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January 04 , 2009

The Friendly Atheist: Thoughts on the Role of Religion in Politics and Media: Atheists Are People Too!


Every semester, in the weeks leading up to final exams, I hand out a study guide to all of my high school math students and have them complete it so that they have a sense of what to expect on the big test. Inevitably, students ask: "If I just study this packet, will I be prepared for the exam?" I sigh. I stare at them. I give them the response every teacher knows by heart: No, of course the packet isn't enough. You should go through your notes, your homework, and the textbook. You should redo the examples we did in class and try more practice problems from the book. The study guide is only a summary of the big ideas from the semester. If you really want to understand the subject, you have to go much more in depth.

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<div>February 1912: Harry Pennell and his Terra Nova shipmates land on Antarctica hoping to celebrate Scott's conquest of the Pole. Forced by ice to leave before Scott returns, they arrive in New Zealand to find that Amundsen reached the Pole in December 1911. Back in Antarctica in January 1913, they learn Scott and his party died on the…

In a sense, this book is a study guide for the things I've written about over the past several years. My name is Hemant Mehta, and I began in 2006 (before I began teaching high school) in order to talk about a topic I was incredibly passionate about—religion.

Not necessarily to convince people that God didn't exist, but to talk about the issues that mattered now that we were Godless. What you see in this book is a compilation of posts discussing the subjects I have written the most about. They are reprinted here, with minimal editing, to offer a glimpse into my world and to show you the concerns I've had as an American atheist.

That means talking about atheists who fight for their (and, in many respects, our) rights, responding to people who smear us just because we're not religious, and making people aware of the way atheists are viewed by the majority of Americans (hint: we're not very popular).

That means talking about politics and social issues (in particular: the fight for equal rights for the LGBT community), since those are the major issues in our country where rational thinking, free from religious tradition, is needed but seldom found.

That means talking about the obstacles that young atheists have to deal with on a regular basis. Their challenges are so different than the ones we face in the "real world," yet their courage inspires all of us. To be a vocal atheist is never easy, and there are students promoting rational thinking on campus while keeping their administrators in check. They do this despite risking their social capital. At the same time, when those students are not around to act as watchdogs, we must do it for them and shine a spotlight on illegal intrusions of religion into our public schools.

Are these the only issues that matter to atheists? No, but they are the issues that have taken up the bulk of my writing in the years since I began covering atheism-related news. If you want to get a fuller picture of what atheists are talking about, what our activism involves, and what our future looks like, no single writer can do that for you, just as no single study guide will prepare you for a final exam.

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