Activism for atheism is hypocritical

By Chelsea Fiddyment

The Web site Fastweb.com probably rings a bell for college students – the site collects scholarship information for registered users. These funds come from anywhere and everywhere: political Web sites, nonprofit organizations, right down to your own university.

While browsing listings, one might encounter scholarships specifically targeted toward atheist students. Applying for the money involves writing an essay regarding, preferably, atheist activism which the applicant has spearheaded or participated in. An organization called American Atheists sponsors the scholarship.

While the American Atheists Web site states that activism includes letters to newspapers or politicians and sponsoring atheist television, they give more consideration to students who encourage or represent atheism in their schools. Their site also includes links to religious web pages that encourage the forcible impression of religious beliefs on children (disconcertingly listed under the heading “Bad Guys”).

This is when things begin to seem more than a little paradoxical. Beyond this, the site offers books designed for children as an introduction to atheism. Isn’t this just as bad as pro-religion adults proselytizing kids? Religious belief (or non-belief, as the case may be) hinges on the ability to choose. If I choose to assert my constitutional right to be an atheist, great for me. I don’t want others attempting to convert me or belittle my personal belief system. Likewise, if I choose to become a member of an organized religion, I maintain just as much right to remain free from the potential scorn and evangelical efforts of others. In either case, these beliefs belong to me. I do not pretend to possess the right to dictate a particular view on faith to anyone, offspring or not.

This, then, is also the crux of the problem of “atheist activism.” Yes, atheists deserve equal civil liberties. But a vast difference exists between asserting the right to equal respect for and expression of atheism and encouraging kids to propone atheism in schools. If kids decide to form a Bible study group with schoolmates, it’s equally suitable for non-religious students to create an organization through which they can relate with others of their same belief system.

But if all of these children have the same freedom of expression in school and protection from personal attack of their ideas by school faculty, what point does “activism” serve? Doesn’t it then endeavor to achieve the same results as a religious sermon? Atheists have as little right to convert people as religious believers. After all, as an atheist, I desire primarily not to face the preaching of others. I have no quarrel with religious people who keep their beliefs to themselves when it comes to conversion. In the same way that I endeavor to respect the opinions of others, I just want my ideas equally respected.

It seems backwards then to actively throw my non-belief onto other people. If and when I feel that my equality of treatment is threatened, I act. The rest is just overkill. If I only want respect, I must be willing to respect others.

“Atheist activism” seems to constitute impassioned and affronting representations of non-belief, as opposed to standing up for oneself when necessary. I do indeed have equal civil liberties – I can express myself to other people openly and I do not face persecution (governmental, institutional, what have you). Activism for the sake of atheism just seems too similar to preaching – the exact opposite of what I believe in.

This said, the American Atheists behave in the same vein as the groups and Web sites they oppose. They essentially encourage young adults to stand as the “front line of defense” against religion in the public sphere. It’s appalling that adults who have potentially known the struggle of religious oppression seek to impress their own ideas about faith onto younger generations and then motivate them to do the same. It is exactly this group of people who should strive to keep kids open-minded by not forcing religious-related beliefs onto them at all. Even a group claiming to contend for the “civil liberties” of atheists seem to have forgotten that the most important of all – the right to choice in belief – paves the way to equality.

Chelsea is a junior in English and music and sleeps in on Sunday mornings.