I'm surrounded by religious people, which is very odd for an atheist. On the plus side, it makes you more tolerant of other people's beliefs and better able to understand them. Keep in mind this is coming from a former antitheist - someone who hates religion.

I first converted to antitheism when I read The God Delusion. Rereading it now, I see that Dawkins is basically an intelligent, subtle, moderate antitheist - but when I was ten, I happily skipped past all that and only caught up on the "religion is evil" bit. Thus began three or four years of me being a douchebag to anyone religious, convinced that I was in the right and they were in the wrong.

Quite a lot of that changed due to the efforts of my school chaplain, a Christian liberal in the best mould with real passion for his religion. He was unfortunate enough to take me for Year 9 RS and respect for religion was pretty much the only thing I learnt in that class (hey, it's RS, what did you expect?). I came to the realisation that since there are good religious people out there - quite a lot of them - and since it doesn't make sense to hate the sin but love the sinner, to borrow a religious phrase, I would have to discard my antitheism.

I don't pretend to have gotten over it entirely, and I hope I'm not being too smug here. I still feel my hackles rising when a conservative preacher comes along or when anyone suggests that we should dump secularity. I still don't make any excuses for the more questionable passages in the Bible. I still think that God doesn't exist and isn't likely to - but I'm not as intolerant about it as I once was.

Now what I don't understand is how other people, both my peers and my elders, managed to miss out on all this and still insist on bashing religion. It doesn't help - if anything, it fans the flames - and it makes both sides look like idiots. Say it with me now: Even if your opponent is an idiot, you do not win the argument by acting like them. Being a bigoted antitheist is just like being a bigoted theist - in both cases, you're narrow-minded, bring out the worst in your (non)religion, and you ignore the facts as you please.

Extreme antitheists are a little bit like Sarah Palin or the Tea Party. They send the people who agree with them absolutely wild, but everyone else is at best unaffected and at worst ready to declare holy war on them. (The same is true for extreme theists, in case anyone wants to accuse me of bashing one side unfairly.) If you want to persuade people, you generally don't start from the most extreme and alienating position: you start out by being a populist, or by being in the centre, and then wend your way towards your actual position. Alternatively, you could use logic, but that rarely persuades people - especially die-hard believers - and it doesn't seem to be the strong suit of the extremists.

Another tactic is to be a good person - both by actually doing good deeds and by not going out of one's way to offend the other side. I've not really checked out the fundamentalist literature, but from what I've seen the antitheists enjoy pointing out how eeeeeevil religion can be and how all bad things stem from religion - conveniently making excuses for their own side and ignoring any religious people who did something good for the world, like William Wilberforce - who wasn't perfect by any means, but abolishing slavery has to count in one's favour. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, Christians cited Bible passages (and yes, there is mention of slavery in the Old Testament) as proof that slavery was part of God's plan, thus showing that it depends on how you interpret the text and therefore on your own prejudices.

Right. Before I started talking about Christianity and slavery, I was going to say that antitheists point to evidence of Christian evils as an example of how good they are, because they don't do these things - or at least, they never mention them. Nuh-uh. The intellectually honest thing to do would be to give examples of Christians doing evil things, atheists doing evil things, Christians doing good things and atheists doing good things, analysing the lot and letting us make our own minds up. Obviously, not only is this more work than simply throwing out a load of examples of Christians acting like dickheads, but it also raises the possibility of a frightening conclusion (well, frightening to extreme antitheists anyhow): both Christians and atheists are capable of doing good and bad things, and it depends more on whether they're good people than on their religion or lack of it. I've reiterated this point many times and people never seem to get it...still, one more time around can't hurt.

I got sidetracked again. What I really wanted to say is that rather than giving examples of how Christians are evil, atheists should give examples of how they (the atheists) are good. It would be more effective and would probably do more to sort out the world than scrapping over the internet. It probably wouldn't hurt either if both atheists and theists stopped trying to antagonise each other with bumper stickers, T-shirts, mugs and other such merchandise, since righteous people generally don't act like jackasses. Even better, why not focus on a common enemy? Moderation doesn't breed extremism - conversion and the zeal of the newly-converted do. Best to get the moderates to tackle the extremists, who are the ones really hurting science, progress, morality and most good things in this world, rather than have everyone fighting while those extremists, feeding on the controversy, quietly rise up.