To learn from their example, though, we need to do a bit of analysis of the differences between the atheist community and the gay community. I think the real biggie (in strategic terms) is that homosexuality is not contagious. In fact, that's one of the messages the newly-more-visible gay community has stressed: meeting gay people, befriending them, hanging out with them, touching them, etc., will not make you gay. It won't make your kids gay either. Not that there's anything wrong with being gay, but if for some reason you've decided that you don't want to be gay, inviting your gay neighbor to your backyard barbecue is not going to have any effect on your orientation either way.
Not so with atheism: indeed, quite the opposite. It's very common for someone to spend half a lifetime as a sincere and devout believer, then one day become an atheist and stay that way. And preliminary evidence seems to indicate that this is strongly linked with talking to pre-existing atheists.
And so we atheists are faced with a strategic dilemma: Should our "out and proud" campaign focus on demonstrating that we're ordinary, nice people, and (like gay people) we're your friends, neighbors, and family members? Or should we go straight for conversions, and skip this half-assed "we're here!" step? After all, they'll figure out that we're here and we're cool once they've become atheists themselves...
If you've been following this blog, you probably know that I favor the "friendly visibility" model for myself. I've talked about it a little here. In a nutshell, my reasons are the following:
1. It's easier to form alliances on critical political issues if we're willing to work with people who believe differently. Sure it's nice to agree on the ground rules of reasoning and what constitutes evidence, but I don't favor a strategy of saying "We can't discuss politics until after I've talked you out of your irrational faith." Some issues just can't wait that long.
2. As long as people agree on the importance of separation of church and state, it ultimately doesn't matter much what their beliefs are. Many believers are as passionate as we are about the separation of church and state because it protects their own freedom from having other beliefs imposed on them as well as preserving their church hierarchy from the corrupting influence of (secular) power. And it's that much easier to get believers on board with us if we make it clear that having a shared, secular public sphere is not a stealth tactic to destroy religion. (Many atheists disagree with this position -- see the Exterminator's recent article -- so there's definitely room for further discussion and analysis.)
3. A big problem with having a "zero tolerance" policy for taking religious belief seriously is the following: When you only discuss ideas with people who agree with you, there's a danger of starting with a good argument and then sending it through a group-think feedback loop until it turns into "I can't understand how anyone would be so stupid as to disagree with me on this point!!!" Really you're not doing yourself a favor when you work yourself into a state where you have no comprehension of another's viewpoint.
On the other hand, it appears that it's possible to go too far in the other direction. Via Friendly Atheist I saw the following quote by/about Harvard's Humanist chaplain:
"I have a religious personality, without a scintilla of religious belief," he says. "If it's an oxymoron to believe that people who have ceased to believe in God still need caring and community, then I'm proud to be a walking oxymoron."
Friendly Atheist (Hemant Mehta) indicates that the author of the article deliberately plays up the conflict in the atheist community, so I'll give Humanist Chaplain Greg Epstein the benefit of the doubt here. But for his sake, I hope his quote was taken out of context and his very next line was: "But of course it's not an oxymoron, because -- as everyone knows -- atheists are just ordinary people who believe in a few fewer supernatural beings than average..." Otherwise his statement looks dangerously like he's granting the horrible stereotype that atheists are some sort of heartless monsters, and he's claiming to be some sort of exception because of his "religious personality." Holy expletive, talk about counterproductive!!! Just because you want a seat at the table, do you have to buy it for yourself by throwing your fellow atheists to the wolves??? Hopefully, though, the quote is not quite so bad in context, and I won't have to turn in my Humanist badge. ;^)
So while I would like to see atheists and believers getting along, you can see that it would be wrong to imagine that I'm the arch enemy of the "new atheists." In reality I'm thrilled about the new visibility of atheists. I'm thrilled to see atheism finally hitting the mainstream of American public discourse and recognized as a serious, legitimate viewpoint, as I discussed in the comments of my infamous nice vs. mean atheist joke post.
What I don't like is when atheists on either side make it look like the only two possibilities are that either you despise religious people and can't talk to them without trying to deconvert them or you're practically a church-goer yourself, and you're telling unapologetic atheists to shut up.
There's a third possibility, which is the following: to be out-and-proud with your atheism -- and be willing and happy to explain the reasons for your unbelief to anyone who asks -- yet also be willing to befriend believers and deal with them as reasonable people on a "let's agree to disagree" basis. In practical terms, I think that most atheists I know fall into this third category.
So, no, I don't think Dawkins and Harris and Hitchens should shut up. I certainly don't think PZ should shut up -- his blog is one of my favorite daily reads. Religion should absolutely be fair game for criticism. (Hey, if we respect our religious friends, we can't imagine they're too fragile to be challenged at all...) Naturally the critique of religion should itself be fair game to be criticized, as should be the critique of the critique of the critique... ;^)
And all of it in the spirit of productive discussion and friendly exchange of ideas.