People, both religious and irreligious, often ask why atheists join atheist organizations such as American Atheists and New York City Atheists, and what their goals are. While I cannot speak for all, I can express my aims. To start, I have no desire to convert the religious, for such a goal is unrealistic. Religious folks rarely give up their faith, and when they do, it is often replaced by some other irrational, and even dangerous doctrine. Take the case of the Georgian seminarian, Iosip Dzhugashvili who replaced his Christian faith with an extreme communist ideology. Becoming a Bolshevik revolutionary under the name Joseph Stalin, he became the bloodthirsty dictator of the USSR. I believe that the world would have been a happier place had Dzhugashvili remained religious.
The reason why religious folks usually stay that way (see essay, “Does God Exist?”) is because the fundamental thought process of religious people is different from atheists. Put simply, we atheists are oriented to facts, reality, and science. Religious folks are uncomfortable with this, preferring fantasy, that is, magical thinking. The following exemplifies this: A devoutly religious man explains how he became so on a war’s battlefield. Terrified by the artillery fire, he prayed that if God protected him from being killed, he would be for the rest of his life, a devoutly religious, moral man. Passing a tree he suddenly tripped and fell, and then there was a blast of gunshot. Looking up he saw that the section of the tree that was bullet ridden was level with his upper torso, meaning that had the soldier not fallen at this precise second, he would have been killed. Interpreting this as an act of God, he kept his promise to be devout. As an atheist, I would pose this question: Obviously, in order to have this effect God had to physically push him down, or perhaps alter the way his nerves operate, but since God is in the non-physical, spiritual realm, how could God have done that? How could something not physical affect the physical? This conundrum does not present a logical problem to a magical thinker, and this is what makes religious folks immune to rational arguments.
Religious, i.e. magical thinkers are subject to having all manner of irrational, anti-scientific beliefs, many of which can lead to dangerous consequences. Think of religiously inspired terrorists. And in democracies, religious folks with their tendency to rely on feelings rather than facts and logic, often have outlooks based on primitive emotions, leading them to become intolerant, sometimes violent, atheist hating bigots who are far more likely than atheists to be swayed by demagogues who specialize in appealing to people’s raw emotions.
That said, joining an atheist group gives me the opportunity to interact with rational, scientific folks. The second purpose is to get people who are fearful of revealing their atheism to be out with it. Most importantly, active atheists fight to prevent the religious from oppressing atheists, and fostering religious, anti-scientific ideas as public policy, examples being school boards forcing schools to teach the unscientific religiously motivated idea of Intelligent design in biology classes; having “In God we trust,” on our currency, and government fostering parochial education by providing vouchers for religious schools. Finally, atheists are persecuted, and while those in the United States are for the most part free from the deadly oppression existing in some countries, atheists do face negative consequences. How many politicians will admit to their lack of religious faith?