their sin infested, immoral lives? Certainly all sorts of weird stuff happens behind closed doors in Vegas, as it certainly does everywhere else, but was there a poll or a study after which this man made some rational decision to go our and proselytize to people passing by? Probably not. Then why was he there? Maybe he really was an out of control addict who found religion?
How many times have we seen or heard of someone substituting one addiction for another, go from waking up every morning with a bump of coke and a vodka tonic, to, oh, I don’t know, say, becoming the maniacally smiling right hand of a mindless street preacher, dedicating his life to spreading his now unshakable, absolute, unyielding blind faith exemplified by the intricate and surely, God-ordained magnificence of a banana? Many atheists laugh at this turn of events, but at the same time, in their general state of being human, they do the same exact thing when the decision to publicly call themselves atheists is made. When we make a big change in our lives, it’s only natural to want to share this with a supportive community, especially when you’re living among those who either don’t understand you, or turn malicious and stereotype you as worse than any modern boogeyman. And I would imagine it feels great to finally have your atheism all out in the open instead of pretending to be something you’re not just to avoid drama.
But just like the man who accosted me on the street, no longer able to comprehend that I’m not him and not everyone is either given themselves to Jesus or will be partying Wolf of Wall Street style later in the night, too many eager young atheists who get into skeptical groups also seem unable to tell the difference between a believer wearing faith on a sleeve and curious about all that skeptic stuff and a full-blown theocrat who wants premarital sex punishable by law. This is why some local skeptical groups have pushed back against atheists new to the fold, unsure of how to mediate their meetings being hijacked in a way that terrify believers interested in being more scientific and skeptical about the world. And as their energies are being harvested by the identity politics contingent that has annexed a number of formerly skeptical blogs, they’re being encouraged to see every believer as a raging oppressor, not just the really loud zealots whose antics repulse many of those who they claim to represent.
This is not to say that believers don’t have responsibilities here because that accommodationist attitude gives those foaming at the mouth a free pass to rant and rave, and absolves those less faithful of not standing up to them. One does not have to personally dish out an injustice to find his or her hands sullied by it. To see an asinine abuse to power and idly stand by because the abusers call themselves by the same moniker you do while feeling “really bad about it because that’s not representative of my beliefs” is just cowardice. But yet, it’s not the same as agreeing with the injustice or abuse in question and young, newly minted atheists on the warpath have to recognize that. Giving a believers a stereotypical “angry, bitter atheist” stereotype to hold up in debates does you no favors and helps them sway public opinion. If we have the facts, we have to argue them and expose raving lunatics as such, not become their clones on the other side of the rhetorical isle. Think of being an atheist as becoming a kung-fu student. Yes, you can use a new set of skills to start fights, but that’s not why you should’ve learned them. You learned them to defend yourself and those who can’t when they’re in dire need.