Over at Pure Pedantry, Jake Young weighs in with a lengthy essay on the subject of promoting atheism. The essay makes some interesting points, and is centered around a 1922 article by John Dewey in The New Republic. Sadly, Jake takes the Matt Nisbet line on this issue.
I have already left a lengthy comment over at Jake’s blog indicating some points of disagreement with his essay. But there was one item I felt deserved a post of its own. Jake writes:
Further, embracing a big-tent approach will not prevent scientific or even atheistic values from taking over. While the majority of the American public is religious, the number of atheists is growing. New atheists will be created in the same way that new atheists have always been created: by a kid waking up in class one day and saying, “You know that invisible man business doesn’t make sense.” Science will be furthered for the same reason it has always been furthered: because it provides the only adequate explanation of reality. People can believe what they want, but in the end reality is the only yardstick. (Emphasis Added)
I’m afraid that bold-face remark is pretty wide of the mark.
Let us consider as an analogy the progress that homosexuals have made in terms of their social acceptance in the last twenty years or so. How did this come about? Was it because gays waited for enough people to wake up and see the injustice of their situation?
Certainly not. It was because gay activist groups started lobbying actively for their rights. It was because numerous celebrities like Rosie O’Donnell, Ellen DeGeneres, Melissa Etheridge, and many others started speaking openly about their homosexuality. It was because gay pride parades started being held in most major American cities. It was because politicans were constantly forced to be aware of gay issues. It was because people went to court to force the issues of gay marriage and gay adoption into public view. It was because favorable portrayals of gay characters became ubiquitous in television and movies.
In short, it became impossible to ignore homosexuality, and it became so mainstream that publicly expressing bigotry towards homosexuals, routine twenty years ago, is now completely taboo. The fight for gay marriage is all but won, and it is the religious right that finds itself on the defensive on this issue.
And where has progress been conspicuously absent? In the military. And what is the policy in the military? Don’t ask, don’t tell. A craven, compromise position designed to appease the anti-gay bigots by tip-toeing around their unreasonable prejudices, trying to make the issue go away by telling everyone to shut up about it. Sorry, but that approach never works.
There has been quite a lot of blowback against homosexuals. I’ve seen countless pundits (generally reasonable ones, not just crazy right-wingers) decry gay pride parades for being too obnoxious and too in your face. It happens often in the annals of repectable opinion that gays are admonished to be patient while the rest of the public comes around. The religious right has been energized by their activities, leading to their increased participation in certain recent elections.
Does that mean that gays would have done better to be silent for all these years? That they should have heeded the warnings to avoid offending religious people while waiting for them to wake up to their plight? Of course not. No one would dare suggest anything so foolish.
Do I need to spell out the rest of the analogy? Atheism will become socially acceptable when it becomes so mainstream that people can no longer avoid it. There are promising steps in that direction. The sales of the books by Dawkins et al have exceeded all expectations. As a result people have awakened to the fact that there is large nonreligious population out there that must be acknowledged. The mainstream media has done countless stories on the phenomenon, as have all the major political chat shows. California representative Pete Stark publicly acknowledged his atheism, making him the first national politican to do so. For most of last season the number two show on television (after American Idol) was House, a show whose title character is an atheist who frequently makes derisive remarks about religious belief.
This is what we need more of. What we need less of is the constant fretting about offending religious people, the incessant warnings about the wrath of the offended pious, the weighing of every honest opinion we express against its possible emotional impact against vaguely defined religious moderates.
I’m afraid I lack Jake’s patience. I think we can do more than simply wait around for people to come to their senses. I think that you can help those people in class to wake up by writing books showing them there is something other than the religious attitudes in which they have been steeped for much of their life. I think most of the time people are happy to go on sleeping until some noisy troublemaker gets their attention.
Social change does not happen when you sit around and wait for people to come around to your view of things. Surely history provides copious examples to that effect.