I have recently read Fighting God, by David Silverman. The topic of the book is firebrand atheism, and the normalization of atheism in American society, from the perspective of the president of American Atheists. It’s an interesting and unique read and I recommend anyone to pick it up. But this isn’t a book review.

I have been thinking lately about firebrand atheism. Loud, proud, unapologetic atheism. A little over ten years ago when I first came out as an atheist, I was really enthused about my new take on the world and ready to go to bat for it. I was still angry at the idea that some people in my life apparently thought that I should keep quiet in the face of what I saw as ridiculous superstition, and keep the obvious truth to myself. As if in the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes, the child had been reprimanded and punished for speaking up rather than affirmed by all the adults who had been fearfully silent about the obvious truth.

I’ve calmed down since then, and the thought of sticking my neck out in an uncertain situation to defend an unpopular idea gives me a tight feeling around my chest and stomach area. You know what I am talking about–anxiety. I don’t like conflict, though debating can be fun when I am pretty confident I am right. What I have discovered over and over is that the feeling is the same whether I am right or wrong to speak up. Since it is the same feeling, it can be hard to tell sometimes when it is caused by my cowardice or lack of self-confidence when I should be bold, or if it is a sign that something is not quite right with what I am saying. Maybe sometimes it means that there is an inconsistency in my argument and I should be quiet until I sharpen my point a bit more. Or that being right–perhaps in a discussion with a family member–is not the top priority at the moment.

The quote below from Bertrand Russell resonates with me and gets at the heart of what I am trying to say.

“Ever since puberty I have believed in the value of two things: kindness and clear thinking. At first these two remained more or less distinct; when I felt triumphant I believed most in clear thinking, and in the opposite mood I believed most in kindness.”
― Bertrand RussellThe Autobiography of Bertrand Russell

However there is more to the quote after that.

“Gradually, the two have come more and more together in my feelings. I find that much unclear thought exists as an excuse for cruelty, and that much cruelty is prompted by superstitious beliefs.”

Like Christopher Hitchens would say, “religion poisons everything.” People act in harmful ways sometimes because they hold superstitious beliefs, even though they believe themselves to be doing good. For now my strategy has been boldness in the public arena–online and among strangers–and more meekness among people I know and care about personally.

Where do you think you should draw the line between respect for people and criticism of beliefs and ideas?