August 17, 2005
Should atheists "come out"?
In a previous essay, I suggested that people tend to have a negative view of atheism. In his blog essay Sam Harris provides support for this view, saying that "More than 50 percent of Americans have a "negative" or "highly negative" view of people who do not believe in God."
Possible reasons for this dislike were discussed earlier but here I want to focus on what, if anything, should be done about it.
One option is to just ignore it. After all, why should atheists care what other people think of them? But this ignores the fact that if atheists allow themselves to be defined by others in negative terms and do nothing about it, they allow the negative portrayals of them to dominate public consciousness.
Another option is for atheists to learn from the steady way that gay people have won increasing acceptance. This has partly come about because gays are "coming out" more to their families and friends and co-workers. They are becoming more visible in everyday life and are being seen as ordinary people. Famous actors are revealing themselves as gay without it being career suicide and gay characters are appearing in films and plays and on television, without their gayness being necessary to the storyline. The fact that they are gay is just incidental.
Richard Dawkins suggests that atheists should also "come out", so that others can see that we are in fact numerous and everywhere and that life goes on nonetheless. Of course, no one would dream of suggesting that atheists encounter discrimination and vilification on the scale that gay people still face. I suspect that most atheists don't "come out" because they don't give much thought to religious matters and when they do, view religion as a private matter and that everyone is entitled to their own beliefs. Atheists may think that "coming out" in any self-conscious way is a silly thing to do and so "coming out" in the way Dawkins suggests will be awkward.
But perhaps if the opportunity arises where one can make it known in a natural way, then one should do so. I, for example, have been an atheist for over ten years but felt no compunction to make it publicly known. It is only with this blog that I have really publicly stated it, and that was because it seemed relevant to some of the postings. As a general rule, I feel religion is not something that one should make a big deal out of, one way or the other.
"Coming out" might also be a source of encouragement to those who are toying with the idea that they are atheists but hesitate to say so publicly because they feel that being an atheist is somehow reprehensible.
What is interesting is that I am seeing more and more public statements questioning the fundamentals of religion, so what Dawkins is advocating may be already happening organically. For example, take this article by Justin Cartwright in the British newspaper Guardian (which I got via onegoodmove). I am quoting it at length because it articulates the atheistic point well but you should read the full article for yourself.
Near the end of his life, [philosopher and historian] Isaiah Berlin wrote these words to a correspondent who had asked the great imponderable: "As for the meaning of life, I do not believe that it has any. I do not at all ask what it is, but I suspect that it has none and this is a source of great comfort to me. We make of it what we can and that is all there is about it. Those who seek for some cosmic all-embracing libretto or God are, believe me, pathetically mistaken."
It's time that we acknowledged honestly what most people believe, that religion is at bottom nonsense. I do not deny the good work of religious people, nor the cultural effects of religion, nor its deep penetration into our consciousness, but what I think we should acknowledge is that religion contains a massive falsehood, namely that there is a God who determines our actions and responds to our plight. As AJ Ayer said, if God has constituted the world in such a way that he cannot resolve the phenomenon of evil, logically it makes no difference whether we are believers or unbelievers. The hypocritical respect now being accorded to Muslim "scholars", people who believe that the Qur'an was dictated word for word by God, is just one example of the mess we have got ourselves into by pretending to take religion seriously. Disagreements about society can only be resolved in the here and now on liberal principles of discussion and compromise. You cannot have a sensible discussion with fundamentalists, be they Christian, Jewish or Muslim, because they start from a different point. …...
It follows that I believe we have to acknowledge happily that ethics has no rational content, that we behave morally and responsibly not because God commands us to do so, but because it is in our nature and because it makes profound common sense to do so. I am not in any sense advocating active hostility to religion, merely that we should as a nation distance ourselves from religious explanations. ....
What we have to promote above all else is the liberal society, and this is best done by observing scrupulously the principles of that society.
And that demands that we acknowledge that religion is, at base, nonsense. The sooner we eliminate the idea that life has "some cosmic, all-embracing libretto", the better.
The next frontier will be popular culture. Since I do not watch much television, I am not sure to what extent programs that have religious themes have atheist characters. But if we do reach the stage where atheists are portrayed as just regular people whose lack of religious belief is incidental to who they are, then we would have reached a significant milestone.
POST SCRIPT 1
In a previous post, I wrote about Ockham's razor. Cartoonist Tom Tomorrow has an example of how the razor currently is being used by some political observers.
POST SCRIPT 2
This is too late for action but I just heard that the Secular Students Alliance had a conference at OSU last weekend. The group's website says that they are:
an educational nonprofit whose purpose is to educate high school and college students around the country about the value of scientific reason and the intellectual basis of secularism in its atheistic and humanistic manifestations….While some students are comfortable with an atheistic outlook, others identify as secular or religious humanists, and yet others prefer the emphasis of skepticism. The SSA acknowledges these differences and seeks to provide channels through which all of these students can explore their particular interests and inclinations through involvement with similar organizations once they graduate.
To any minimally astute observer of the free thought movement, it is apparent that our lack of numbers inhibits our ability to educate the public about atheism, free inquiry, critical thinking and scientific reasoning.
Some time ago, a student at Case approached me about setting up an affiliate group at Case and asked me to be its advisor. I agreed but did not hear anything about it afterwards.