I’ve been thinking about mainstream religious believers.

My scorn is generally reserved for the extremist right-wing, which includes fundamentalist Christians. I could easily expand that to include extremists around the world, most especially those found in Muslim-dominated nations; however, fundamentalist Christians pose a far greater threat to the future of America, and thus attract more attention.

What about mainstream believers, though? How should I approach that belief system?

Mainstream religions are as false in their beliefs as fundamentalist variants. However, that could be said for many other beliefs, so it is not the “truth” of the belief system on which I must base my analysis. Rather, I am most concerned about the effect of these belief systems on the world, including other people, and, for the most part, mainstream religionists are of little concern to me.

In fact, as a recent study has shown, mainstream Christians at least are for the most part a very intelligent and open-minded group. These Christians belief that it is a person’s behavior that determines their moral quality, and not their professed allegiance to a particular god. Good people will get into Heaven when they die regardless of the particulars of their faith; to use an overused metaphor, but one which contrasts nicely with the fundamentalist viewpoint, they believe that many roads lead to god. Surprisingly, even atheists like me can get into Heaven if we are good people; again, it is not a loyalty oath that determines salvation, but how one behaves, particularly toward other people, as well as the sincerity of their beliefs.

For the record, I find a number of interesting ideas in Christianity. However, overall I find the religion a muddled mess. The same goes for other religions as well: the Quran reads like it was written by William S. Burroughs (only without as much anal sex). The Old Testament in particular is a hideously immoral book, filled with violence and intolerance that is not just condoned by Yahweh, but required by him. The New Testament is better, but only just: for all the faults of the Old Testament, it at least did not promise to condemn the unsaved to eternal torture in Hell; the kind and benevolent Jesus was the first to voice that idea. Thus, it is not just contradictory; its nature is schizophrenic, and its eventual fixation on apocalypse is unsettling and has done much damage to the world.

Mainstream Christians have largely abandoned those ideas; if they believe in Hell, then it is reserved for the true monsters of history like Adolf Hitler or Torquemada. They do not reject the real world in favor of fantasy; they accept the findings of science, and interpret their religious beliefs in the light of reality. That, by the way, was the historical approach taken by Christian theologians, with obvious and notable exceptions, until the development of fundamentalism in the late 19th century.

So long as religion remains a private matter, it seems to have a relatively benign effect on society. In those areas of the world, however, where religion plays an important role, it brings with a host of social ills. Murder rates are positively correlated with religious faith. Divorce rates, teen pregnancy rates, and school drop-out rates are higher in those parts of America which are more religious. So are poverty and infant mortality; so long as they survive to be born, the religious right doesn’t much care for children. Religion interferes with education and social programs; it even appears to have a negative effect on the economy.

In the end, a world without religion would be a boon for humankind. Those nations which have a reduced level of religiosity also have higher standards of living. However, atheism cannot be forced; any forced belief system leads to individuals seeking out the most absurd and damaging alternatives imaginable. The preferable goal must be freethinking. A secular America must be one in which individuals are attracted to the benefits of freethinking on its merits alone. They must see the value in education and knowing how the world really works. They must understand that others do not believe the same things or the same way that they do, and they must respect their right to do so.

That is why a confrontational approach toward the mainstream believer is the wrong approach. That risks pushing such individuals into the waiting arms of the right-wing, always ready to swell the ranks of its populist army. Confrontation must be reserved for the fundamentalists, the Christian fascists in our midst who would institute an oligarchic theocracy. The God Delusion and God Is Not Great are great tools to challenge them, to refute the absurdity and horror of their ideas, and, every so often, to attract the mainstream religionist who has begun to doubt, but they must not be used on the mainstream believer; that will ultimately do more harm than good.

Moreover, the very controversy that surrounded these books is a service to our cause, as are the atheist billboards that have caused such fury among the gentle and kind-hearted fundamentalists who cannot bear to have their beliefs questioned even a bit. They get people talking, and get the word out that there are alternatives to religious belief; that the blinders can come off; that there are people out there who think the way you do, and you are not alone. Moreover, they make the fundamentalists look like the intolerant, hateful, and closed-minded fantasists that they are.

Mainstream religion does not breed extremism; that finds its origin elsewhere. Nevertheless, the mainstream can feed the extremist ranks if better alternatives are not available. In a couple of decades, as the heirs to the Southern Strategy which created the Christian Right die off, the United States may recover from the dark night that has engulfed it lately; otherwise, this will become a third-world, fundamentalist memory of a once-great nation.