One of the points that seems to come up a lot in atheist commentaries is the fact that religion holds some special place in our society that protects it from criticism. As Sam Harris wrote in Letter to a Christian Nation:
While believing strongly, without evidence, is considered a mark of madness or stupidity in any other area of our lives, faith in God still holds immense prestige in our society. Religion is the one area of our discourse where it is considered noble to pretend to be certain about things no human being could possibly be certain about.
It's true that discussing religion has long been considered impolite, and criticizing another person's religious beliefs is sometimes seen as cause for confrontation. The leap from religious criticism to religious intolerance isn't necessarily a difficault one to make.
It's for that reason that I've always felt a little put off by Harris' writing. I enjoyed Letter to a Christian Nation when I read it a few months ago. Right now, my copy is probably sitting on my dad's pile of crap at home; when I was home for Christmas, I left it for him to read so he could get a sense of my stance on things (I included the disclaimer that Harris makes a much more aggressive argument than I do). It's true that I think belief in some higher deity, with absolutely no evidence, is a little ridiculous, but that's not really the way to make the argument. "I think you're core beliefs are ludicrous and you're just too ignorant to see it." You're not going to win any converts that way, for damn sure.
However, this is pretty much the way Harris operates. Edge.org posted an article from him on Christmas: 10 Myths - and 10 Truths - About Atheism. Just before number 1, he offers this level-headed view of the situation:
Given that we know that atheists are often among the most intelligent and scientifically literate people in any society, it seems important to deflate the myths that prevent them from playing a larger role in our national discourse.
It's worth noting at this point that Myth #6 is "Atheists are arrogant."
About a month before this article was published, Richard Dawkins addressed the issue on his website in I'm An Atheist, BUT...
5. I'm an atheist, but I wish to dissociate myself from your intemperately strong language.
Sam Harris and I have both received criticism of this kind... Yet if you look at the language we employ, it is no more strong or intemperate than anybody would use if criticizing a political or economic point of view: no stronger or more intemperate than any theatre critic, art critic or book critic when writing a negative review. Our language sounds strong and intemperate only because of the same weird convention I have already mentioned, that religious faith is uniquely privileged: above and beyond criticism.
...Book critics or theatre critics can be derisively negative and earn delighted praise for the trenchant wit of their review. A politician may attack an opponent scathingly across the floor of the House and earn plaudits for his robust pugnacity. But let a critic of religion employ a fraction of the same direct forthrightness, and polite society will purse its lips and shake its head...
I think Dawkins is calling people like me the atheist equivalent of twice-a-year Catholics - the semi-devout who swell churches on Christmas and Easter, but don't feel guilty enough to attend mass every week.
Expressing a negative opinion of a film maker's movie or an author's book is hardly on par with attacking someone's religious convictions. Dawkin's The God Delusion has been on the New York Time's Best Seller list for 14 weeks now, so I'm hardly in a position to question his methods, but I can question the sustainability of them. Ideally, we will someday find ourselves in a society that values science over superstition and looks back fondly on the days of religious zealotry the same way we look back on the imaginary friends of our childhoods - how silly we were! - but this is not the way to get there.
Maybe Harris and Dawkins are just interested in stirring up controversy so they can sell books. I don't care either way: at least they're bringing attention to the issue. However, I don't think that you can try to change someone's deeply-held beliefs about the world around them the same way you try to change their opinion about a movie or politics. It's true that religion holds a privileged, untouchable status in our society, but those are the rules one has to play by if one wants to do anything about it. Listing ten myths about atheism isn't going to change this country's perception of atheists if we just keep producing this self-righteous horseshit.