It seems as though a lot of people assume that respecting a person’s right to believe means letting them say whatever they want and never confronting them. This isn’t the case. I can respect your right to believe and still openly disagree with you. Refusing to hide my beliefs doesn’t mean I’m disrespecting your rights, it just means I’m practicing mine.
I was listening to an old episode of the podcast The Atheist Experience the other day. One of the callers they talked to called in simply to tell them that they shouldn’t be talking about Christianity, they should just talk about atheism. According to this caller, their discussion of Christianity was disrespectful. Why? Because they are atheists. The idea that merely talking about Christianity while being a non-Christian is disrespectful is silly. I often talk about men while being a non-man. Is that disrespectful too? But the very idea that we should shut up about Christianity because we criticize it is silly too. No belief is above criticism. I criticize religion because I believe it to be inherently problematic. I’m not concerned with the people who hold the beliefs (well, not usually), I’m worried about the institution. I’m worried about the aspects of religion that negatively affect the world in which I live. Namely the division it causes, the wars it leads to, and the mistreatment of other humans that it allows. So yes, I criticize religion. And no, that is not disrespectful of your rights. You can believe whatever you want, and I can criticize it. You can criticize my beliefs too. And we can do so in a respectful way.
It seems to be commonly believed that atheists just attack religion for the sake of attacking religion. But if religion didn’t affect our lives, then we would have no reason to criticize it. We don’t criticize religion for the sake of amusement. Most of us live in places where we are confronted with religion on a daily bases. For example, today I walked under an advertisement for a particular church numerous times, on the way to school we found ourselves behind a car with the Jesus fish symbol, and there were a number of little pamphlets around telling me how I’m going to go to hell if I don’t believe in God. Throughout the school year, I can easily find booths at the university giving out Bibles, Qur’ans, and various other books promoting Christianity and Islam. On the way to school every day I pass no less than three churches in the span of 20 minutes. Not long ago, someone left a Chick Tract on our car when Withteeth and I were at the movies. The Christian clubs on my campus are well funded and well promoted, and there are no less then a dozen of them. It seems as though Christianity is everywhere, and Islam is catching up. So religion actually affects my life quite a bit. And my criticism of religion reflects my experiences. I don’t criticize religion because I hate religious people, I criticize religion because it has a negative impact on my life and the world I live in.
So no, atheists should not stick to talking about atheism. Atheism is only a small part of our experience. Atheists should talk about what concerns us. We should talk about improving the world around us. And we should criticize the things that we believe hurt us and those around us. The religious are free to criticize atheism, and have never felt the need to keep their criticism secret. Atheists have the same right.