December 1, 2019

OK Boomer and the Changing Face of Atheism

couple in front of waterfall

I am neither a Boomer nor a Millennial, two tribes that some are now depicting as being at war with one another. I belong to Generation X, a generation that was frequently maligned by the Boomers and that has frequently maligned the Millennials. As such, I suppose you could say I have no real stake in this fight (if it is a real fight). Still, there are a few points I'd like to make since I think they have been getting lost amidst the outrage.

I don't blame Millennials for being upset at Boomers for at least two reasons. First, Boomers have been crapping on Millennials for as long as there have been Millennials. They have disparaged them in many of the same ways they did to my generation, but I think they've been even more critical than they were of us. I'm not saying this justifies Millennials giving it back to them, but it does make it more understandable why they would do so. Second, it is hard to argue against the Millennial narrative that Boomers have helped to wreck their world in some important ways (e.g., inaction on climate change) or that some Boomers seem oblivious to the reality they created. Again, I do not think this justifies treating them poorly; however, I can understand the impulse to do so.

One of the many problems with the OK Boomer thing is that it is bafflingly incomplete. Let's say that Millennials are pissed off at Boomers for the climate crisis. It makes sense that they would be, but why does my generation get a pass? Has Generation X been any better when it comes to the climate? If Millennials are going to claim that some of us have, then they have to acknowledge that the same is true of some Boomers. Focusing on Boomers, at least on this particular issue, seems hard to justify. There's plenty of blame to go around. In fact, relatively few of the Millennials I know are doing anything about the climate; that is falling on those who came after them.

What does any of this have to do with "the changing face of atheism," you ask? I'm getting to that. Assuming religious belief continues to decline, atheism and closely related topics like secularism are going to be less important. Think about the kind of issues atheist Boomers have focused on and contrast that with the kind of issues Millennial atheists are focused on. There is some overlap, but there are also some big differences. If we think about the generation after Millennials (or the one after that), it seems like these differences will be even greater. This is what I mean by "the changing face of atheism." The issues with which the atheists of today are preoccupied will probably seem trivial to the atheists of the future.

Some atheist Boomers and Gen-Xers seem to have trouble with what they perceive as Millennials' excessive focus on social justice, obsession with social media, love of memes, etc. Might this reflect generational differences? Some Millennials perceive Boomers and Gen-Xers as stuck in the past and still obsessed with disproving Bigfoot while the world is burning. For them, there are many far more pressing concerns that make church-state separation and old school skepticism look trivial.

Millennials and the generations that follow them are facing new challenges that Gen-Xers and Boomers either didn't have to face because they weren't pressing concerns or because we chose to ignore them. The younger generations don't have that luxury, and some of them are not happy about that. They are bound to have different priorities, and this gap will widen in the future. Of course, some of the gap is also due to the progress that has been made. Some of the big issues for Boomer atheists don't seem nearly as relevant today because of that.

I think this current OK Boomer dust-up is largely a case of manufactured conflict by our corporate news media but that does not mean there are not some negative feelings on both sides. I have little trouble understanding why younger people would be mad at Boomers. Their anger is valid, and they have many excellent reasons to be angry. Still, I think it is a mistake to paint all Boomers with the same brush and perhaps even a worse mistake to absolve Generation X of our responsibility. We haven't been much better. But mostly, the mistake is that OK Boomer is de-motivational. It isn't going to change minds; it will just lead people to double-down on not changing what needs to change.

As for the changing face of atheism, I suggest we embrace it. The youth are inheriting a bleak future because of all our mistakes, but they are also inheriting a future where religious belief is far less likely to be the kind of problem it has been for us. Expecting them to have the same priorities we did makes little sense. Complaining about atheist organizations moving away from the narrow missions they have traditionally had (i.e., a sort of "dictionary atheism" characterized by focusing on church-state separation and closely related issues) and adopting more of a social justice agenda is a lost cause. These organizations are adapting to the future and will not survive if they refuse to do so.