This began as a comment on Hemant's blog in response to Why Aren't You More Outspoken that grew too large to post there. So I brought it here.
There are a unproven presuppositions treated as facts in the post and those can be the mark of zealots if pushed too hard.You've taken a series of beliefs and made them into a credo, like there's some sort of vetting process to be an atheist.
Of the points that stood out to me, the first one was "who nominated you to draw up the list of essential beliefs?"
Sarah Palin? bad
I'm sure the folks from PETA would love to explain the errors in your thought process in deciding to leave their cherished belief off the list of "essentials".
My time is dedicated to programs to help the underemployed get more skills and training so that they and their families don't have to live below the poverty line. I don't hear so much about that topic from atheist commentators, but instead of spending all my time arguing how "wrong" you are in not making it "essential", I keep working to change it and find common cause on other issues where possible. Many times what I read will cause me to devote more attention to issues that haven't been on my radar in the past or that haven't gotten as much attention. That's good, and it wouldn't have happened if I'd just been blasted for being "wrong".
The "I must always correct every error" mentality is the mentality of the fundamentalist. Google "separation from error" and baptist for an example of what I mean.
Your work has led to to invest significant amounts of time and caring into certain causes-you are passionate about them and respond that way because you've dealt with lots of opposition.
Your doctor friend OTOH likely isn't being picketed by anti-vaccination protesters and depending on her area of practice may come face to face with a self-selected group of vaccine supporters every day. So she isn't moved to respond in the same way-both are conditioned reflexes.
Likewise, my experiences have caused me to focus on other causes, not because some of the one's you've listed aren't important, but because these were the causes I invested in and they became my passion. That's why I don't think a canon of "essentials" is a good idea-it smacks too much of religion and "orthodoxy".
The next issue that caught my attention is that your approach doesn't jibe with the scientific method nontheists like to talk about. There appears to be no mechanism to consider that your belief may need some tweaking even if it is substantially correct.
There have been problems with vaccines, people did complain and improvements were made. Had some of today's vaccine supporters been around at that point, we'd still be using the unsafe practices because they'd view any questioning of results as a call to go into "defender" mode.
Same with the current atheist line on global warming-instead of acknowledging that some of the recent antics in the UK and the UN could raise legitimate doubts in people trying to make up their minds on the issue, there has been no attempt to engage these people and address their concerns just a louder repetition of the party line. These people, not having their concerns addressed remain on the fence. The scientific community disappointed me on this issue just as the moderate muslims disappointed you regarding "Draw Mo".
Lastly, gay marriage. I believe in the rights of gays to get married, but not in gay marriage. Just as the Prop 8 decision showed that the idea of marriage=children is no longer valid, I don't believe that the idea marriage=sex is appropriate either. We should be past the point where we are holding up sheets stained with blood (or other fluids) to show we really care abut someone. So for me heterosexual marriage's time is done-and by definition so would gay marriage.
Anyone who wants to demonstrate their love and commitment through a legal marriage should be able to do so, even if there is no sex involved or implied between them.
It's a position that takes fire from all sides, and again it's a choice to support improvements (such as the Prop 8 decision) rather than denouncing everything that isn't exactly the way I think it should be. It means things move closer to the ideal I hold out even if there is still a ways to go.
Finally we need to cut people some slack because-our brains have lots of built in irrationality that helped us survive in the past, so it's not be surprised that we still cling to lots of it, and don't always use reason.Not everything in your OP was pure reason and certainly my response isn't either.
We need to recognize that some people are opposed and won't listen to anything else while others are opposed because they haven't heard another view or are still undecided on issues. Ted Olson was a huge inspiration to me in this area with his explanation of the Prop 8 decision. He could have gone into "defender" mode, but instead he calmly and clearly explained the excellent reasons for the decision recognizing that he had a platform that would give him access to lots of people whose minds could be changed.
My apologies for taking so long to say what I said-I'm no Ted Olson, but I hope it provides food for thought.