In the contemporary "battle" that seems to be going on between traditional religions and what seems to be a popularizing of atheism, one of the more common sticking points is the argument about pushing your beliefs on other people and into society. As an atheist, I hold the position that personal freedom when it comes to religion is an important thing to protect in society. I believe that everyone in society should be able to believe whatever religion they wish, so long as their beliefs and practice of those beliefs doesn't infringe on other people's rights to be free from them. To me, this is the only reasonable approach to a society in which everyone has religious freedom as well as freedom from religion if they so wish. However, this is a very difficult concept to put into practice.
The difficult part seems to be helping the religious understand how to avoid having their beliefs infringing on others' rights to be free from them if they so wish. As an atheist, I believe I have the right to live in society without being subjected to any law that stems from religion. I believe this just as strongly as I believe that a religious person has the right to live in society without being subjected to any law that stems from someone else's different religion. This sounds like a logical and respectful position that most people would agree with, but it is amazing how difficult it seems to be to put it into practice. Most religious people, on the face of it, would initially agree with my position. After all, how many Christians really want some of society's laws to be based on Muslim Sharia law? Most open-minded religious people can understand the mutually respectful position of this position, and that it benefits everyone to not be subjected forcefully to someone else's religion.
I would be quite happy to leave it at that, but the catch seems to come when you introduce atheism into the equation. And, let me be clear, it is the religious who do so. I have no need to force atheism into society in any manner. What I do feel the need for is to protect the above position that religion should not be forced into society. There is a very significant difference. The religious will tend to get defensive, when asked to keep their religion out of the courts, the schools, and other public institutions, and almost universally insist that atheists do the same and keep their atheism out of public institutions as well. On the face of it, some people would think this sounds like a fair arrangement, but it actually represents a gross misunderstanding of what atheism is. Atheism is not a religion.
I find that I often think in analogies and I think one here might be helpful. Imagine that each religion is represented by a different coloured light. Imagine that, instead of religions we are talking about various groups of people who like to decorate society with lights of their favourite colour. And imagine that you find offensive lights of differnt colours. Imagine a large group of people who love shining red lights around, another group who loves to shine green lights around, and another who likes blue. Also imagine that the group who likes red lights finds it offensive when they see blue lights or green lights shining in public. Wouldn't the solution appear obvious? Shine your coloured light as much as you want in your own home or even in your own private club of same-minded people, but don't shine it around society and everyone else will agree to do the same. That should take care of any offensive lights being shone in public, but equally protect your individual rights to enjoy your own coloured light whenever you want. You can even walk around in public thinking about your red or green or blue lights as much as you like. Just don't ask to hang one up in the courthouse, the school, or the legislature.
Now, in my analogy, the atheist is represented by someone who doesn't feel the need to enjoy lights of a particular colour. We don't mind you shining your red or green or blue lights in your own home or in your private club as much as you want. But we don't like coloured lights hanging all over town. So, we ask that you don't do so. In my analogy, the religous attitude towards atheis is represented by someone responding by saying: "Yeah, but you're asking us not to shine our red lights around town while at the same time you are trying to shine your dark lights around town." Doesn't make any sense, does it? How can you shine a light that makes things dark? You can't. If you don't like coloured lights then all you can do is request that others don't shine their coloured lights. There is no dark light you can shine that overpowers the coloured lights.
This is all we as atheists are asking for. Don't shine your coloured lights in our faces. Don't bring them into public institutions. We have no intention or need to "bring" atheism into the public institutions either. It only appears to the religious that we do when we ask them to put out their coloured lights.
Of course, the problem with this analogy, and with the reality of religion in society is that everyone thinks that their particular colour is right and everyone else's colour is wrong.