Activism is the height of societal responsibility. It's seeing the the world is imperfect (as we all do) and deciding to work to make changes ourselves. Activists, to put it plainly, are people whose care translates into action. It therefore speaks very highly of atheists that the most frequent question I get emailed is about how to be an activist.
My advice would be to start small by just being yourself without qualification. If somebody asks where you go to church, just tell them you’re an atheist. This is something that the gay rights movement has very, very right. Because such an emphasis has been placed on coming out of the closet, many people are realizing (some for the first time in their lives) that not only do they know gay people, but that they like gay people. There is no greater way to create cognitive dissonance with the messages your friends and neighbors are getting from their religious leaders. Just acclimating people to the fact that they know (and like) atheists makes a huge impact.
Another good way to be an activist is to learn the arguments you're bound to encounter talking about god. To be an activist is to cure ignorance, and to do that you must have information at the ready. If someone uses the 2nd law of thermodynamics argument (*gag*), you need to have a counterexample ready (or you need to be able to call them on how silly they are for not asking a physicist if they really want an answer). As long as you’re speaking, there will be vitriol. Don’t get occupied with the vitriol. Find the arguments beneath the vitriol and the ignorance that fuels the vitriol and be prepared go after them like a surgeon.
Being an activist means telling people they’re wrong (if everybody were on board with the changes you want, activism would be a superfluous job). Often you will have to tell people they are wrong about some of their most cherished beliefs. We don't do this because we’re assholes, but because beliefs determine actions and shape the face of society, and we treat beliefs like they matter. I wish it were easy, but it’s not. Neither are most worthwhile things (otherwise everybody would do them). And yes, some people will be hurt. It is a sad quality of the universe that improvement seldom comes without pain. Nudging the world to change takes effort, but it’s rewarding effort. It’s gratifying in the extreme to convince one more person that god is not real, or one more person that gay people are equal.
What I can tell you is this: honesty breeds respect. I’ve told a lot of people I thought they were very, very wrong over the years. Most of them disliked it, and most of them sent me emails later saying “What about this?” because they respected my ability to think and they knew I’d tell them the truth. Refusing to placate somebody is one of the greatest respects you can give, and I think most (not all, but most) people realize that, even if they don’t like hearing that they’re wrong. Understand that caring about others means caring about the world we all live in, and some ideas are better for that world than others.
Also realize that changing minds takes time. I cannot recall a single time I’ve changed somebody’s mind in the course of a single conversation. However, I cannot count the times I have received emails or phone calls a few months later conceding that I was right. Changing minds and changing the world is a marathon, not a sprint. Stay in the atheist movement long enough and you will hear some cynic wonder why you even bother talking to religious people because "You'll never change anybody's mind". Not since the stories of Jesus rising from the dead has anybody contrived a more untrue statement than "You'll never change anybody's mind." This movement is full of people who were once religious, but who had their minds changed (many by The God Delusion). Do not let the fact that change is a slow process convince you that it is an inert process.
As you gain experience as an activist doing the small things, you will find strength you never knew you had. You may start speaking to small groups of people (who will feed you the same arguments as individuals, only this time you’ll know those arguments front to back). You may go hold a sign in protest. You may organize a protest. You may help with a food drive. There are about a million ways to change the world, and you should do whatever is right at the edge of your comfort level so the next time you might go further. No role in this movement is more important than another. While I may get more attention as a writer/speaker, the person who makes a quilt to sell as a fundraiser is no less important. We're simply working with the skill sets that we have, and we're all in this together.
And don’t be afraid of missteps. When talking about how to succeed as an activist, it seems I always wind up quoting Dr. David Burger. Dr. Dave once said to me, “Activism, if you’re doing it, you’re doing it right.” Our cause is noble, and will not be quelled by a few mistakes (indeed, if we waited for perfect people to change the world we’d never get around to it). We grow with the movements we support.
So don't fear, and never worry that you're not doing enough. As long as you're doing something, you're doing enough. As individuals we can and should change the little things, since those are what make up the big things. I'm thrilled to be a part of this movement with every other activist. Together we are making changes that seemed impossible only a few decades ago. It is because of our activists that this trend shows no signs of slowing.
JT Eberhard is the current world champion at Candy Land and holds both the Olympic and World Records. He is also humanity’s best chance in a zombie apocalypse. Some very nice people made a website a while back where you can read more about JT.
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