I have come to realize that I am annoying people. That in itself does not bother me. I have always been an odd duck, and not someone that many people found appealing. My best friends are similarly unique individuals who are also considered difficult to get along with by their contemporaries. But what I have recently realized is that my enthusiasm for challenging belief and promoting atheism has a very negative effect. It perpetuates a perception of atheists as angry, confrontational, literal-minded emotionless asses.
This is a serious problem for atheism as a movement. The most vocal of the minority are the recent deconverts, those who only recently abandoned faith in superstitions and gods for a rational perspective. And recent deconverts are actually very much overjoyed to be free of celestial dictatorships and guilt-driven mind games. It is this joy, this sense of freedom, that motivates atheists to tell others, so they too can share this experience. It does not typically come from a selfish narcissistic place in the atheist's mind, but rather a real concern for society and a desire to lead others to freedom.
But it is indeed the very nature of irrational belief, that is, religion, that makes confrontation and debate so inherently tricky. You can be good friends with someone and often hold conversations covering a wide range of unimportant subjects. You can even challenge their political views without damaging the relationship. But the moment you challenge their religious beliefs, you have crossed a line as you are challenging something they perceive is the core of their being. To a believer, having their religion challenged is offensive. It calls into question their sanity, their ability to use logic, and the meaning they have given themselves (thinking religion has provided this meaning) for their existence.
I think it comes down to a choice to not be an aggressor. Answer questions when asked. Debate someone that asks to be debated. But don't be the aggressor. It might seem that taking a passive road to changing society will slow progress. But I posit that this aggressive method of attacking and challenging people without their consent is by no means improving the situation and may actually be slowing progress.
People are waking up. Society is changing. Atheism is on the rise as rational critical thinking is becoming popular. So atheists need not be so concerned to challenge every religious statement other people make. Focus on the big fights. Church and State separation is the most important battle for atheism. Individual people's beliefs play into this fight, but it is more logical to attack the threat than the passive people that happen to be religious.
We should challenge people that are crazy enough to believe in young Earth Creationism or Intelligent Design. But it is more productive to challenge legislators and school boards that mean to introduce this crap in our schools than it is to challenge passive individuals who just happen to be ignorant of science.
It is indeed hard to not speak up when one of our friends says something remarkably ridiculous. But the conversation needs to be mutually agreeable. That is, it is impolite to just attack a belief without first asking the individual for clarification and getting their permission to discuss the matter. One should explain why the desire exists to discuss the subject of religion. If it is a genuine concern for the person's mental health and happiness, tell them. Assuming that they will perceive your advice as a benefit to them is a dire mistake. They must be willing to take advice, and challenge their own beliefs for any conversation on religion to be productive.
Many atheists were indoctrinated into Christianity. They were taught at a young age to spread the religion by challenging people and talking about it ad nauseam. Once they became atheists, this need to preach has not been totally eliminated. It is programming left over from the god virus that motivates many atheists to preach atheism. I now realize how much I hate hearing Christians preach their nonsense. But only recently did I realize that I am doing the same thing - preaching - and it annoys people to a high degree. I wish to eliminate the god virus from all aspects of my personality. Abandoning this need to preach is an essential endeavor, and marks a completion of my deconversion.
Narcissism is a tricky state to avoid as an atheist. We are indeed the more rational and healthier position. We are right. And it certainly feels great to be right. And unlike religion, we do not just believe we are right, but can logically show how our disbelief is justified. That is, we have a justified true belief that we are right. This, by definition, means we know we are right. So the real trick is not letting this knowledge go to your head. Atheists are right, but bothering everybody with our disbelief by challenging their core beliefs without warning does not help the movement at all, and only serves to perpetuate a perception that atheists are full of themselves.
So for these reasons, and because I value friendship more than I like hearing myself talk, I am henceforth refraining from interjecting my view in every conversation where religion pops up. I will cease to discuss my atheism with anyone that does not first ask me about my beliefs. And I intend to apologize to anyone I have offended by attacking their beliefs. I will be an activist where it matters, on school boards and in my voting. And I will gladly debate anyone who wants to debate the subject. I will ask permission and make clear my intention and position if I feel I must challenge another individual's beliefs. But I will ease myself into the conversation rather than ramming my atheism into them like a freight train.
Atheism leads to a fulfilling and peaceful outlook through humanism. If the perception of atheism was some form of humanism, or at a minimum non-threatening, the movement would persist at a quickened pace, and the minority would become the majority much sooner. Most people desire a fulfilling and peaceful existence and religious people are starting to realize that their religion might promise such things, but never quite delivers. If this aspect of atheist humanism shines through, it will attract far more people as the populous realizes you don't have to be a confrontational prick to be an atheist.