We’ve all noticed that there is a tendency among the religious (or at least, the sort of religious people who tend to dislike atheists) to stereotype us as being overly negative. Unfortunately, I think that there is some truth to that, at least in our dealings with the religious.
When we’re dealing with religion, we often fall into argument. That makes sense; we think it’s wrong, they think it’s right. The problem is that it shouldn’t be an argument. We can and should discuss without arguing. Most of the time, in talking about religion, atheists should try to be friendly toward other people. We shouldn’t be argumentative, we shouldn’t view it as a debate. It’s just a discussion between friends.
I know I have a tendency to go on the attack a little too quickly, and I think I’ve observed the same in other atheists. I can’t say whether the same is true of theists, since I’m kind of biased. The problem here, of course, is that we are reinforcing this “atheists are negative” stereotype. We aren’t winning anyone over by coming off as jerks. Quite the contrary, really. We do this because it’s easier than being friendly, but who said it was going to be easy?
One way of trying to be more positive and upbeat in these situations has been to try to argue the ideas of humanism, not just to argue atheims. I like that approach both because I like humanism, and because humanism shares many of the ideals that most Christians would say that Christianity has. That way, we show that we do have common ground. We’re not some sort of god-slaying monster, we’re just someone who disagrees on that particular point. (On top of which, I don’t think the goal is to deconvert everyone. Isn’t it just to make sure people think critically and don’t push their religion on others? We shouldn’t be jerks anyway.)
Another way is just to control your tone. Don’t be confrontational when you don’t have to. Ad hominems are easy, and when you’re frustrated, you feel better for making them, but they only hurt your point. Don’t use the superior tone that all too many of us fall into when we’re fed up. It’s easier than keeping it out, but it just makes you look bad. If they’re insulting, don’t respond in kind. And above all, don’t assume that they’re irrational. Faith is irrational, sure, but most religious people are perfectly intelligent and rational apart from their faith. People compartmentalize their sacred cows (we do it too), so in many cases those sacred cows say little about people. You can discuss other things perfectly normally with them, and they’ll often think quite like you.
Of course there are some religious people who we can argue with, and who won’t be bothered by it. Some people like to argue and debate, but they aren’t the majority. Don’t argue with someone unnecessarily if it might bother them.
I guess this is all pretty much common sense, but we don’t listen to our common sense as often as we should. This is the sort of thing that we need to remind ourselves over and over, and keep in mind every single time we’re talking about religion. It’s very easy to slip into being a jerk. Don’t.