This past weekend I did a photo shoot for Chris Johnson, author and photographer of the upcoming book A Better Life: 100 Atheists Speak Out on Joy & Meaning in a World Without God. Although I certainly make no secret of the fact that I am without religious convictions of any kind, I prefer to avoid the word “atheist” like the plague. It means too many things to too many different people, most of them negative; and I’ve always hoped to have as little negativity as possible in the work that I do. So why appear in an atheist book, if I don’t want to make a negative statement? Here’s a clip from the companion video that Chris shoots with each interview:
You won’t catch me writing books with incendiary titles such as The God Delusion, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, or The End of Faith. That’s simply not a message I’m interested in communicating. Rather, if you listen to Skeptoid, you probably know that I prefer to communicate the excitement of discovery and learning (setting aside some of the earliest episodes, from before I had a firm handle on the show), whatever the subject matter: history, urban legends, popular mysteries, ghost stories. There is so much to learn in these subject areas, all of it marvelous. One of the challenges I face is that it’s hard to get someone to consider a neat optical effect (for example) if they’re unwilling to look beyond their insistence that what they’re seeing is a literal ghost or spirit.
Helping someone to strip away a set of beliefs that wrongly characterizes their own world can be a good thing, as long as you follow it up with the wonder of what’s really going on. Don’t just pull the curtain aside unless you’re also going to show them what’s behind it. I find it useless to simply say “Your curtain is wrong.” That, in a nutshell, is why I loathe the term atheist — too many people see it merely as a negative, thuggish belief system.
I’m always pleased that I so frequently receive emails from Chistians, Jews, Muslims, and others who tell me how much they enjoy my show, and how much they appreciate that I don’t make fun of them or insult them the way some other science and skeptical resources tend to. To me, that’s a sign that I’m doing something right. And I don’t, for a second, consider what I’m doing to be “accommodationist”, which implies that I’m tolerating a lack of skepticism and shaping my message to conform to others’ beliefs. Not at all. With every project I produce, I try to nudge everyone in the right direction, toward an appreciation of how awesome it is to learn what’s really happening. I’m nudging them with a hand on the back, not with a kick in the nuts. If their experience is good, they may just come back for more.
I also believe that all of these styles of outreach are useful. Everyone’s different, and everyone responds differently to various messaging styles. Therefore I think it’s important that a book such as Chris’ include as many different styles as possible. Therefore I’m grateful to have the opportunity to be in it, and to make my resources available to a group who might not otherwise know about them.
Am I worried about any fallout from being in a book about atheists? Nope. Anyone who actually reads my comments in the book will get just the message I want them to get, not someone else’s; and will not be able to argue that I fit whatever brutish definition of “atheist” pleases them.
A Better Life was the result of a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund its production. Do check it out.