Susan Jacoby has a solid piece in The Times.
Calling out a few bits:
… the most powerful force holding us back is our own reluctance to speak, particularly at moments of high national drama and emotion, with the combination of reason and passion needed to erase the image of the atheist as a bloodless intellectual robot.
Minor qualification/quibble: I generally agree with this conclusion, but I also think there’s a lot of pressure fairly deliberately trying to shut atheists up, keep them properly invisible, and it’s pretty steady, a lot of places. So that reluctance is pretty understandable.
That said, absolutely, yeah, people do need to speak out, as the alternative, generally, is having the words put there for you, by those who mean us little good. If you don’t want to be smeared by the same brush, you’re going to have to take on part of the job of answering the defamation, and showing the world how it really is.
Today’s secularists must do more than mount defensive campaigns proclaiming that we can be “good without God.” Atheists must stand up instead of calling themselves freethinkers, agnostics, secular humanists or “spiritual, but not religious.” The last phrase, translated from the psychobabble, can mean just about anything — that the speaker is an atheist who fears social disapproval or a fence-sitter who wants the theoretical benefits of faith, including hope of eternal life, without the obligations of actually practicing a religion. Atheists may also be secular humanists and freethinkers — I answer to all three — but avoidance of identification with atheism confines us to a closet that encourages us to fade or be pushed into the background when tragedy strikes.
That, very much.
And let me bang on this once again, myself:
You have nothing to be ashamed of, for having called any given religion the poppycock it is. Indeed, if you were raised within it, and found your own way out, I’d argue you’ve that much to be proud of. I, for one, will shake your hand for that.
But there is a constant drumbeat out there, of vilification and suspicion. There are reasons for this. Fairly easily understood ones. You might think of it as religion’s outer defense: a means of discouraging others from following you, an effort to prevent your sense from becoming too contagious.
You will achieve very little–or very little that’s much good to you–by hiding from it, avoiding it, making all these mollifying ‘oh, I’m not really your enemy’ gestures Jacoby lists above, and hoping they’ll leave you be. They’ll just put you further down the list, after the more vocal types are silenced, and the vise will come to you, too, in time. You may recall that a bus ad that said only ‘atheists’ on it–no message beyond that, just the implication that there is such a thing–has been deemed ‘controversial’–Google on the County of Lackawanna Transit System, if you’re curious. Seriously, given their lead, and given half a chance, this is what at least some of the religious want: not just ‘polite’ unbelievers, but entirely invisible ones, so they may write their dialogue to order for anyone considering following their lead.
So Jacoby has it right. Stand up. Be proud. Be counted. Whatever else you may have got wrong in your life, if you ask me, this is one thing you got right. You do yourself and others who might follow your lead no favours, giving anyone the impression it’s something you feel you should be apologizing for.
… Oh, right, and editing to add, re her comments re emotion and reason: in capsule, this, too, is wisdom. Your reason is (ideally) what tells you how it is. Your emotion gives you the impetus to care enough to do something about it. Honestly, one is little good without the other. And Ingersoll is always highly recommended.