Monday, August 20, 2007

Atheism on the air

I don't believe it!

As we already know, there is a crop of noisy “New Atheists” who refuse to conform with the old sit-down-and-shut-up standard. These feisty nonbelievers engage in such provocative activities as writing bestsellers or appearing in videos. Their behavior has been terribly distressing some devout religionists—especially those who have unsuccessfully prayed to their gods to strike down the obstreperous heathens.

This past week the NPR program On the Media broadcast an installment devoted to the rising tide of disbelief in public life and entertainment:
God No!
August 17, 2007

No longer content to silently disavow religion, the so-called New Atheists are on the offensive. Borrowing tactics from the faithful, nonbelievers have taken to proselytizing in books and in the media. And yes, they’re even in foxholes.
“God No!” features Sam Harris's quest to raise the consciousness of nonbelievers and, in the program's words, “to make moderates less moderate.” Why does this matter? It appears that atheists may be regarded so negatively because so few people are aware of knowing an atheist. Professor Penny Edgell of the University of Minnesota did a survey of American attitudes toward different groups. Atheists did not fare well. Said Edgell, “Just do the numbers, right? If they're only 7% of the American population, odds are most people don't know one.”

Actually, 7% is more than enough for everyone to know a few atheists. Jews are only about 2% of the American population, but I know several. Some of them are probably atheists, too, but Jews seem to be more open about being Jews than most atheists are about being nonbelievers. With nonbelievers in the closet, the general population is susceptible to the stereotype that furtive atheists are “immoral.” Atheists are also regarded as holding their beliefs only when convenient, which is why the media does not hesitate to repeat such insulting maxims as “There are no atheists in foxholes.” Oh, yeah?

My favorite line from the program is the quote from Gregory House (the curmudgeonly physician portrayed by Hugh Laurie in the Fox program House), who says, “Faith. That's another word for ignorance, isn't it?” House creator David Shore admits he sometimes pulls his punches a little—it probably matters that broadcast media depend on general appeal for financial success—but he underscores some of his own favorite lines, delivered in high indignation by Hugh Laurie in the persona of Shore's atheist doctor:
“You know, I get it that people are just looking for a way to fill the holes. But they want the holes. They want to live in the holes. And they go nuts when someone else pours dirt in their holes. Climb out of your holes, people!”
Shore agrees that people dislike atheists in general rather than in particular: “They know House. They like him. They don't care that he's an atheist.” If fictional atheists like Gregory House are joined by more outspoken atheists in real life, perhaps prompted by the urgings of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and others, the general perception of nonbelievers may be expected to move toward something more realistic.

We aren't all lurking in the dark, waiting to perpetrate atrocities on the faithful. We've just been more successful in outgrowing the imaginary friends of our childhood.


BEAJ said...

I'm an atheist Jew, and people know I'm Jewish because of my name and because of Jewish holidays. In school, I went from secular believer to agnostic and finally in my early 30's I evolved into an atheist.
Jewish holidays in school were a dead giveaway as to who is a Jew.
Also, there is a Jewish culture. It is impossible for a non believing Jew to escape the culture (not that I ever wanted to), because of funerals, bar mitzvahs, Passover dinners, etc.
Atheists don't have holidays or even a the only way to really find out if someone is an atheist is to ask someone their beliefs.
There is still a stigma to openly state one is an atheist. There still is one to state one is a Jew too, but the circumstances for hiding that one isn't many.

King Aardvark said...

Do you need basic math to do a sociology degree? Say you know 100 people, which is a very conservative estimate. Assuming your circle of acquaintances is representative of the country as a whole, then you should know 7 atheists. Unless all the atheists live in one self-containted commune, chances are almost everyone knows an atheist; it's just that, as beaj said, people haven't asked. I guess that really does mean we have to tell more people.

Mark said...

Interesting point about how atheists don't have organized rituals to develop their own communities.

Hitchens, in his recent book tour, wanted to appear particularly in the south and found himself in overflowing venues. Audience members were often shocked to find out that they were not the only atheists in town.

Sheldon said...

"Assuming your circle of acquaintances is representative of the country as a whole, then you should know 7 atheists. Unless all the atheists live in one self-containted commune, chances are almost everyone knows an atheist; it's just that, as beaj said, people haven't asked. "

Well, this is my hypothesis. It depends on what circles you associate with. If you are a particular profession, or have an advanced degree in the sciences, or have certain interests, then one might know more atheists than the average person who asssociates with other social circles.

Example. I am an archaeologist, and quite a few archaeologists are atheists. I live in a part of the country with a high number of archaeologists (four corners area), and thus I know quite a few atheists.

If I worked in business, and lived somewhere else like the south, I would probably know fewer fellow atheists.