Today I went to an event titled Non-Theism and the Right to Freedom from Religion, which was part of a diversity conference on campus. What could have been a decent presentation was ruined by the fact that a whopping 8 people showed up, including myself. Regardless, we still had some interesting discussions about the public perception of atheism in the US and the separation of church and state.
One key point the presenters repeated was that atheism does not necessarily equal anti-theism. Now, this is completely true - not all atheists are necessarily against religion. In fact, I'd say the vast majority of atheists are apathetic about the whole atheism/theism debate. The problem, however, is that the presenters kept labeling anti-theism as this horrible thing that atheists need to distance themselves from in order to be publicly accepted. Before I say anything, I want to clarify that by anti-theism I mean being against religion, religious beliefs, religious practices...but not religious individuals. This is the same definition that the presenters were using.
But is anti-theism really that bad?
I'd argue no, it's not, assuming you're not treating the actual religious individual poorly or trying to oppress their rights to have such beliefs. In fact, I think it's crucial that we are able to criticize beliefs and customs that we find dangerous, ridiculous, and/or false.* What if we didn't speak out against these things we disagreed with? Why is it okay for me to disagree with Republicans, pro-lifers, racists**, but not with Christians, Muslims, or Hindus?
I know the answer: Nobody enjoys having their beliefs criticized, but especially not ones as important as religion. If we didn't feel strongly that our beliefs are correct (or at least the best option), we wouldn't have those beliefs! So it's understandable that people get upset when you say "There probably is no God," "Scaring children with hell is tantamount to child abuse," or "Homosexuality is not wrong." But just because their annoyance is understandable doesn't mean we should go out of our way to not offend their sensibilities. It doesn't mean when someone says "It's my religious belief" to defend an argument that we need to throw up our hands and go "Oh shucks, well, can't beat that!" Of course not.
Religious belief shouldn't be sacred (pardon my word choice). It needs to stand up to criticism in the marketplace of ideas just like every other belief or practice. By giving religion a Get Out of Jail Free card and having criticism be taboo, we create an environment where bad ideas spread because...well, no one gets to point out that they're bad ideas.
Now, should atheists still distance themselves from anti-theism in order to gain public acceptance? On one hand, I feel strongly that we need to be able to speak up and voice our disagreements. On the other hand, it's a lot more difficult convincing people you're a decent person when they view your opinions as attacks on what they hold dearest. I think our best chance is to convince people that religious belief must stand up to criticism like any other idea, and that acceptance of atheism will eventually follow. Not exactly an easy task, but stuff like this is never simple.
*I'm in no way saying that all religious things fall into these categories, but I think even most religious people will agree with me that some do.
**Again, not saying these groups are equally bad or anything silly like that. Just examples of things I disagree with.