Once it has been established that I am an atheist the inevitable question is volleyed: "why," asks my counterpart, "do you insist on pointing out the problems with religion when you don't believe in it? Why bother?" It's a good question. I neither believe in the infinity of life nor the various claims of salvation, reincarnation, or elevation that I consistently tear down. Because it is typically someone who holds sacred their belief in the implausible who voices this question, it carries with it an assumed follow up. I am not only being asked why I bother but, more importantly, why am I bothering them? Why do I insist on rocking the boat?
Belief has a way of defining us. What we believe about the world has a very real impact on how we behave in it. I do not believe in a god that requires certain actions of me and that belief in and of itself has a set of consequences. For instance, I am unlikely to go to church and give 10% of my income to a religious body. If enough people come to share my perspective, religious bodies will grow frail and crumble. Religious people, especially those who make a living from their faith, therefore, have a very tangible incentive to ensure people do not accept my worldview. The simple act of believing differently, that there is no god, has incredibly real consequences in the physical realm.
As does, obviously, the simple act of believing there is a god. Whether or not you believe the Pope is acting as the mouthpiece of Christ here on Earth has a profound impact on the Vatican coffers. Mecca would be a very different place if there were not millions of Muslims. Beliefs do not operate in vacuums; they operate within the confines of human brains, acting as the lens through which we observe and interpret our environment. It really matters, to use an extreme example, if someone believes the Jews were responsible for the economic collapse of Germany after the First World War. The various rotting shells of Nazi death camps serve as stark reminders of what happens when belief runs amok.
It is also belief that made possible the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. And belief that caused the United States to go to war with Iraq under false pretenses. Belief is responsible for everything from the excitement of a child on Christmas morning - the belief that Santa has delivered presents - to the 2012 resurgence of polio brought about by fears in the Muslim world that American agents are infiltrating vaccination centers so as to carry out an elaborate genocide. We are all, to a greater or lesser extent, believers.
Yet not all belief is created equally. There is a significant difference between those who believe, for instance, that the Holocaust never happened, and those who trust in our current, limited understanding of physics to guide our spaceships into orbit. There is unsubstantiated belief and there is belief originating from trustworthy sources - those which have been vetted thoroughly and have demonstrably established their merit. I am rarely given a second look while correcting the false beliefs of those convinced of the efficacy of negative ion silicone bracelets - only when I am casting doubt on the divinity of Christ or the sanity of Mohammad. Belief is, and always will be, a crucial part of our daily lives. But belief is pointless, wasteful, and dangerous unless it tracks with reality as a tool of prediction - and is open to correction.
So why bother? Because the personal beliefs of the religious are never, indeed can never, be merely personal. It's patently insane to expect any of our beliefs to have no impact on our actions. To imagine, for instance, that anyone enters a ballot booth free of the presumptions guiding them through life is nonsensical. Beliefs that are antithetical to civil society, in fact, are either rectified or contained – our various high security prisons and psych wards attribute to this. We collectively bother all the time to correct false believes for fear of the actions that may arise from them. Even while we, in the West, value the freedom of speech and expression, we go to great lengths to ensure these freedoms do not get out of hand. The Westboro Baptist Church can say “god hates fags” all they want so long as they do not start killing homosexuals themselves. Or, to put this in a more mainstream context, it's perfectly acceptable to believe you are eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Christ on Sunday when a priest gives it to you (my dear Catholics) but don't actually eat a person on the side of a highway (my dear Miami).
For evidence of the correlation between beliefs and actions, let me point to an incredibly telling Pew poll demonstrating the tie between religiosity and being a Republican.
While the divide is far from earth-shattering, the mere fact that religion is a fair predictor of political affiliation shows the impact belief – in this case religious belief – has on public life. On the question of homosexual marriage, religious affiliation – of any kind – make people on the whole incredibly hostile to the idea. It's not an exaggeration to state that, were we a less religious nation, homosexuals in America would already have equal rights.
Religious affiliation, or lack-thereof, can be used to predict, among other things, the likelihood of your believing in evolution, humanity's impact on global warming, that Israel was given to the Jews by god... the list goes on. It isn't that I single out religious belief, all irrational faith needs adjusting (whether it's in Messianic Marxism, the lunar landing hoax, or that black cats crossing your path are an ill omen). But religion is the single largest force of credulity in our world today and historically; any attempt to ignore religion while attacking other, lesser bastions of faulty belief would be a fruitless endeavor.
The belief or disbelief in god directly correlates to political and social behavior. In other words, merely confronting the politics of a religious person who is opposed to teaching evolution is to miss the point entirely; their politics are pinned to their beliefs about god. If religious faith was strictly a private matter, there would be no problem. But not only is it not private, it would be ridiculous and insulting for me to ask anyone to pretend it is. The best way to deal with religion is openly and honestly. So long as Christians, Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Muslims proselytize; so long as Zionist Jews assert their right to inherit the land bequeathed to them by an imaginary man in the clouds; so long as Hindus enforce the caste and Buddhists set themselves ablaze in protest to the Han influx; so long as believing in the implausible is considered praiseworthy, I will spread the Gospel of Doubt. I bother because I am bothered – religious people take their beliefs seriously and so must we. Atheists, to move beyond a fringe movement, must become evangelicals in their own right.
I acknowledge what I do not know, seek to understand what I do not understand, and patiently wait for good answers. Because there's no point in asking, “why am I here?” if all I get is bullshit.