On becoming a ‘softer’ atheist

In 2007 I became completely insufferable. I’m actually quite a pleasant individual; I have lots of loving friends and I tend to get on well with people, so being a douche wasn’t in my nature, but something happened that year that changed my life and made me into something of a prick.

I became an atheist.

First of all, I won’t dismiss that absolute heart-wrenching fear and lost sleep that goes part and parcel with the process of losing a religion. I’d grown up in what I would label a semi-religious house-hold, like a lot of families in the UK who are pretty sure they have a faith but it doesn’t crop up a lot. Still, even under a moderately Christian(ish) roof, the weight of coming to terms with rejecting any and all gods is a staggering one. Any atheist will tell you how completely sucky that part of their life was.

However, what followed my ‘awakening’ were several years of being an abhorrently smug bastard, which was, in part, YouTube’s fault. I’d lost my religion in the infancy of the neo-atheist movement, led by our standard bearer Richard Dawkins and a posse of other freethinkers like Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris (i.e. The Four Horsemen). YouTube became a breeding ground for new atheists who were putting their faces on the internet to expound the virtues of this godless lifestyle.

“I even infiltrated an evangelical chat room just to run a bait and switch”

In the beginning, it was fairly benign. Everyone seemed to have fantastic reasons for being atheist. They wanted to promote rationalism, scientific thinking and to expose the rot that exists in institutionalised religion. All fine by me. The problem was that, like many fresh atheists, I thought I had it all figured out. It was so obvious that God didn’t exist and I couldn’t wait to tell everyone about it. I got into arguments online, got on my Twitter soap-box more times than I care to remember and at one time I even infiltrated an evangelical chat room just to run a bait and switch. Who the hell does that?

As the years unfurled, the more books and articles I devoured about atheist. Professor Dawkins was my mascot and I wouldn’t hear a bad word said about him. “He’s so rude,” some people would say. “Piss off,” I would say, “He’s got some great points.” I regularly watched The Amazing Atheist and read Pharyngula, along with the sites that it was affiliated with, always looking forward to my daily dose of religious-scoffing and esteem-boosting catharsis. The atheist community was growing at a rapid rate, giving (mainly) Dawkins more TV appearances to wax lyrical on all things un-God, to attempt to change the views of the majority.

Then he wouldn’t go away. Dawkins was seemingly appearing on the TV schedule on a weekly basis, spouting the same arguments as he always has been. Sometimes, but very rarely, was he talking solely about science — he was effectively now the Pope of atheism, except without the bitchin’ hat.

Pharyngula and the Freethought blog network began to break down into a schism, out of which was birthed the term Atheist+, which wasn’t a social network but a new subset of non-believers that was also politically and socially charged. At the same time, feminist writer Rebecca Watson was publically derided by Dawkins for being uncomfortable with a late-night encounter with a man in a hotel lift, who invited her over to his room for coffee. Then YouTubers The Amazing Atheist and Thunderf00t, both of which I was a fan of, started spurting anti-feminist rhetoric on their channels.

“In many religions the core is very much the same: don’t be a dick”

By this time, I’d softened on my position somewhat. I went from being completely against all religion to being actually quite accepting. I realised that faith had a lot to offer people, whether that’s a community, comfort or a distraction from the terrible things that were happening in their lives. I began to see that in many religions the core is very much the same: don’t be a dick to each other. I can live with that.

I no longer wanted to argue about God. It seemed completely pointless and, honestly, pretty arrogant. Who the hell was I to tell anyone what to believe? You could say that some religions do the same, waving leaflets on the streets or spouting weird anti-evolution diatribes into a loud haler, but that still doesn’t mean that it’s ok for me, as a non-believer, to do it. Instead I wanted to focus on talking about science and how awesome it is, without having to bring faith into the mix. It seemed like the ‘movement’ had become a fractured mess, led by some poisonous people who weren’t doing the cause any good at all and I didn’t want a part of it anymore.

So I went from being a smug, ‘militant’ atheist to being a soft, embracing atheist. Actually, I don’t even like labelling myself as an atheist anymore, or humanist or freethinker or any other synonymn. If you’re a good person, no matter your religious persuasion, I have no beef with you. Let’s get a coffee and talk about comics. If you’re a dick then, sorry, but you’ve lost yourself a latte.