A Midwestern atheist tells of sitting in her lunchroom at work and listening as conversation opened up around her about religious differences. Her co-workers included several kinds of Protestants, a Catholic, even a Jew. Sensing they were in risky territory, they worked to find common ground. “At least there aren’t any atheists around here,” one woman said in a warm inclusive tone. What’s a girl to do in a situation like that? Should she out herself or just keep quiet? In his seminal book, Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity, sociologist Erving Goffman posed the perennial quandary of stigmatized persons:
“To display or not display; to tell or not to tell; to let on or not to let on; to lie or not to lie; and in each case, to whom, how, when, and where." (p. 42)
Disclosure feels risky because it is. In 2008, Atheist Nexus gathered “coming out” stories from over 8000 visitors who described themselves as atheist, humanist, freethinker, agnostic, skeptic, and so forth. Some of the tales are painful to read. One woman said, “I've had people literally, physically BACK away from me upon hearing I am atheist. My children were told to run away from our evil home." A man’s confession of lost faith almost cost his marriage: “My wife told me that I'm caught in Satan's grip, and confessed that after I deconverted she considered leaving me. I believe the only reason she didn't is because she's financially dependent on me.” Elsewhere a young woman tells of losing thirty-four Facebook friends when she announced her lack of belief.
The consequences of anti-atheist stigma are public as well as private. Most self-described atheists are acutely aware of survey results showing that U.S. atheists are less electable than reviled minorities including Muslims and gays. Seven states still have laws on the books that ban nonbelievers from holding public office. A Florida minister whose deconversion recently made national news said that job interviews were cancelled when prospective employers found out.
In the minds of many believers atheism is linked with immorality, and despite mounds of evidence to the contrary, religious leaders reinforce this stereotype. I once attended a Palm Sunday service at a popular Calvinist megachurch in Seattle. The minister was determined that his congregation should believe the resurrection of Christ to be a physical, historical event. He said, “If the resurrection didn’t literally happen, there is no reason for us to be here. If the resurrection didn’t literally happen, there are parties to be had. There are women to be had. There are guns to shoot. There are people to shoot.” I found myself thinking, if the only thing that stands between you and debauchery, lechery and violence is a belief in the literal resurrection of Jesus, I’m really glad you believe that. But what are you saying about the rest of us?!
Anti-atheist stereotypes work to bond believers together in part because many Americans think that they have never met an atheist. A stigmatized minority can be the nameless faceless “other” that people love to hate as long as members remain nameless and faceless. But as the gay rights movement has shown, things get more complicated—and attitudes start changing--when we realize we are talking about our friends, beloved family members, and co-workers. Coming out has been such a powerful change agent for gays, that atheists (along with other faceless groups like Mormons and women who have had abortions) are explicitly taking a page from the gay rights movement and launching visibility campaigns.
That is easier than it sounds. Among atheist and humanist leaders, passionate disagreements have erupted about what kind of visibility will actually help advance acceptance and rights for those who eschew supernaturalism.
As a social cause, rather than just a life stance, atheism was catapulted forward by 9-11 and the ascendancy of the Religious Right. Cognitive scientist Sam Harris says that he began writing The End of Faith the morning after seeing the trade towers bombed with jet fuel and airline passengers. Biologist Richard Dawkins, who had previously hosted a gracious series of televised interviews exploring faith and non-faith, shifted tone and became a patriarch of anti-theistic activism. Journalist Christopher Hitchens wrote his scathing indictment, God is not Great. Doubters started coming out of the closet. I, myself, began publicly challenging Evangelical Christian teachings when George Bush pointed to heaven to indicate where he had sought advice before invading Iraq.
It takes energy and guts to buck taboos and norms as strong as those surrounding religion, and so, just like with gays, the first out the door were those who felt so strongly that they were willing to throw themselves into the fray, do or die. The “New Atheists” attracted a preponderance of young males who largely fit godless stereotypes: some defiant, some nerdy, many hyper-intellectual. All were, for one reason or another, either impervious to rules protecting faith from criticism or willing to pay a price for breaking those rules.
Some of these anti-theist firebrands can be counted among today’s leaders, and many have kept an edge that is honed by the seemingly relentless assaults on science and civil rights perpetrated by Christian and Muslim fundamentalists. They remain fiercely defiant, unapologetic about their scorn for religion, willing to use shock tactics if that’s what it takes to break what they see as a terminal religious stranglehold on society. Several years back, a group called the Rational Response Squad promoted a “blasphemy challenge” urging people to videotape themselves denying the Holy Spirit because one Bible writer calls such blasphemy an unforgiveable sin. In 2010, a Seattle cartoonist launched “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day” after learning about death threats against Trey Parker and Matt Stone for depicting Mohammed in Southpark . This winter American Atheists provoked quite an outcry with a billboard that quoted a Bible verse: “Slaves Submit to Your Masters – Colossians 3:22.”
The organizers of these irreverent events see them as advancing values that they cherish deeply --one could say values they hold sacred: freedom of thought, freedom of speech, freedom of conscience and freedom from cruelty grounded in dogma or superstition. And yet, criticism of such in-your-face attacks on religion has often come from people who share their goals. As the atheist visibility movement has expanded, quieter, more diplomatic leaders have emerged. Many of them insist that aggressive confrontation does more harm than good –that atheists need to be changing stereotypes not reinforcing them and that there is such a thing as bad publicity.
Biologist PZ Myers and Harvard Humanist Chaplain Greg Epstein have staked out two very different positions in the naughty-or-nice controversy. Myers writes a popular blog, Pharyngula, which evolved from a primary focus on biology and politics to include broad-based uncensored anti-religious news and commentary. Myers doesn’t suffer fools lightly and makes no bones about letting people know that he finds most religion not only destructive but also stupid. Epstein, by contrast, seeks to foster ethical and spiritual community that build bridges between faith and non-faith. His Humanist Community Project encourages humanists to develop the traditional virtues of religion: communities built around shared values and social service. Where Myers might rail against “faith in faith,” Epstein’s colleagues find common ground with open, inclusive religious groups like the Interfaith Youth Corps.
Blogger Greta Christina has said that atheists should “let firebrands be firebrands and diplomats be diplomats.” She argues that both confrontational and collaborative tactics made the gay rights movement stronger and will do the same for non-theism. But what kind of confrontation? Ugly partisanship can backfire. For example, Fred Phelps and Sean Harris give homophobia such a vile face that they trigger disgust, pushing people in the opposite direction. Some atheist activism may do the same.
Even reasonable confrontation tactics can backfire –especially in the hands of a hostile journalist. Cathy Lynn Grossman of USAToday attended the April Reason Rally in D.C., a gathering she described as “hell-bent on damning religion and mocking beliefs.” There she found plenty which, when taken out of context, could be used to reinforce stereotypes. Her article headlined with a quote from Richard Dawkins, encouraging nonbelievers to “show contempt” for baseless dogmas. It was accompanied by a picture of Jen McCreight cheerfully carrying a sign that read: Obama isn’t trying to destroy religion, I am. Other speakers were depicted as ornery, offensive and more than a little scary.
Ad campaigns by nontheist organizations reflects a struggle to find messages that connect with either teetering believers or closeted skeptics while avoiding backlash. In 2009 a London publicity campaign went viral internationally with bus ads proclaiming, “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” A variety of billboard campaigns have followed, some more provocative than others: “Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence,” “You Know It’s a Myth. Solstice is the Reason for the Season.” “In the Beginning Man Created God.” “We are all Atheists about Most Gods; Some of Us Just Go One God Further.” “Don’t Believe in God? Join the Club.” All have drawn protests or vandalism from indignant theists.
It may be almost impossible to avoiding causing offense while challenging the religious status quo. Nontheist organizations have traditionally ignored communities of color, but African Americans for Humanism recently launched an outreach campaign with the tag line, “Doubts About Religion? You’re one of many.” Billboards and posters show faces of familiar Black leaders – as well as ordinary group members. Coalition of Reason organizer, Alix Jules of Dallas says that even this understated approach is plenty controversial for two reasons: Almost 90% of African Americans express certainty about the existence of God, and honoring religion is seen as a matter of loyalty.
In Halifax, Nova Scotia, Humanists of Canada wanted to run a bus campaign that said, simply, You can be good without God . But the public bus agency refused the ads because they “could be too controversial and upsetting to people.” One reader commented,
I think we should make atheist ads as innocent and non-confrontational as possible. Not because we should avoid controversy, but because it we will get the controversy no matter what we put up, and the kinder and gentler our message the more obvious the hypocrisy of our critics. I’m hard put to think of one more innocent than this one, though.
Humanist blogger and speaker James Croft, a doctoral student in educational philosophy at Harvard, insists that it can be done:
There are ways of conveying our values that are both strong and civil, which avoid insults and (except in certain cases) ridicule without giving one inch of ground on the battlefield of our core values. All the evidence shows that this hybrid approach is more effective than simply seeking to be likable, or relying on confrontation alone.In their effort to find the balance that Croft calls “strong and civil,” the Freedom From Religion Foundation has moved toward more personal messages, ones that offer a glimpse into a godless individual (or family) rather than some form of universal claim. Since 2007, they have purchased billboard space for messages including “Imagine No Religion,” “Beware of Dogma,” and “Thank Darwin: Evolve Beyond Belief.” But their latest campaign, “Out of the Closet,” puts real names and faces together with simple statements of values or disbelief: “Atheists work to make this life heavenly,” says Dr. Stephen Uhl of Tucson on one sign. “Compassion is my religion,” says Olivia Chen, a Columbus student whose appears on another. A recent campaign in Clarkville, Tennessee, merely shows a young woman identified as Grace beside the words, “This is what an atheist looks like.”
Atheist visibility is more than ad campaigns. In 2009 psychologist Dale McGowan, author of Parenting Beyond Belief, launched the Foundation Beyond Belief , a tool that lets the non-religious visibly contribute to nonprofits working on education, health, human rights and the environment. Last year, the foundation add a donation category called “Challenge the Gap” that builds bridges by contributing to the work of religious groups with shared values. Hemant Mehta of “The Friendly Atheist” hosts news and commentary of interest to young nonbelievers—absent the edge that characterizes an earlier generation of blogs. He brings more humor than anger when he talks with secular student groups about outreach. Small local groups are doing their part. Seattle Atheists dress as pirates and carry a Flying Spaghetti Monster in summer parades. But they also participate in food drives and blood drives. They hand out water during an annual marathon. The aim is not only to make themselves more visible but to show that they too are compassionate members of the community of humankind.
As nonbelievers gain recognition as normal and ethical members of society, I think we will find that confrontation diminishes and bridge building grows. It’s not only that both are necessary but that one paves the way for the other. The rage of Malcolm X prepared ground for Martin Luther King and his dream. The Stonewall riots and San Francisco drag scene laid the foundation for Feather Boa Fathers and It Gets Better and pride parades that include local businesses and church banners. Early feminists who stayed defiant even when beaten and jailed made way for the apple pie tactics of Moms Rising, which has stenciled messages on onesies and delivered cookies to congressmen to get their equal pay message across. In the words of Ecclesiastes, “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.” The questions are in each case, to whom, how, when, and where.
Greta Christina has said that atheist visibility is about thirty-five years behind the gay rights movement. That sounds close. We’ll have caught up when a majority of Americans know they know a nontheist – and that friends, family members, and fellow citizens really can be good without God.