If Atheists “Succeed,” Be Prepared for Some Disappointment March 19, 2008

If Atheists “Succeed,” Be Prepared for Some Disappointment

The atheist “movement” (if I may use that term) has a goal of making atheism more respected and visible. Some people would even like to see religion disappear the way of Greek myths. There’s obviously a long way to go before that happens.

Greta Christina looks to the future to see what consequences may await us if we ever succeed:

… As we succeed in making the world an easier place to be an atheist, we’re going to see more and more atheists who haven’t agonized over their atheism to the same degree that most of us have. As we succeed in making the world an easier place to be an atheist, we’re going to see more and more atheists who aren’t amazingly brave and strong, tough and independent, passionate and confident. We’re going to see more and more atheists who are pretty much regular folks who just want to get on with their lives.

And that’s exactly as it should be.

It’s true that as atheists begin to increase in number, it’ll be hard for certain people to be sheltered from us. They won’t fear us anymore. It’ll be normal for kids to be atheists or at least know other atheists.

We will have achieved our goal.

At that time, we’ll just have to find another minority to be a part of, another cause we’re just as passionate about.

Not that I have a say in the matter, but I wonder whether I’d like that day to come sooner or later.

Most of me says I want it to happen now — the discrimination would (hopefully) end, I wouldn’t have to constantly defend my lack of faith, my conversations with potential dates would continue after the “what religion are you?” question, etc.

But part of me likes being in the minority. It gives me something to work toward. If my “atheist identity” suddenly disappeared (because everyone was just fine with atheists), I’m not sure what would replace it.

Anyone else thinking those thoughts?

[tags]atheist, atheism[/tags]

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  • Yes!
    I grew up and went to college in small, Midwestern towns, and I was surprised to come out to California and find there are atheists who know nothing about Christianity or other religions, who can’t construct a reasonable argument against religion, and who are atheist simply because their parents were, and so they are emotionally biased against religion.
    One such atheist told me she thought I was a closet Christian, because I was “too interested in what they have to say.” She told me you can’t listen to them, it’s best just to ignore them.

    Since then, I have been wondering about it. I am an atheist because I believe in putting reason first and allowing your emotion to follow, not because I think religions are inherently evil. To be blunt, getting rid of religion will be a walk in the park compared to getting people to reason with their heads instead of their ingrained feelings. I feel like the most successful movements away from religion are issues of rebranding– for example, the Church of England became a silly old custom, the Catholic church in Spain became associated with Franco and harsh dictatorship, and so on. If religion goes away simply because of a culture shift where Gods and angels are regarded as the products of an uneducated mind, then little will have been accomplished.

    On the other hand, religion does feed into the favoring of emotion over reason, and so the fight will be, well, less impossible without religion, perhaps. I’ve run out of things to say, which is sad, because I was hoping to wrap this up with something thoughtful. Oh well. Peace in the Middle East.

  • chancelikely

    Drew makes a series of good points: Once atheism is acceptable, we still have a looooooooong way to go to make logical reasoning beat out emotional responses in people. It seems that largely atheist/agnostic Western Europe still has a high level of belief, it’s just in astrology, or homeopathy, or other nonsense.

    The big goal is many generations off. I can’t wait for atheism to be ordinary, because it’ll be one less step to take.

  • Karen

    I’m not worried. 😉 We have far too much work to do yet for that. If non-theism becomes a normal alternative in most of the U.S. within my lifetime, I’ll be utterly thrilled and surprised.

  • Renacier

    I have no problem with working towards putting myself out of a job, so to speak. I wish religious belief were a non-issue, so I could spend my time on something else. But the problem is that religion informs everything I care about. Gay rights, gender equality, environment, education reform, you name a pie, religion has it’s bloody fingers in it. In order for me to work for something I really care about, I have to first deal with religion, an issue that I shouldn’t have to care about.

    So, yeah, I have no conflicting emotions about that at all.

  • Mriana

    Being in the Bible Belt, I would love it if non-theism was more acceptable. At the same time, I would love it if the Evangelicals would be less religious than what they are. I find Progressive and Liberal Christians more accepting of someone being a non-theist, but Evangelicals can a horror. So, yes, I’m like Karen and would be utterly thrilled and suprised if it were a normal alternative, instead of frowned upon. Being a minority isn’t all it’s cut out to be.

  • supermanchild

    I think the article, as well as Drew’s comments touch on some key issues with regard to how atheists define themselves. Our current understanding of atheism, if it can be said to form a belief system at all, creates a belief system with only one tenet (that there are no personal gods or deities). As a result, the “atheist movement” is subject to contamination by all sorts of intersecting socio-cultural clutter. Certainly the religious right’s conception of atheism has as much to do, if not more to do with their opposition to the cultural shifts in the United States that began in the sixties than the notion of atheism itself. Similarly, I think many who actively campaign for secular causes consider atheism to have a de facto connection to the scientific and philosophical community.

    I, personally, am just as hesitant to associate atheism with a privileged understanding of science as with Woodstock. I have friends who, though they would be hard pressed to identify Isaac Newton or David Hume, have no problem with telling the world that they are atheists. I don’t think that they should be excluded from the “atheist movement.” If atheism is inexorably associated with science, however, we cannot accept them without also presenting them as defenders of the scientific method, which they most assuredly are not. I think the appeal of atheism as a belief structure is its simplicity. Anti-religionism (whether it comes from rational grounds or not) or aggressive championing of science as part of an atheistic creed only distract from this message.

  • That occurred to be as I was attending the SSA conference last year, and for the first time in my life, I said, “I’m tired of all of this atheist shit.”

    It wasn’t really tired of hearing great speakers and meeting the other student group organizers. What I was tired of were the arguments, the “smut for smut” arrogance and talking about being an activist. It gave me a brief window into what it was like to not care about all of it.

    I told Andy (another coordinator of the student group I am a part of [and part of the SSA board]), “One day CASH (our group) is going to dwindle. It is going to die because no one will care about being an atheist and not believing in silly things anymore–and that will be awesome.”

    I’ll miss brother Jed the most.

  • Lee

    Well said, Drew.
    I’m still in the “novelty” category with those of my non-atheist friends who know that I am atheist. In fact, I have an extra-chrispie friend who is getting ready to retire. She has asked me to go to church with her as a retirement gift. So, I’ll be in church this Easter Sunday – small sacrifice for a friend. Besides, it will help me lay to rest her persistent argument that “once you visit my church, you’ll be hooked”. I keep telling her that I’ve been there and done that and hell will freeze before I ever go back – which means I win by default, since there is no hell in existence.

  • The future is here today! It’s called much of Scandinavia and certain other parts of Europe. Oh, and Japan and China, I believe, but I don’t know quite enough to confirm how irreligious those two really are.

    I’ve lived 25 of my 27 years in the UK. Some of those years (the first few) I was a Christian. Now I’m an atheist. I only ever really felt in the minority as a Christian.

    Not that mediaeval superstition doesn’t lurk menacingly in the shadows, of course. We’re not home and dry yet.

  • Becca

    I celebrate the day that Greta Christina’s words become reality. And even as I look forward to the welcome of non-theists into everyday positions of public office, education, friendship, etc., I was also struck by the universality of Christina’s point. It almost reads as a Martin Luther King Jr. speech, replacing race with religion. You could replace ‘atheist’ with ‘Mexican woman’ or ‘religious person’ or ‘bisexual individual’ and you would be giving voice, I think, to many others who seek that same request to look past bias for the sake of discovering what really matters about each of us. Unfortunately, many of the comments are also true, that there will always be a group in society that is marginalized and ostracized by the public perception of acceptability.
    In peace,

  • julie marie

    one of my favorite fantasies in my evangelical days was imagining what life would be like without sin pressing upon people. no hatred, no meanness, no greed…and so on. what wonderful things we could do if we didn’t have to spend energy/resources/time battling sin and the effects of sin.

    so, as far as the atheist fantasy goes—what wonderful things could you do if you didn’t have to spend energy explaining your position, correcting mis perceptions, keeping a vigilant eye out for your children’s safety from less than friendly religious bigots of any flavor…? I’d love to be able to see that in my lifetime. And since I plan to live a really long life (genetically, I have good basis for that belief–females in my family have routinely been passing the mid ninetys…men not so much.) maybe I’ll have a chance to experience the realization of that fantasy. The no sin one is pretty much out of the question, I’m afraid.

  • Julie

    No, I wouldn’t miss being in the minority. I think things would just be better without religion, or at least without the pervasiveness of religion that we have in the US.

    I think identifying with a minority and really wanting it to stay a minority is a dangerous road. Once actual oppression stops, you can continue looking for it, just for that little thrill of the fight.

  • The majority of people simply go along with what-ever the majority goes along with.. For as long as anyone can remember, it has been religion. Once there is a “critical mass” of people being free from religion, I predict that change could actually be much faster than some people think. Then, yes, we will have atheists with the intellectual prowess of Ray Comfort. But that is fine and that is how it should be. We can then divide ourselves up with other criteria and laugh about how people used to divide themselves up about how they believed in imaginary things.

  • damestato

    yes, i thought about it, and it occured to me that this would be a victim mentality. Let’s take blacks for example; Some want to keep blaming everyone else for their problems, and others make no excuses, and just get on with things. Some of the instant approval of other athiests may wear off because of the diverse personalities. I used to think if i met an atheist, that we’d get along, but it’s not that easy. We may lose the urgency to find each other. That’s progress i guess. It’s sort of like neighbors coming together to catch a burglar, then afterwards, everyone just keeps to themselves. When there is no threat, there’s no reason to congregate.

  • Isn’t this only true insofar as the atheist movement is a civil rights movement? Civil rights and becoming “accepted” is a big part of it, but there’s more to it than that. What about the ideas advocated? What about skepticism, secular humanism, secularism, and atheism itself?

    Greta! Reveal more of the future to us!

  • Lucas

    No, I’m not worried. I think that worrying that you’re somehow going to lose your identity because other people share it with you is a waste of time, and counter productive. Just because there are more atheists doesn’t make you less of one.

  • I would love not being an atheist.
    In so much that, if there were no religions, no theism; then consequently there’d be no atheism. We’d all just be.

    Don’t worry, there’ll still be people with other weird thoughts we can rage against.

  • Here’s something indirectly related that I think about a lot: I’m a vegetarian, for environmental reasons. Suppose that a bit of Star Trek technology became real, and we could replicate food. Suppose then that we had some organically fed, free range chicken that got to lead a nice life in a good environment, before being sacrificed to become the “model” for a replicated chicken software package (sorry, trekkies, I don’t know they correct terminology).

    The question is, would I still be a vegetarian? The answer should be “no”, there’d be no point in it any more, as far as my reasons (and most others’) are concerned. And yet… I spent 15+ years developing a diet that I like and that is healthy and looking at the world that way, it’d be hard to let go of, I can’t deny it. I believe my rationale to be sound, but I must admit that it now means something to me deeper than my rationale.

    And that reminds me of something a very cool Mormon woman I know always says: “What would we (Mormons) do if someone came up with proof, by our standards, that God has never existed? How would we react to this huge news? Answer: go to church.”

    The point of both of these stories is that I do think that we’re social animals, and there’s comfort in aligning ourselves with ideologies that make sense to us. Unlike some people posting here, I find it quite easy to be an atheist, I don’t feel oppressed. But, I do feel motivated to advocate for a rational view of the nature of reality. But, I don’t think there’s any getting around it, when one finds comfort relating with like-minded people, it becomes part of our frame-of-reference for everything. It’d be hard to let go of.

    But, like many people, I’m not worried about it happening. I doubt the replicated chickens will be here first, but it could be a close race. 😉

  • The price of freedom is eternal vigilance. The situation is better here in australia. You are unlikely to be excluded on account of your Atheism. There is allways the need to keep an eye on the religious as evidenced by the recent controversy over Mega Churches and religious abuse here in Australia.

  • Aj

    And that’s exactly as it should be.


  • There appears to be some confusion here in the comments. If you go read Greta Christina’s post, by “success” she doesn’t mean the end of theism. By success, she means “making a world in which being an atheist is relatively easy, or at least a whole lot easier than it is now.” If that happens, the “atheist” identity will not become meaningless. It’s just that atheists will turn out to be normal, average people, instead of the highly individualistic group we have now.

    Why does everyone around here jump at the idea of ending theism? I think this underscores my earlier point that the atheist movement is not just about civil rights and becoming accepted, but also about advocating certain ideas.

  • sabrina

    I think that being an atheist today forces someone to become an amateur biologist, astronomer, cosmologist, theologian, archaeologist, historian, and philosopher. There are lots of fundie arguments to overcome, and if you can’t answer one question (no matter what topic), you’ve already lost. They already have the answer in advance, “God did it”. It’s exhausting, but I’ve read and studied many subjects that I normally wouldn’t, and I’m very happy that I have. I have a deeper appreciation of evolution, astronomy, history, and pretty much any other subject under the sun. And from browsing the internet, it seems that many other atheists are in the same boat as I am (we’re becoming a very educated minority;)). It would seem a shame for people to lose that impetus to learn (even if you’re learning just to justify your ideas), but it would be nice not to have to constantly defend yourself, and (like Hemant says) not to have relationships end because the person realizes you’re actually serious about atheism. I shudder to think that atheists would come as lazy in their beliefs as most theists, but, I would love for atheism not to be a news story (ala look at those freaks, they don’t believe in god!). I guess I just wrote a horribly long post, and never answered the question. Oh well, I second that peace in the middle east:)

  • TXatheist

    I think the younger generations are ok with it in most urban areas. Any time progressives push an issue it usually gets better. I didn’t realize what it was like to be a minority until I came to my atheism. It’s helped me to empathize with other minorities and I’d always have that in memory if I didn’t have to explain atheism against certain prejudices some people may have.

  • Hemant,

    Thanks for bringing this post to our attention. This is one of the great things that you continually do and I, for one, am grateful for it.

    I posted the below comment on her blog and thought it might be good to repost it here to encourage the discussion to continue.


    I want to congratulate you on this wonderful blog/essay. As someone who is not gay–but uses the gay/atheist analogy ad nauseam–it is nice to hear from someone who pridefully both.

    I hope and pray (pun intended) the future you are predicting comes to pass. I live in Atlanta, which I’m sure you know, is quite bigoted in every way imaginable. It is difficult raising freethinking children in this environment. The threat my daughters encounter concerning God and Hell are quite disconcerting to say the least.

    I long for the day when people of reason will become the status quo. However, to get to this point, we are dependent on the smug “special” feeling people you wrote about.

    All movements depend on the pendulum effect. They must swing to the other extreme before they can bring balance. It took the crazy bra burners to get to equal rights for women. It took militant/pacifist blacks to bring racial acceptance. It took (and still takes) the flamboyant gay pride parades to get to equal sexual rights.

    So, come what will, I am encouraged by your post to continue being outspoken. I hope you and all atheists will keep taking it to the streets. Let’s feel “special” and wallow in our superiority. For only this extremism will lead to eventual balance and our fading into mediocrity.


  • Ptah! We’ll all be too busy eating babies and having sex with each other to care about minorities. 😉

    The thing with religion is that it doesn’t get replaced by atheism. Atheism causes a gap to occur in the personal philosophy of individuals who were previously filling their lives with religion. It has to be replaced by other ways of living, reasonable ways of living. I imagine that all kinds of philosophies and ideas will be developed and will they will draw on earlier ideas as well as new ideas.

    Including religions.

    We may mock theists from time to time and disagree with them an awful lot but wouldn’t the world be a better place if everyone tired to act like we’re told Jesus wanted us to.

    We’ll have plenty to argue about, I’m sure.

  • I’ll be glad if this particular thing becomes a non-issue in my lifetime. I don’t think it will happen, but I won’t miss it. I look forward to being able to say that I’m an atheist or simply that we don’t attend church without immediately being asked how will my kids learn morals, for example.

    Will I look for another cause to put in its place? No. I have other causes already. I have even less hope for them, to be honest, but I wouldn’t mind if they all became uncontroversial and I could just live without having to worry about them. That said, more causes will doubtless come along in the meantime.

  • gabriel

    here in China where I live, most people are basically atheists (although by no means everyone, especially in the countryside). However christianity is making inroads even in China and Asia, so I am not necessarily hopeful about the future.

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