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It’s very common in the atheosphere to lampoon religious believers as “crazy,” “delusional,” “evil,” “stupid,” or any number of insults, frequently delivered in tumid one-liners superimposed onto a semi-relevant background image. You know, like these. There is no shortage of smug atheists who seem to think they’re super clever because they’ve managed to figure out that God isn’t real. Following this post, a number of conversations with people online and in meatspace, and a growing distaste with these sorts of members of the atheist community, I’ve begun to see religion in a slightly more favorable light.

(Don’t worry, I’m not converting! Yet.)

The way I’ve come to view religion is much the same as the way I view sports. There are plenty of sports fans in the world, and I’m pretty okay with that. While I might believe there are more important things that people could be interested in, such as music, science, or classic literature, I have very little desire to try to convince people en mass that they should stop watching football and start reading Shakespeare. If someone brings it up, I would voice the opinion that, say, Charles Dickens and Jane Austen are a better use of your time than the Super Bowl and the World Series, but I’m not going to get mad if you would rather enjoy a good game.

To stretch the metaphor even further, when people suggest that religious believers are [insert negative stereotype here], or that religion “poisons everything,” that seems, to me, to be the equivalent of saying that sports fans are “angry,” “aggressive,” “destructive,” or that watching sports “rots the mind.” After all, my parents watch sports, and they’re perfectly decent people. In fact, most people I know are sports fans, many of my closest friends watch sports, and I certainly wouldn’t associate with them if they were near as bad as some people seem to think they are.

Certainly some sports fans fit the stereotypes, but to hold all sports fans accountable for a select few is profoundly unfair. Likewise, to paint all Muslims as terrorists, or all Christians as dominionists, strikes me as not only inaccurate, but also a stellar example of lazy, simplistic thinking. Religious beliefs are as diverse as the people who hold them, and to pretend otherwise is (dare I say it?) a delusion.

And then, abandoning the metaphor (finally), there’s this idea that religious people cannot be good or moral, because the religious framework for morality is flawed. This idea is expressed by many people, including myself from almost two months ago (I’ve been doing a lot of thinking), and I find this extremely misguided. There are so many religious people who do good things, and who do them precisely because of their religious beliefs, that I find it impossible to make the blanket claim that “religion can never do good things,” or variations thereof.

Furthermore, it’s clear that atheism, or more accurately, secular humanism, is also far from perfect in its ability to inspire its adherents to do good. A quick jaunt around the atheosphere will turn up dozens, if not hundreds, of examples of atheists, secularists, and humanists behaving like complete assholes. This assholery is becoming so frequent that I’m starting to find I have more in common with liberal religious believers than with other atheists (except for, you know, the whole believing-in-God thing). The way I see it, claiming that humanism has a monopoly on good moral frameworks runs directly counter to the facts.

All of this has managed to convince me that religion really isn’t as bad as many atheists would have me believe. Nearly all examples of the evil of religion are depictions of extremists, cementing the belief that extremism, rather than religion, is the true evil. To wring one last bit out of the sports metaphor, that some sports fans riot after winning or losing a game isn’t a condemnation of the idea of sports, but rather a testament to the dangers of becoming too invested in it. In both cases, the danger is in having too much of your identity wrapped up in a single idea.

So where do I stand now? Currently, I see very little usefulness in trying to persuade religious believers that they’re wrong. Instead, I’m going to focus on growing my humanism to be more inclusive and accepting, trying to reform the atheist movement so it isn’t full of a bunch of entitled douchebags, and generally making the world a slightly better place. I like to think that’s a worthy goal.