As I’ve said before, I’ve been an atheist ever since I had the abstract thinking skills to form a coherent opinion about it. However, the way my atheism manifests itself has gone through several distinct stages throughout my life — already! (I’m only in my twenties.)
As a child, and pretty much up through high school, I was in what I’ll call my “let’s all get along” phase. I thought of religions as traditions that different people followed, and although I didn’t personally find any value in following any of them, I was really bothered by the idea that some people were willing to kill other people simply because their traditions were the “wrong” ones. If you asked me about a particular religion, I’d probably tell you I thought their beliefs were false and rather silly, but some part of me found a kind of poetic beauty in religious practice anyway. I almost wished I was Jewish (I really liked the story about Abraham arguing with God as well as the melodies of Hebrew prayers). Others’ questions about my religious beliefs were usually met first with an explanation of Unitarian Universalism, followed by an admission that I didn’t believe in any gods myself but didn’t begrudge others the opportunity to do so if that was their preference. My primary concern was religious freedom — both in the sense of freedom from religion for myself and other nonbelievers, and in the sense of free exercise of all religious faiths.
I don’t remember exactly when or how the transition happened, but definitely by the time I got to college I was pretty angry about religion. We’ll say this is the “anti-apologist” phase. Somehow, it finally occurred to me that there were people out there who genuinely, truly believed that the earth was less than 10,000 years old, that Noah really put two of every animal on his ark and the entire planet was flooded, that women should not be allowed to go to school or even drive a car, that members of slightly more lax sects of their own religions should be spat upon and attacked in the streets. There were people who wanted to make sure that children were not taught about evolutionary biology, despite the mountains of evidence for it, and instead demanded that their Bronze Age superstitions be presented as literal fact. A religion wasn’t just a bunch of pretty traditions anymore; it was actually a set of factual claims that ought to be treated as such. Yes, there were (and are) more liberal religious people, but in this phase they frustrated me more than they reassured me. They were playing along with the whole sham, believing the parts that seemed nice while ignoring the other parts, with no more actual evidence to support the nice bits than the discarded ones … all the while propping up the numbers of their religion, helping the zealots’ case appear stronger. I would go out of my way to ask religious people why they believed what they believed, and I was happy to invest a lot of time and energy debating them on those reasons (provided they could come up with any). My primary concern was helping religious people see that they were mistaken in their beliefs, so they would stop doing all the terrible and stupid things they do in the name of those same beliefs.
The third phase of my atheism comes with being bored and dissatisfied with these debates. It can be incredibly draining arguing with someone who will never, under any circumstances, change their mind or even admit you’ve made a decent point. Even the religious people who are nominally interested in having “challenging” conversations are so entrenched in their mythologies, so insulated by centuries’ worth of carefully crafted excuses, that it’s difficult to get anywhere with them. And it certainly looks more and more appealing to set all that aside, surround myself with atheists and apatheists, and focus on what we as pragmatic, critical thinkers can accomplish together. I’d characterize this by a sort of “what now?” attitude. Now, I don’t think I’m entirely within this mindset (yet?), but rather oscillating between this and the previous one, spending slightly longer here with each swing. It’s this paradigm, though, that leads me to identify with Atheism+. I don’t spend nearly as much time arguing with campus evangelists as I used to; instead, I speak frankly about how religion is irrational (when it comes up in conversation) and I channel that extra energy toward scientific progress (i.e., my degree) and a variety of other efforts to make the world a better place.
That’s a whole lot more navel-gazing than I usually engage in here, but I also have a larger point: there are a lot of different ways to be an atheist. I’ve only named three here, but I’m sure that’s not exhaustive. (Tell me what you’d add, in the comments!) Even when I look back on perspectives I’ve had in the past that I don’t currently identify with, I don’t feel like I was wrong then. It’s just that I had slightly different priorities. And it’s fine for one person at different times, or different people at the same time, to have different priorities. That’s how we, the atheist community, can pursue a wide variety of goals at once. We can work for religious freedom and tolerance, teach critical thinking and debunk superstition, and apply our rationality to other societal issues — all at once!
I wish atheists in one phase would more consistently acknowledge the value of people in other phases. Do your interfaith work, but don’t boost your credibility with your religious friends by distancing yourself from “those angry New Atheists.” Debate religious apologists, but don’t try to silence those atheists who want to talk about something else for a while. Work for broader social justice, but don’t belittle others who are focused on getting society to recognize “just dictionary atheism.” All of these things are worthwhile.