When Atheism Goes Mainstream… February 7, 2010

When Atheism Goes Mainstream…

Atheism is a trending topic in the world and it won’t be long before a politician or celebrity coming out as an atheist just won’t be a big deal anymore. I don’t know how long it’ll be before that happens, but I am optimistic that it could happen in my lifetime.

When that happens, atheists will go from having our own unique subculture to being part of the mainstream.

I think a lot of us would love for that to be the case, but there would be a slight wistfulness about it. For all we would gain, we would also be losing a lot.

What would you miss when atheism goes “mainstream”?

Claudia writes in an email:

My initial first guess is that I’ll miss the intellectual debate. As atheism becomes more widespread, it will become an assumption, not something people come to through reason. As such we can expect the correlation between education and atheism to blur, and the conversation amongst atheists to become less stimulating.

I can add to that:

We would miss getting any attention when we fight for our rights.

We would miss the instant “connection” we make when meeting another atheist.

We would miss the joy that comes from being able to speak your mind for the first time (without worrying that someone is going to attack you for it).

We would miss the major life change that comes from telling people that you’ve lost your faith (and have no desire to “find” it).

We would miss conferences, local meetups, campus groups, and rallies.

Some of these things will linger even when we are part of the everyday culture (it’s not like Christian groups have faded away, and they’ve been mainstream for forever), but it won’t be the same thing.

What would you miss?

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Ron in Houston

    I probably wouldn’t spend much time reading the Friendly Mainstream guy.

  • Must be interesting to *not* be mainstream. Here in Australia, I find it rare to meet a strongly religious person, by far the majority are at least agnostic and many are atheists. That said, we still have “athiest clubs” such as one at my university where debate about religion takes place. I don’t think you’d lose that much to be honest.

  • As atheism becomes more widespread, it will become an assumption, not something people come to through reason.

    I wouldn’t get to miss this. I came to atheism through birth and not having some proselyte try to brainwash me afterward.

  • Shannon

    Nothing. I think this list only applies to people who don’t have a lot of other atheists in their lives. I do and always have (even though I didn’t know it as a kid, about half my family is atheist) so I can’t really relate to the stories I hear on blogs like this.

    One thing though,

    “it will become an assumption, not something people come to through reason”

    Not to pick on Claudia, but in the online atheist world there seems to be this assumption that all atheists are such because they sat down and carefully reasoned their way to that conclusion. I simply don’t believe in gods. I guess in my family it’s “mainstream” and that is what is being talked about but I don’t see a problem with that. I am just as real and valid an atheist as anyone else.

  • potatopeeler

    I’ll definitely miss being thought of as wanting to be “edgy” because I’m a young atheist. Not.

  • NewEnglandBob

    Hemant, from your lips to…. oh wait…

    No, I wouldn’t ‘miss’ any of those things. It is not like there are no other important life issues to deal with using the energy spent on defending and promoting atheism, rationality and critical thinking.

    An educated, thinking world would be just a bit closer to ‘heaven’ on earth.

  • Kyle

    Shouldn’t we be happy to miss all this? It means that word has gotten out. People can throw off the shackles of religion, dogma and ignorance and start taking responsibility for their lives. It would mean we would have to find new reasons to meet up, like, say, for environmental causes, for political causes. Or, hell, just to have a drink or a few games of bowling. I can’t wait for atheism to go mainstream. Not that I don’t love being extraordinary, but this is one area of my life I wish most other people shared. We can get over the belief/nonbelief ideas and start relating to people in other ways.

  • I don’t think I would miss a thing.

    I can appreciate some of the items listed as “to be missed”, especially the ones that are related to challenges – the challenge of explaining your viewpoint intelligently and emotionally without going overboard on the emotion; describing the challenge of how you came to your view of the world; and the challenge of the debate between opposing world views.

    However, I look at that question as I would look at “what would you miss when people accept that the world is round and not flat?”, or “what would you miss when the theory of gravity goes mainstream?”, or even “what would you miss when the idea that ‘you should not beat your children daily, and should hug them instead’ goes mainstream?”

    Yeah – those challenges may be gone, but we’ll be better off for it.

  • Can’t say I’d miss much. It’s not like religion is an important element in the social milieu I inhabit. I have some friends and colleagues whom I know go to church (which in itself means little w.r.t. type and depth of conviction), one who wears a yarmulke, a few whose names indicate they have Muslim ancestry (which again, tells me nothing about personal piety). I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of workplace conversations I’ve had in the past 30 years in which religion was the main theme.

  • i would miss none of this crap. i’d look forward to our having our time and resources freed to focus on really cool advances and i’d feel a great deal safer in the process.

  • I think I’d miss the simplicity. For me, the whole god idea is rather silly, so there is a clear divide between, to use a phrase, us and them. But the divide is rather blurred when you move on to political, economic, environmental, etc, debates. For example, one could say it would be best if everyone in the country had health care for X reasons, but then someone could ask, “How do you pay for it?” There is an extra layer of complications on these other battles.

  • Tuco

    With all due respect to Claudia, in my experience, discussions with religious people rarely rises to the level of “intellectual debate.” Religion, which is wholly predicated on a set of beliefs in the complete absence of any evidence whatsoever, is fundamentally anti-intellectual (pun intended).
    As for some of the other items: I would gladly give up any “attention;” we shouldn’t have to fight for our rights in the first place, not least because rights, by definition, are supposed to apply to all people regardless of belief. Sadly, it is largely because of religion that so many millions are deprived of their rights. On a related point, if atheism (or, as Hitchens so wonderfully phrases it, anti-theism) were more widely accepted, it would be much safer to speak one’s mind. As it is now, I already fear that I will be attacked for not believing, let alone speaking out against religion. Connection and fellowship (to hijack a “religious” term) isn’t dependent on being part of a minority group – although I will admit it’s a little more fun sometimes to play the part of the gadfly.
    One thing I would definitely NOT miss is having to explain my reasons for not believing in an absurd fairy tale to folks who operate on the assumption that belief in some supernatural being based on the cobbled-together stories in a single book should be – or does – represent the “default” position.

  • What we consider as new, exciting, cutting edge,etc. (at least in regards to being atheist) is not even worth a mention or thought in much of northern Europe. In the rest of the educated world, secularism is not such a big deal. In the UK, US and a handful of other nations, it is big enough a deal as to make those who talk about it openly big celebrities. It’s a big deal here because we live in a country populated by the superstitious and ignorant. I for one, will be happy when mankind evolves to the point to where nonsense and superstition no longer have a place in respectable society.

  • Amy G

    I wouldn’t miss anything. It would be wonderful to have more atheists in the world, especially if that means that extreme Christian types would be taken less seriously.

  • muggle

    Pardon the expression, but it would be “heaven”. I wouldn’t miss a damned thing.

    It’d be utter bliss to not have people overreact to my refusal to believe what I know ain’t so. It would be nice not to have to be wary of someone proclaiming to be a theist (of any ilk, not just Christian) while testing the water to see if they’re broad-minded enough to respect my right to disagree with their belief. It’s really hoping for too much to never have them try to save my soul and/or force their belief on me because that would just be rude.

    What you describe as having something to miss sounds rather Utopian to me.

    One last thing: how would it do away with relating to others who feel the same way or the meet-ups, etc. Um, theists still enjoy that. Why wouldn’t we. (And yay the edit’s working again! But I’m still having to refresh to see my post.)

  • Corey

    It occurs to me that some of the more belligerent christian activists that have become ascendant in the past couple of decades were probably going through this exact process.

    They were mainstream. They were young. There was nothing to DO. Nothing to fight for. It seems pretty clear when you have it all and then decide to go pick a fight with a few gay people or a few atheists that you needed a hobby.

    I guess what I will miss is the moral high ground. We’ll end up with our own extremists when we’re mainstream. That will suck.

  • Amy G wrote:
    “I wouldn’t miss anything. It would be wonderful to have more atheists in the world, especially if that means that extreme Christian types would be taken less seriously.”

    It wasn’t “extreme Christian types” that attempted to snatch me 2 clicks from the compound where I worked security as a private military contractor. That’s just one example of hundreds I could give you from personal experience about the “Religion of Peace”, as Bush called it.
    Not to pick on you, Amy, but it is frustrating to see Christians being singled out so often when Islam presents (at the very least) as great a threat to civilization as any previous threats we have encountered as a nation in the past. It would be refreshing to see folks in this community stop being so damn timid when it comes to being critical of mainstream Islamic barbarism because they are afraid of being labeled as rascist or xenophobic.

  • Melissa

    I wouldn’t miss anything. One thing I would love to see gone is the sudden *GASP* followed by the “Oh my goodness! I’ll pray for you!!” when I’m asked if I’m Baptist, Lutheran or Catholic and I respond Atheist. I live in a small South Texas town where Atheism is viewed as worshipping the devil. Man, I need to move…

  • Melissa,

    As long as they keep it to,”“Oh my goodness! I’ll pray for you!!” instead of ““Allahu Akbhar! I’ll kill you!!”, I’d say it’s all good.
    So much depends on our perspective. Fundamentalist Christians annoy me to no end, but I realized even as a small child when attending the mosque that Islam was a different kind of animal all together. I’ve been both Christian and Muslim and if forced to deal with one form of insanity over the other, I’ll take Christianity most of the time.

  • Matt

    I think it’ll be fine, and I’ll get back into other stimulating intellectual topics and groups

  • I’ll miss posting ridiculous things on places like this.

    Actually, I think life will go back to what I consider ‘normal’ – when issues of faith were a non-topic. THAT is what I miss.

  • Alice

    I don’t think there will be anything to miss. All the wrongs of the world won’t be magically fixed just because no one will be praying about them to their sky master. There will always be injustice and irrationality and even dogma without religion. The movement we have now will be able to stop wasting time with the basics we’re promoting currently and sniff out irrationality in other areas.

  • Atheism, at least non-theism, is mainstream where I live in rainy England. If only it were mainstream on your side of the pond so you (North Americans) would stop exporting your zealots and loonies to us. We don’t want them.

  • Jeff B

    I’d miss being the only couple in our neighborhood that gets to enjoy Sunday morning.

  • I will welcome missing the subtle prejudice of xtian privledge. When we do become mainstream (hopefully)there will be no more, “Ohhh, you’re an atheist, where do you get you morality, god bless you” kind of stuff.

    Mainstream atheism, it’s me Kriss, please come, like, tomorrow.

  • I wouldn’t miss anyting if atheism became mainstream.

    If you want a cause to rally around, there are plenty of other ones out there.

  • billybee

    I’ll be too busy buzzing around in my flying car to even give it much thought.

  • flawedprefect

    Actually, I’d welcome it. As much as I like knowing there’s a huge percentage of my friends who are non-religious like me, it’s family which is the issue.

    My father-in-law found out thru my wife that I “don’t believe in God” and he turned to me yesterday and asked “do you trust in God?” I replied “I trust in you!” I challenge anyone to try and explain your views to a Vietnamese man who escaped the communists and came to Australia as an illegal immigrant in a reasoned and rational manner. Ain’t gonna happen. But should Atheism go mainstream, and should we have a presence which gets brought up by theistic relatives, it’s a far easier point of contact than direct challenge, or “wearing your atheism loud and proud”. It gives me a chance to say “see those guys on TV? I’m one of them”. Short, sweet, and without all that reasoning stuff. 🙂

  • I don’t think I’ll have time to miss it. You can be an atheist and still be an idiot who believes vaccines cause autism and the like. *points at Bill Maher* So I’ll be plenty busy thank you. 😉 :p

  • I honestly thought it was already mainstream.

  • Jen

    I look forward to thinking up new ways to rebel intellectually. Maybe I can become a a Marxist, or a follower of Friedman, or just employ the Socratic method until I have no friends. Failing that, I will start collecting some 80s toys, maybe Rainbow Bright toys, or Thundercat crap, until I become the Queen of the 80s toys.

    Really, at least I am not one of those people who got a tattoo when they were trendy (granted, it wasn’t legal for me to get one back then) and now it’s mainstream and I can’t convince people I got a Chinese character/ tribal arm band/ tramp stamp of a dolphin BEFORE everyone else. If some other religious idea becomes edgy and black-sheep-ish, I can pretend I was that back when everyone was becoming a boring old atheist.

  • Jen

    I look forward to thinking up new ways to rebel intellectually. Maybe I can become a a Marxist, or a follower of Friedman, or just employ the Socratic method until I have no friends. Failing that, I will start collecting some 80s toys, maybe Rainbow Bright toys, or Thundercat crap, until I become the Queen of the 80s toys.

    Really, at least I am not one of those people who got a tattoo when they were trendy (granted, it wasn’t legal for me to get one back then) and now it’s mainstream and I can’t convince people I got a Chinese character/ tribal arm band/ tramp stamp of a dolphin BEFORE everyone else. If some other religious idea becomes edgy and black-sheep-ish, I can pretend I was that back when everyone was becoming a boring old atheist.

  • Kid A

    “Atheism is a trending topic IN THE WORLD and it won’t be long before a politician or celebrity coming out as an atheist just won’t be a big deal anymore.”

    In Europe and other industrailised nations, non-theism is already mainstream– in fact, its gone so far that theism and atheism both are non-issues. They have happily put Christian metaphysics behind them.

    As far as industrialised nations go, the US is the oddball, typically behind the times…

  • littlejohn

    It’s the only interesting thing about my life. As I see it, I would have no alternative but to become gay. My wife and I have been having a disagreement about this, but compromise is what makes a marriage work. Of course, gay rights are becoming increasingly mainstream, too. I’m not sure I’m ready to become a Scientologist.

  • Claudia

    @Bruce and Shannon, regarding the “coming to it from reason” critique. It’ obviously valid, doubly so because I myself have never been religious.

    Though I may not have expressed it very precisely, I guess what I’m getting at is that this little subculture that we have is made up largely of “self-aware” atheists, people who, whether or not they have ever been religious, have at least spent some time thinking about religion, non-religion, the arguments thereof etc. Of course there are many atheists who never even think about it, but the presence as a minority in an overwhelmingly religious world pushes us to have our reasoning at a more conscious level. Someone who belongs to a crushing majority has a security that allows for less careful thinking. I live in Europe, and here I’ve found atheists to be a lot more numerous and a lot less thoughtful, because they are almost never challenged on their nonbelief.

    Oh and I guess I should add that I’m in no way implying that I don’t want atheism to become the norm. I absolutely do and am confident that the advantages will far outweigh the disadvantages, I just got to thinking about the downsides after watching some gay folks wax poetic about some of the things they were losing as they became more mainstream.

  • Claudia

    edit: double post, as close as I can get to erasing it. Sorry!

  • tsmz

    Quite obviously, you’ve never been to Europe. You don’t even get the opportunity to tell people you’re an atheist (also, no one asks or gives a shit). If you tell them, you’ll most likely get reactions reaching from “so what?” and “me too” to “that’s all nice and well, but could we talk about something interesting and relevant, please?”

    I find it quite hard to understand, at times, that there’s such a huge focus on religion in the US. Here (Germany), you really don’t care about religions (at least as long as it’s not scientology or some other dangerous crap). I find the idea of gods quite absurd, but the whole religion thing is so watered-down here you can happily belong to church, go along with it and be an atheist without realizing it at the same time. There’s just nothing irritating or offensive enough to make you think about pretty much anything. I went through everything too without ever really believing in a god, but I never realized this until I started reading stuff on the (mostly american) web.

    The whole (well, pretty much the whole, there’s quite a bunch of crazy fundie churches here too, but I’m talking about the ‘big’ protestant church here and I doubt it’s a lot different with most of the catholic church) religion thing just seems like a show. Daniel Dennett coined the phrase “belief in belief in god,” and I think that’s exactly what’s happening here.

    However, that doesn’t mean typical “religious” values aren’t of concern. The big churches sit in basically every committee, be it ethics or protection of minors (from violent video games etc.) Stemm cell research is a real pain and nigh impossible in Germany due to ethical concerns et cetera.
    So depending on what your personal agenda is, it’s not neccessarily only religion you’re fighting against, but also “traditional,” i.e. religious values, which are deeply ingrained even in atheists (roughly 28% of our population, by the way).

  • Jeff Dale

    As such we can expect the correlation between education and atheism to blur, and the conversation amongst atheists to become less stimulating.

    This doesn’t seem to make sense. The total number of educated people wouldn’t be reduced in this scenario. If there are educated atheists with whom you currently enjoy stimulating conversation, they’ll still be around. You’re not required to converse with the less educated folks, even if more of them become atheists.

    As for the rest of the items, it seems to me that the pleasure in them is only by contrast to the odious alternative currently available to us; e.g., coming out feels better than being closeted. Seems to me it’d be much better to be rid of the odious circumstance altogether; e.g., closeting unnecessary.

    Wouldn’t the joy of living in a world in which absurd beliefs are marginal and relatively powerless be far greater than the joy of fighting for our rights and dignity (and possibly our lives) in our current world? Wouldn’t it be better if we could just get on with the business of making the world a better place, expanding our knowledge and compassion, and enjoying our daily lives in peace? That’s what we stand to gain with the mainstreaming of atheism.

  • RG

    i would miss none of those things because I would love debate to move beyond religion. It would end interesting debate, it would just move the debate into something more worthwhile.

  • Portwes

    I’ll miss all the christians who begin their bogus testimonies with, “Before I was born-again I used to be an atheist…”.

    Actually, I don’t believe very many of those people had seriously gone through the normal intellectual thought and investigation which a geniune atheist does.

  • Claudia

    Quite obviously, you’ve never been to Europe.

    I’m European by birth and have lived here for a total of 19 years of my life, so by my count, I think I have “been” in Europe 😉

    Your comment actually proves my point. You’re right that in Europe your religion doesn’t mean much (though the same is not true if you’re a Muslim, eh?) and people largely could give a shit if you’re an atheist. They’re more likely to be uncomfortable if you’re a “true believer”. I love talking about religion, but I have to go online to do it because most of my European peers, like you, don’t really care much.

    The reason atheists in the US care about religion should be pretty obvious. The US is a ridiculously religious society, and therefore religion isn’t just something you do in your personal life, it touches everyone around you. Did you know the majority of Americans say they would never vote for an atheist candidate for president? That the majority would be uncomfortable if their child had a relationship with an atheist? We don’t get much of a choice in caring about religion in a way analogous (though of course not as bad) as black people having to care about race.

  • I would miss the jokes. Mr. Deity just wouldn’t be funny out of context.

  • Slickninja

    I do think being a small minority does give proactive atheists a sense of community. However, even if it goes mainstream, we’ll still be a minority. Sure, pop-culture might be more accustomed to us but even among other minorities that have asserted themselves, they’re not always 100% accepted, just like how race and sexual orientation still is a major hang up for voters, atheism will be too.

  • Slickninja

    I do think being a small minority does give proactive atheists a sense of community. However, even if it goes mainstream, we’ll still be a minority. Sure, pop-culture might be more accustomed to us but even among other minorities that have asserted themselves, they’re not always 100% accepted, just like how race and sexual orientation still is a major hang up for voters, atheism will be too.

  • DGKnipfer

    I won’t miss any of the crap I get or hear about being an atheist. I’m lucky that many of my religious friends know that I’m not a believer and they’re fine with it. But some of my family members are just wacked out crazy about the idea of somebody not believing in their god. The older I get the more I hate to even visit my family.

  • I don’t think it will happen in my lifetime, but actually I wouldn’t miss any of those things, because they’d be replaced by other things. Better things.

    Like instead of arguing with the Pope (and supporters) about contraception, we could be saving lives.

    Instead of holding my tongue for fear of offending people I only half-know, I could be having real conversations

    Would not miss it much at all.

  • well there was an intresting study done recently (end of 2009) about things like this, focused more on the UK mind you but looked quite a bit at the US aswel

    http://www.natcen.ac.uk/pzMedia/uploads/EntityFieldFile/dae358b5-1486-4b9e-8119-2c917c05780d.doc

    makes for an intresting read more the similarities moreso than the differences i found hehe ^_^

  • Atheism is a trending topic IN THE WORLD and it won’t be long before a politician or celebrity coming out as an atheist just won’t be a big deal anymore.

    To be fair, when has it ever been a big deal for a celebrity to come out as an atheist? Even in America, authors, actors, athletes, etc. don’t appear to be shy about expressing their atheism. Politicians, on the other hand, do have a tough time of it and most choose to remain closeted.

  • M

    America is becoming Europe and Europe is un-Europeanizing:

    http://www.americanthinker.com/2009/06/hello_europe_goodbye_europe.html

  • none

    I think religion offers, if not answers, a lot of cultural background and interesting rites.
    If atheism were to go mainstream there would be a loss of culture, which at least in my point of view would be horrible, since “cosmopolitan” countries such as the USA appear to be void of culture.
    well perhaps i’m a bit biased but i still think i’d much rather have religion in my country than have no more culturally significant factions than television and superbowls.