Last week I was having dinner with a fellow atheist and he was talking about a mutual acquaintance who was preaching to him about creationism. I expressed my views on the subject, being a former creationist, but he said that he wasn't in a hurry to respond because as far as he was concerned, this person was his enemy.
This, I am afraid, is an all too common response among atheists. Our behavior towards the religious is in need of a makeover. Yes, we are the targets of bigotry and hatred, but if this is our attitude towards people who don't think like us, why shouldn't they be scared of us?
Usually we will begrudgingly say that "people have the right to believe whatever they want," but in exactly the same tone that the religious will say about us. We have little or no compassion for our fellow human beings, which are locked in belief systems that play every emotional trick in the book to keep them enslaved. We expect them to be rational, when they have been brainwashed from a very early age. We haven't even gotten to the point where we can use that hypocritical adage religious people use, that you should "love the sinner and hate the sin."
Science has shown us time and again that we are not as rational as we think we are. Yet constantly I see atheists expressing total faith in their own rationality, instead of viewing it as merely the least bad tool for understanding the world. The flaws of religion are easy for us to see, but doesn't the fact that so many people still believe them say something about human beings in general, non-religious as well as religious? Are we so arrogant as to think that making reason the center of our lives can only produce at best a marginal improvement in true clarity of thought, and might make things worse if it gives us a false sense of clarity?
Irreligious people predominate in much of Europe, but did this happen because a bunch of atheists jumped down people's throats? I doubt it. It is much more likely that people quietly dropped their religion and became more humble about their views, rather than firmly reacting negatively to it. This offers us a way forward in our struggle for greater acceptance. Everyone has asked themselves at some point in their lives about the question of evil, and a gentle prompting of this question will go much farther than drawing lines in the sand. Negative reactions to the religious are counter-productive.