The atheist recruiting machine

But should atheists proselytize with a passion akin to the loudest bible thumpers? It’s a question that has divided the atheist community into two schools of thought. And ironically, it’s a split that somewhat resembles the one among born-again Christians, between those who advocate a fire-and-brimstone approach (“Accept Jesus or burn in hell”) and those who want to bring newcomers into the fold with a gentler message that sells a warmer (and, in the case of younger Christians, cooler) brand of Christianity. For some atheists, the very idea of aggressively spreading the word of no-God is practically sinful.

These two philosophies are fracturing organizations at the top of the atheist activism chain. Consider the Center for Inquiry, atheism’s top think tank and one of the groups behind New York’s “Good without God” campaign. The Center’s founder, Paul Kurtz, one of humanism’s eminences grises, preaches maximum tolerance. His life’s aim, he told me, is to “make it so a person can be a nonbeliever in our society and be respected and accepted.” As such, he thinks it’s counterproductive to preach against religion. “You can’t begin by calling people names,” says the 85-year-old Kurtz. “It’s self-destructive to nonbelievers.” When Kurtz’s own organization supported international “Blasphemy Day” in September (a day dedicated to openly criticizing all things God), Kurtz wrote a column in Free Inquiry magazine, an atheist publication put out by the Center for Inquiry, comparing the day to “the anti-Semitic cartoons of the Nazi era.” He continued, “There are some fundamentalist atheists who have resorted to such vulgar antics to gain press attention.”

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