(Atheist) Signs for Our Times

In a New York Times column, Nicholas Kristof expresses hope that a new crop of books, with titles like “The Case for God,” will lead to a truce in the “religious wars.” This is just one of several articles I have read recently — that all seem to suggest that prominent atheists (such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris) represent a form of intolerance that is equal to those of religious fundamentalists at the opposite extreme. What we need to find, so the argument goes, is some middle compromise.

I have already stated my general opposition to this viewpoint. I won’t repeat all of those arguments here. I will, however, point out one particular dismay: Although the “truce” articles pay lip service to the need for accommodations by “both sides,” the onus of responsibility always seems to fall on the atheists. It’s as if they are saying: “Things were going so well before people like Dawkins came along to upset the apple cart. Can’t we just return to the civility we used to have?”

First off, unless you ignore the inflammatory statements made over the years by religious extremists, it can hardly be said that things were civil before Richard Dawkins arrived on the scene. To the contrary, any superficial appearance of civility was only because religion has had the playing field to itself, fending off criticism by claiming that it should be immune to critique. The “new atheists” did not create the current controversy. Rather, they are simply the ones to be outspoken in pointing out that there is another possibility to consider (a bit like the child who shouts “the emperor has no clothes”). If one believes that God does not exist, then it follows that all religions are wrong and are based on a myth. It is not intolerant to point out this implication, any more than it is intolerant to point out that humans are the product of evolution.

All of this, however, is not the primary reason for my blog entry today. Rather, it is something more specific. On December 2, a New York Times article described a new advertising campaign for atheism. It features signs on buses and trains with statements such as “No god? … No problem!” and “Be good for goodness’ sake.” A major sponsor of the campaign is the American Humanist Association.

In a letter to the editor, Edd Doerr (a former head of the American Humanist Association) wrote that he was “embarrassed” by the campaign. He argued that we should avoid the divisiveness resulting from these ads and instead focus on those things we (atheists and religious believers) hold in common, such as “peace, civil liberties, religious freedom, the environment, social justice…” He described the signs as “name-calling and invective.”

Whew! I was both saddened and angry to see this letter. To me, it captures almost everything that is wrong with the current criticism. To have it written by someone within the humanist movement was especially disheartening.

First of all, to suggest that these signs represent “name-calling and invective” is almost libelous. They are incredibly tame, especially compared to the true invective that is often directed toward atheists. “Be good for goodness’ sake”? Where is the invective in this? If atheists are not to be “allowed” to express their views even in these mild terms, in what form can we express our views? Or, to turn it around, should any signs promoting a religious belief, no matter how mild, be banned as well?

But let’s put all that aside. Suppose we accept the idea, however wrong, that these signs are provocative and hostile in some way. Does this mean that these signs are necessarily a bad thing? Hardly. When it comes to making progress against discrimination, being provocative has often been a requirement.

Where would African Americans be today if Rosa Parks had quietly sat in the back of the bus? Or if Martin Luther King had never staged a sit-in? Where would women’s rights be today if not for the provocations of people such as Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinham — women who were criticized as “strident” in expressing their beliefs?

The actions of such people may not be the only ingredients necessary to move the country forward. Conciliation will also be needed. But without these actions to lead the way, there will be no movement at all.

As such, these signs represent a mild and relatively polite form of political activism. If nothing else, they help make it more acceptable for atheists to be open about their beliefs and will ultimately lead to greater tolerance of such beliefs (see this Wikipedia page for a discussion of discrimination against atheists). We may actually already be seeing the beginnings of this shift. As pointed out in the above-cited NYT article, there is a “growing number of nonbelievers. Fifteen percent of Americans identified themselves as having ‘no religion’ in a 2008, up from 8 percent in 1990…”

Sorry Edd, but it is the rest of us who should be embarrassed by you. Your letter represents the sort of frightened head-in-the-sand attitude that, if followed a half-century ago, would have resulted in blacks still drinking from separate water fountains today. As an atheist, I am proud of these signs. I also look forward to the day when they are no longer needed.

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