October 11, 2009

Thoughts on Atheist Identity

Spend much time on atheist blogs or forums, and you are sure to encounter some version of the following:
I just don't get why atheists would be into atheist t-shirts, car emblems, or other symbols like the Dawkins "A." I mean, what's the point of wearing a symbol to tell people what you don't believe in?
I find myself thinking about culture and identity today for some reason, so I'd like to share my thoughts on this question.

It is true that atheism refers to the lack of god belief. And yet, for those of us living in the U.S., being an atheist is very different than being someone who doesn't believe in fairies, monsters under the bed, Santa Claus, or unicorns. While I agree that it wouldn't make much sense to wear a t-shirt saying "I don't believe in Santa Claus," this is not because such a statement is analogous to atheism; it is because such a statement has no significant implications for one's identity in a culture.

What many Christians and more than a few atheists seem to have difficulty understanding is that atheism remains a pretty big deal in the U.S. It is widely perceived as a rejection of anything positive and as an embrace of pure evil. We are despised as arrogant, immoral, and treasonous by a vast segment of the populace. We are the ultimate scapegoats. One implication of this widespread anti-atheist bias is that publicly disclosing one's lack of god belief is far more significant than expressing one's lack of belief in monsters or fairies.

By declaring that I do not believe in unicorns, I am saying nothing of significance to anyone. However, by explaining that I think the existence of gods is no more likely than the existence of unicorns, I am making a statement with vast cultural implications. I am identifying myself as a member of a tiny and thoroughly hated minority

What we must understand is that the same factors which lend cultural significance to atheism also make it a part of our identity which many of us view as worthy of celebration. There is a reason that many of us would extend congratulations to someone who told us that they were an ex-Christian who was just beginning to explore atheism. We see it as an accomplishment to have escaped the dominant cultural paradigm and ally oneself with what is real rather than merely what is popular. We atheists may not agree with one another on many issues, but it means something to most of us to know that we share membership in the subculture of atheism.

When I see someone with an atheist tattoo, wearing an atheist t-shirt, or driving a vehicle with an atheist emblem, I feel a little bit less alone. I even feel a bit more hopeful about the future.

For more on this subject, see Atheist Identity.

H/T to Religious People Are Funny (update: link no longer active)