Ok, so technically I'm not an atheist really. Our universe is weird enough that I can imagine it having fallen off some assembly line of a "prior" megaverse, rolling off to the discard heap on the side. I guess that would make me agnostic.
But I'm close enough to atheist for most purposes. So it might seem odd to my three regular readers that I should now be standing in defence of religion, particularly when I so enjoy reading the work of assertive atheists like Dennet (Dissecting God), Pharyngula, and Dawkins. I even have a few rationalist credentials of my own, and no-one would think me a friend of 'ID' or its ilk.
Defend religion, however, I do. As I wrote in a rather unpopular comment on a Pharyngula blog (hey, it's not my fault the universe is fundamentally nihilistic!), reality is overrated. I mean, really -- these proselytizing atheists need to get out more. Everyone dies, humanity's prospects are poor, pain and suffering are almost universal, grief is always an eyeblink away, and even our local universe appears to be destined for a long dismal demise without hope of any sort. The Fermi Paradox is not encouraging.
Oddly enough, despite believing all this, I'm actually a reasonably happy person. My life is sure challenging (though others face far greater challenges), but I like it. Mostly I just deny reality; I think humans are hardwired to do that. So the roller coaster is running for a brick wall -- all the more reason to savor the ride. I suspect Dawkins and Dennet are rather similar.
Where I part company with the proselytizing atheists is I don't think everyone's made the way I am. ("Thank God" my friends would say.) If it takes religion to be happy, purposeful, and to keep despair at bay, then I say go for it. I'd prefer religionists chose Buddhism or Christianity over modern American Yahwism (the religion of the American right), but I admit I don't have a lot of influence there.
Now Dawkins would claim religion is the root of much evil. Maybe. But really, we'd have to study a control group without religion. I suspect our chimpanzee nature is really the greater root of evil.
Some of the most compassionate and kind people I know are quite religious, or very spiritual. I like those people and I'm not about to attack something very important to them. In any case, I greatly enjoy most religious writing, art and architecture -- any relationship to "reality" is irrelevant. The works are real, their authors were real.
But, some atheists might say, don't we have the "right" to reciprocate when Bush et al imply atheists can't be true Americans? Ok, I make an exception for Bush. He's immune to our criticisms anyway. Otherwise, however, the answer is "no". Just lie low, take the scorn, and look for allies among the non-dominant religious groups and among agnostic humanists like me. Atheism is a fundamental threat to the religious person because it attacks a central defence against despair, the converse is not true. Religious ideas and work can be very attractive to the atheist, they are not threatening in and of themselves. I sometimes even enjoy listening to radio evangelists, if only because some of them really do address the concerns and issues of 'the Weak'.
It's a harsh and nasty universe. Be gentle. As far as I know, we are all we've got.