"So, you're an atheist. What does that mean other than you think you are a gift to the world?"
"How can you call yourself an atheist and support abortion?"
"Atheist men tend to be misogynists."
"Where do you get the right to determine what is right or not? You're an atheist!"
Any of these sound familiar when someone cannot accept or understand your lack of belief? The examples above are the most common arguments/insults/comments I receive when my atheism is brought into the spotlight.
Now, a decade ago, I would have gone into lengthy explanations on how their reasoning was just downright ridiculous. And it is. I would spend the longest time on the morals argument, pointing out the flaws within their own religion's logic and morals, trying to prove that they didn't exactly have the moral high ground. The other three are really just spiteful ad hominem, and I could let those roll off.
There was one problem though with how I handled these encounters....
Instead of arguing about how their reasoning was just oh so wrong, I should have been demonstrating that their reasoning is totally misplaced, and then how wrong it is. Morals, sexual equality, abortion, and such, really are not anything to do with atheism to begin with, but many folks (even atheists) do not realize this, or just assume it is part and parcel with the movement. I've met a number of atheists who have completely discounted me, and told me I didn't truly understand what I believed, all because I didn't view human life as the most sacred thing on the planet. Yeah, let that sink in for a moment.
Atheism, on its own, is fairly straight forward.
disbelief or lack of belief in the existence of God or gods.
As you can see, there isn't even the slightest intimation that one is automatically some type of humanist superstar, rocket scientist, or materialistic thinker, in the definition. Nor is there any claim of knowledge, but just no belief. Now, most aren't aware there is a subtle difference between atheism as a personal identifier, and atheism as a philosophy, of which there are numerous branches. This lack of realization is largely attributed to the works of the New Atheism and Atheism Plus.
First, let's understand the two main movements that are influencing the understanding of atheism today by taking a look at the first movement, New Atheism.
"New Atheism is a social and political movement in favour of atheism and secularism promoted by a collection of modern atheist writers who have advocated the view that "religion should not simply be tolerated but should be countered, criticized, and exposed by rational argument wherever its influence arises." There is uncertainty about how much influence the movement has had on religious demographics, but the increase in atheist groups, student societies, publications and public appearances has coincided with the non-religious being the largest growing demographic, closely followed by Islam and evangelicalism in the US and UK.
New Atheism is a large dose of vinegar down the public throat, and is often what gets atheists a negative view in general as being argumentative and angry, as well as on a mission to deconvert the world and destroy deities. These guys are all about stepping on toes without apology, and their divisive world view isn't helping the general impression of what lack of belief is all about. There are subtle claims of knowledge in the movement that is undermining what the definition of atheism is.
Then you have the Atheism Plus crowd, and similar off shoots like Free Thinkers, whom I have more a beef with than the New Atheists.
"Atheism Plus (also rendered Atheism+) was a movement proposed in 2012 by blogger Jen McCreight. Its original definition was rather nebulous, but in general it is intended to be a subset of the atheism movement that attempts to unite atheists who wish to use their shared atheist identity as a basis for addressing political and social issues and engaging in related activism. Its scope is intended to go beyond the question of (non-)belief to address additional issues, including but not limited to critical thinking, skepticism, social justice, feminism, anti-racism, and combating homophobia and transphobia. In other words, a place for some of the more liberal (in the American meaning of the word) atheists who are sick of being lumped together with people whose ideals they don't share. (via RationalWiki)"
This movement automatically brings set views on social philosophies into the mix. A division of sorts that sets them apart from your everyday non believer. And as some critics have noted, there is little wiggle room to deviate from the set foundation of views the movement has put forward, dissenters being harassed and exiled until they leave, sometimes still suffering harassment after long gone.
In general, this type of added on philosophy, while giving the impression of unification against social injustices, brings an even larger pool of "us vs. them" mentality, including amongst its own members. Feminism is always a hot topic, and not everyone has the same degree of consensus on the subject. The same with racism, and even critical thinking has different standards! This type of tagging of social philosophies onto atheism promotes further divides amongst the many different populations not just outside of atheism itself, but amongst the atheist population in general.
Atheism has nothing to do with being a bigot or not. Nor any say in just how much critical thinking you want to apply to that infomercial you watched for an hour at three this morning. Atheism most certainly has nothing to do with proving believers are wrong, or if abortion is moral. In fact, atheism has NOTHING to do with morality whatsoever. In fact, there are no implied social requirements for being an atheist. That is a key liberating feature about being embracing the classification to begin with.
No implied social or philosophical views whatsoever. No conformity is necessary other than simply no belief in deities.
Everyday, there are new polls coming out from various media outlets like PEW or Gallup, that show an increase in no religious identification, but these ever-increasing numbers seems to not be enough for those who insert philosophical elements into atheism. There is a sanctimonious atmosphere to the atheism of today's century where those who lack belief, much like their theist counterparts, have a desire to set themselves above the rest somehow, especially amongst their own; an arrogant need for self-justification to society that non belief is best, especially if it is done under certain pretenses or guidelines.
Conform or be shunned. I see this being echoed on both parts of the chasm, leaving many like myself, alone and cleaning up the social messes of others.
Again, humans are pushing each other apart, despite the common ground they are discovering everyday that could unite them closer under one umbrella of humanity. These divisive facts are what the religious like to point out as cracks in the facade of atheism; the foundation of disbelief that cannot be supported. Adding secularism, free thought, or humanism automatically into the classification is exactly the factor that is eroding atheism's foundation.
To save the face of atheism, it is time we start to make a differentiation between atheism and philosophy. Leave it as just a simple classification. Much like calling someone a theist. We cannot automatically assign attributes to that term other than belief in a deity/driving force. Buddhism, Catholicism, Christianity, and so on, are what define the beliefs, not the classification.