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!“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.”
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.
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.