One of the problems with being an atheist is that your very existence is offensive.
One of the other problems with being an atheist is that everyone knows that your very existence is offensive, so they expect you to be exciting and radical, even when you’re not.
Greta Christina’s been talking about Catch-22’s lately (catches-22?), and I wanted to add one to the mix. Being an atheist is a statement that you believe a claim about the world that is relatively uncommon, and so that identity is a message to most of the people around you that they are wrong. That’s a difficult barrier to overcome. There’s something about believing “there is no god” that is more combative to theists than “I believe in a different god” is to a fellow theist of a different religion. Given that, many atheists refrain from making their atheism known when it’s not absolutely necessary. Or, when the context is one of tolerance and diversity, we might tone down our rhetoric.
On the other hand, atheism is becoming better known. Atheist books are bestsellers, atheist blogs get thousands and millions of hits, secular groups are growing and increasing in number. Unsurprisingly, this has led to more and more awareness, and thus more and more intellectual and political conflict. Articles in newspapers, debates, scandals all point to a massively exciting culture war, which can completely erase the fact that day-to-day lives of atheists are generally calm and normal. As Greta Christina says, “it’s not like we walk around angry all the time.” But sometimes, people are itching for a fight, and we’re supposed to provide one, because as is well known, when an atheist and a theist walk into the same room, hijinks always ensue. And that can really detract from one of the main thrusts of our cause, which is that atheists are normal people. Some of us are activists, of course. Many more of us are very angry. But that doesn’t erase the fact that what we’re asking for is simply common sense: separation of church and state, no discrimination against atheists, and evidence based politics.
This all came to mind during the University of Chicago’s Multifaith Celebration, which was intended to showcase the diversity of practices and beliefs on this campus. Various religious groups said invocations and sang songs, while the Secular Alliance read from Carl Sagan’s brilliant essay, the Pale Blue Dot. Before we were set to present, someone came over and asked what we were going to present. Upon reading our print-out, he complained that it wasn’t particularly atheistic, nor was it very radical. He was certainly wrong on the first point; Sagan makes it clear that he feels that belief in god is nothing more than superstitious mysticism. But taken together, this points to a subset of the American population which is not surprised by secularism and atheism, but rather excited by the prospect of conflict. While my friend Mike would say that progress only comes through conflict, I think that to see atheism as a spectacle is to undermine its power. Atheism is not a sport; it is an idea, and a powerful one. Secular politics may be unpopular in this country, but it is the very opposite of radical. Those who want atheism and secularism to thrive should indeed encourage unapologetic displays of nonfaith, but, please not for the sake of entertainment.