Generational Cohorts and Atheism

Coat of arms of the Union of Soviet Socialist ...
Coat of arms of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics from 1958 to 1991 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
This post will be about atheism. I'm mentioning this at the outset because it is going to take me awhile to get there. But I will get there.

The National Geographic Channel recently started airing a new series called Generation X. It is broadcast on Sunday nights. I believe that two episodes have aired so far, but I only saw the first one. I almost always like these types of programs that combine history and cultural analysis. There's something about looking back at historical events and assessing their meaning with the benefit of contemporary perspectives that I've always found appealing. What makes this one even more interesting is that it included my generation. In the first episode, we learn that those of us born between 1961 and 1981 belong to Generation X.

 Generation X

I found much of the episode interesting, but the part that really captured my attention was what they suggested about how generations are affected by some of the significant events that occur during our childhoods or even right before we are born. This was not a new insight, of course. We know that each generational cohort is shaped, at least to some degree, by the significant experiences they share. But some of what they suggested about the way we might have been affected by various events was at least somewhat new (e.g., the role of economic downturns and changes in the labor market in the "slacker" phenomenon).

A couple of the early examples they addressed included the war in Vietnam and the Watergate scandal. In essence, Vietnam divided the U.S., dispelled the myth of U.S. invincibility, and raised a number of important questions about our foreign policy and role in the world. And of course, Watergate taught us that we could not always trust our government and tarnished the office of the president. They suggested that these two events likely shaped our perspectives toward government, politicians, war, and the like.

Since I was born in the middle of the Generation X period, I don't have any memories of either Vietnam or Watergate. And yet, the fact that I grew up in the years closely following these events may mean that they exerted some influence. They certainly affected my family and others in my environment who in turn influenced me. But since I do not remember them, they did not have the sort of direct impact on me that I imagine they had on those who do remember them.

When I think about significant events that I do remember and that definitely had a direct influence, the first thing that comes to mind is the Cold War. I might not remember Vietnam, but I certainly remember the intense fear and hatred of the Soviet Union. And I remember this gradually receding during the 1980s, at least for some of those in my generation.

Communism and Atheism

This got me thinking about generational differences in attitudes toward atheism and in the experiences of those of us who would eventually become atheists. I was taught from an early age that there was nothing worse than Communists. They were our enemies, and they were determined to wipe us off the face of the planet. They had the nukes to get the job done, and it was probably just a matter of time until they would unleash this destructive power against us. Indeed, our days were numbered.

As if this wasn't bad enough, Communists were atheists. They didn't believe in our gods; that is how evil they were! Their values were so different from ours that we were encouraged to think of them as being less than fully human. Because Communists were our enemy and because Communists were atheists, atheism was pure evil. Of all the things one could be, an atheist was just about the worst I could imagine.

It shouldn't be any mystery why it took me as long as it did or was as difficult as it was to come to terms with my atheism. It was not only that atheism seemed like a rejection of my family and almost all of the cultural values I had been raised to accept; atheism seemed like an embrace of the enemy. Atheism seemed traitorous.

When I think about the generations that came after mine and realize that their early memories and formative years don't begin until after the end of the Cold War, it seems like they would be free from this particular burden. While some were undoubtedly raised to hate atheists by evangelical fundamentalist Christian parents, they would not have been exposed to the widespread cultural indoctrination of hate aimed at the Soviet Union or the equating of atheism with Communism. Pervasive fear of nuclear annihilation would probably strike most of them as ridiculous. And the link between Communism and atheism probably seems far less relevant to them than it did to me.

Contemporary Atheism

Those born in the 2000s entered a world with vastly different attitudes toward atheism than was the case 20-30 years earlier. They probably know at least one person who openly identifies as an atheist. They can find accurate information on atheism on the Internet. They can find books that are actually pro-atheism with little effort. They may even find an occasional atheist character on TV who isn't depicted as a monster. I couldn't imagine any of these things in the 1980s.

The cumulative impact of these and other differences probably goes a long way toward explaining some of the progress we have witnessed. There is still a long way to go. There are still powerful politicians (e.g., Ted Cruz) seeking to establish a Christian theocracy, religiously-motivated bigotry is still with us, and threats to the separation of church and state abound. And yet, there are signs of progress. It seems quite likely, for example, that the grip of Christianity on the minds of the youth is beginning to slip. A wave of secularism could be on the horizon.