March 10, 2011 - 11:18 am

How have peopled reacted to recent atheist publicity campaigns? Some positive, some negative, no doubt. But one particular reaction that caught my attention was mixed: it said that atheists have a right to criticize religion publicly, but complained that:

1) it was "mean" to mock religion, and

2) non-believers should not be "recruiting."

How should non-believers react to those two criticisms? Here's my personal answer: I agree that we should neither mock nor recruit, but I do not concede that we have done either.

I agree that it is not appropriate for non-believers to mock religious belief. In fact, to do so is contrary to the basic principle that all human beings should be treated with dignity and in accordance with their needs. Some people need religion. That's their choice.

Furthermore, such mockery feeds the negative stereotype of atheists as arrogant and smug, so from a public relations viewpoint we non-believers do ourselves no favor by being smart-asses.

But without mockery, it is fair to say that some religious teachings and practices are just plain bad for mankind. For example: a total ban on abortion and contraception; male domination; sexual repression; rejection of human evolution; government sponsorship of prayer in public schools and government functions; religious discrimination in hiring for governmental faith-based initiatives; withholding of blood transfusions and other medical procedures on religious grounds; and the list goes on.

Those who believe in evidence-based decision-making in government, education and medicine must have the right to criticize religion's shortcomings in these areas, and it is not legitimate to reject such criticism on the ground that it offends someone's religious sensibilities. Another person's right to practice the religion of his or her choice ends where it encroaches on my well-being.

The publicity campaigns also have other purposes. One is to let nonbelievers know that they are not alone. The American Humanist Association frequently receives mail from isolated atheists living in the Bible Belt who say they are greatly relieved to discover that they are not freaks; that there are many others who feel the same way. How did they discover that they are not alone? In many cases it's from an atheist billboard.

Another purpose is to educate the general population that nonbelievers are not bereft of ethics; that there is more than one route to the golden rule. And I think that people of ethics need to cooperate with each other regardless of whether they get those ethics from heaven or earth.

Finally, our recent advertisement campaigns are not intended to "recruit." The purpose is not to persuade anyone who believes in a god that they should give up their belief. That is not for us to judge. Everyone deserves freedom of choice.

In fact, that criticism can be turned around. I am not sure that a majority of believers grant to non-believers the same freedom they claim for themselves; they think we have SOME NERVE refusing to go along with the religious consensus. So another purpose of the publicity campaigns is to remind the majority that their insistence on uniformity is also arrogant and smug. Perhaps, therefore, we can be forgiven for sometimes replying in kind.