Hey, JST (and anyone else):
This is something of an open letter, posted this morning in hopes that it reaches one particular theist, but open for all. It's odd; I've never really bothered to write something like this for this or any other discussion forum, but I feel the imperative to do so after watching the discussion here over the last several weeks.
This community is a fantastic one for atheists - it's filled with good resources, good ears, people who actually give a damn and who try to help those who are atheists (especially new atheists) get by in what feels like a society that is stacked against them. Unfortunately, this community is absolutely terrible to theists that come in to see what it's all about. I have my own personal feelings as to why: the stereotype of the angry atheist has a certain basis in fact (especially among new atheists, who often say they are angry with the loss of time and life predicated in their earlier faith), the joy of debate, the need to validate your own position, and others - but I can't prove any of these things to be true. I can say only that the pattern here for visiting theists is almost always the same arc.
First, the theist appears and introduces themselves. The community leaps on them like a herd of starving lions spotting the last gazelle in the Serengeti with a dogpile of arguments that no one could hope to address (no matter their quality). Invariably, one or two people in the community take more than an adversarial stance, becoming antagonistic. As the theist defends their position, they are inevitably accused of proselytizing or not addressing argument. Eventually, they are banned for breaking one or another of the forum rules, and the community seems to quietly smirk about the fact.
I will be the first to say that most of our theistic visitors, sadly, deserve this sort of treatment. The come here and are deliberately insulting, deliberately provoking, even hateful in what they say. However, we tend to project these rather abusive people onto the theists that come here simply ignorant of how often their arguments have been addressed or who come here in an effort to earnestly reach out to people they're trying to understand, but simply cannot (at least so far). Think how alien atheism is to most believers, how impossible a proposition it is.
I do think atheism and the atheist movement deserve a place alongside any group of faithful; we must fight for our place in the public square, and we must fight for our identity in a sea of people who would sooner run us out of their communities than trust us around their children. In discourse, however, we could stand a few lessons in politeness. It wouldn't take much to understand that the quiet conversation, the one that simply addresses the arguments presented (yes, again) is the one that will appeal to the reasonable watcher, the onlooker, and get them to understand.
(I for one, lurked as a guest for a very long time here before engaging. The conversations - the real conversations - with theists are what finally allowed me to let go of my faith. They don't happen anymore, and I think this is a terribly sad thing.)
JST, I write this addressed to you and to other theists especially because, frankly, I want you to understand that there's a point behind a lot of what you're enduring, and I hope to catch you before the invariable march of the theist on this board continues. I want to try to show you what these guys are essentially saying over and over again: all a lot of us want is for you to take a moment to see things from our point of view.
Personally, I want you to take what Loftis calls the "outsider test of faith." I want you to look at Islam and Mormonism, Mithraism, Zoroastrianism, Bhuddism - whatever you care to choose, really, and seriously define what makes these things impossible or ridiculous to you. Then, if you can, I'd love to see you take a step back from your own beliefs and subject them to the same scrutiny. Pretend you are someone who has never heard of the Bible, who lives a comfortable, Western, middle class existence without having even imagined the Christian god. Would your faith make sense to you?
When I understood that question- that's what got to me. That's what changed things. I started looking at where the ideas of my belief came from, and eventually realized that there was no divinity in them. There are hard questions there - and I encourage you to ask them.
Let me quote Socrates: "Someone will say: Yes, Socrates, but cannot you hold your tongue, and then you may go into a foreign city, and no one will interfere with you? Now I have great difficulty in making you understand my answer to this. For if I tell you that this would be a disobedience to a divine command, and therefore that I cannot hold my tongue, you will not believe that I am serious; and if I say that the greatest good of a man is daily to converse about virtue, and all that concerning which you hear me examining myself and others, and that the life which is unexamined is not worth living — that you are still less likely to believe."
.. the point is that, and perhaps this is the wrong place for it, all I really want in my own atheism is to be accepted as part of the world around me without constantly fighting for my right to exist. I don't want to be "separate and silent, but equal as long as I keep my mouth shut." To do that, I know that theists have to understand that the atheist position isn't ridiculous or incomprehensible, and that I wouldn't be out of place having coffee with you at the local waffle hut.
Does this make sense? I want you, and all other theists, to understand that even in our most heated moments, we are still human, and that we (at least societally) share most of the same values. Atheists don't go on stealing sprees and we don't eat babies and we don't murder at random. We read books, we play games, we raise families, we work, and we love - and we largely embrace the humanity that enables us to do just that.
I am an outsider - one who has been (and who was raised) "inside". To me, your religion is risible - but you are not. I hope that comes through, and I wish we as a community were better at showing it. Still, I encourage you to be an outsider in your own life; examine your faith. Ask why until you get good answers. You may not become an atheist, but you will at least begin to understand what we are: the ones who never got answers that made sense from any god.