Normalizing Atheism

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At some point in the interval of time between when Donald Trump announced that he was running for president and when he took office, a popular refrain took hold on the political left: Don't normalize Trump. When I first heard it, I had mixed feelings. On one hand, I agreed 100% that his appalling behavior should not be normalized. It was far from normal and even though "normal" isn't always good, some of the conventions Trump was flouting struck me as worth preserving. Thus, when I heard the calls not to normalize his behavior, I found myself agreeing with them. On the other hand, I had little confidence that Trump's behavior was not going to be normalized no matter what the left wanted. He was our president, and it was hard to see how that wasn't going to be normalizing.

It seems to me that much of Trump's behavior has now been thoroughly normalized. The blatant denials of reality (i.e., "fake news") have become commonplace. The mainstream news media no longer seems shocked to report much of what they report about him. The tactics that once struck so many of us as bizarre (e.g., Trump as a counterpuncher) have been adopted by many on the political left. And most troubling of all, the political left has yet to come up with an effective strategy to counter him. The concerns about not normalizing his behavior appear to have been well-placed.

Although the Trump example illustrates the downside of normalization, I'd prefer to address the upside here. When we imagine a relatively small group of people who have been subjected to intense bigotry and discrimination, pursuing normalization seems to be worthwhile. Normalization can enhance credibility and improve public attitudes. In doing so, things like bigotry and discrimination toward members of the group typically decline.

When it comes to this sort of normalization, the LGBTQ+ community is a great example of a group that has made tremendous progress. It has not, however, been uniform throughout their diverse community. Attitudes toward gay men and lesbian women seem to have improved far more than those toward bisexual or transgendered persons. And while additional progress is needed across the board, more of it seems necessary for some.

As far as atheists are concerned, I think that there are some signs of progress even though attitudes are still extremely negative. It seems clear that bigotry directed at atheists is far more socially acceptable than bigotry directed at LGB persons. I'm less sure about how atheists would compare with transgendered individuals, but I'd guess they would come out ahead. At least, they seem to have made much more progress in the last five years than atheists have. Perhaps this is because we have not been as focused on pursuing normalization as a goal.

It might seem trivial, but I think that getting some realistically-depicted gay and lesbian characters on TV was one of the things that helped improve attitudes toward gay and lesbian people. Atheists haven't been able to do this yet. The few atheist characters we've seen tend to be flawed in ways that confirm rather than challenge harmful stereotypes. This was true for early depictions of lesbian and gay characters, but they managed to move to far more realistic depictions. Maybe atheists can get there too.

There is one specific marker of progress that has been eluded us so far. I'd like to see us get to the point where nobody running for elected office would dream of spewing anti-atheist bigotry because they'd realize that it would be politically fatal. I think we are a long way from that marker, but it is one I'm watching.