May 13, 2007

Educating the Public About Atheism

We atheists can learn a great deal from other social movements that have helped to reduce bigotry and encourage equitable treatment. Civil rights, women's suffrage, and gay rights all contain valuable lessons, but it seems to me that the plight of the GLBT community may have the most to teach us. We share many things, but one of the most important may be the issue of our visibility.

Just as many Americans used to (and some still might) claim to have never known a homosexual person, many now claim to have never encountered an atheist. They may acknowledge the existence of atheists in some distant blue state but not in their heartland community. And yet, we are there. Like many in the GLBT community, many of us try to conceal our lack of belief because we fear the consequences of revealing it.

What we can learn from the gay rights movement is that one of the key steps to improving our situation is to increase our visibility. Increasing numbers of us are "coming out," but one area where we have made little progress is the domain of media coverage. I remember a time when one rarely heard anything about the GLBT community in the media and the little coverage there was was nearly always negative. This seems to characterize our current situation. How many stories on "the new atheism" have you encountered that don't make a point of criticizing us as overly aggressive?

It was a recent post from Austin Cline that started me thinking about this. He pointed out that Christian extremists' worst nightmare is that we start to be "perceived as normal, acceptable, unobjectionable, or even positive."
As was the case with gays, consistently negative media messages are necessary for them to maintain the illusion that religion is necessary for morality, order, and democracy. If atheists come to be perceived as normal, then atheism itself will be difficult to paint as immoral.
When stories such as this one in The University Daily Kansan appear in the mainstream media, Christian extremists cringe because atheists are not depicted in negative ways. Not only do such stories normalize us in the eyes of the average American, but they allow us to interact with others non-defensively, challenging the stereotype of the angry atheist.

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