“This atheism thing is just a trend.”
“Iâm so bored with this atheism fad.”
“You’re just calling yourself an atheist because it’s cool right now, and everyone else is doing it.”
“Oh boy, another hanger-on to the (Dawkins/ Hitchens/ whoever) bandwagon.” (I was particularly entertained when a recent commenter in this blog accused me of parroting Hitchens — when I haven’t even read his damn book yet.)
“You’re just being trendy.”
I’m beginning to see this argument — if you can call it that — a fair amount lately. The newly visible, newly vocal atheist movement… it’s just people trying to be cool, jumping on the bandwagon, finding a new and exciting way to piss off their parents. Denying the existence of God, restructuring your life philosophy to a naturalistic worldview with no permanence and no intent behind it… it’s just a fad.
Like hula-hoops, or swallowing goldfish.
So I want to talk about the trendiness of the atheist movement.
And for the 4,626th time, I’m going to make an analogy to the gay rights movement.
There was a period of the gay rights movement, right around the early ’90s, when “gay” suddenly became very trendy indeed. The news media was doing tons of stories on us; movies and TV shows were being made about us in droves; publishers were publishing our books; politicians were sucking up to us; advertisers were all over us like white on rice.
And then the trendiness passed. Fewer news stories, fewer movies and TV shows, fewer books being published just because they were about being queer. (I suppose I should be sad about this last one, but it’s hard to work up much grief over it, since a lot of those books were really, really bad.)
Now for today’s lesson.
Does any of that mean that the queer movement wasn’t important? That being queer and coming out was just a fad, a flash in the pan, something people did to be cool? That the queer movement was, and is, trivial?
No. Of course not.
The queer movement had been happening for decades before it became trendy. And it’s continued to carry on after the trendiness faded. It’s continued to have major social impact, has continued to shape culture and public policy. Our visibility continues to increase — not in an, “Oh, my goodness, gay people!” way, but in a “taking us for granted and just assuming we’re part of the picture” way. The trendiness came and went; the movement continues.
In fact, none of the trendiness had anything to do with the actual queer movement itself. Nothing had happened within the queer movement to make us trendy. We hadn’t all suddenly started dressing cool or something. (We’ve always dressed cool.)
What had happened was that our visibility had achieved a sufficient critical mass for the rest of the world to sit up and take notice.
The trendiness was not created by us. The trendiness was created by the mainstream world, the largely-straight world. We were willing to ride the wave and use it to our best advantage; but the wave was not of our own making, except insofar as our efforts towards greater visibility and recognition created the conditions in which it could happen.
So what does this have to do with atheism?
It would be foolish to deny that atheism has a certain cachet right now. Atheism is trendy — in the sense that the mainstream world, the mostly-not-atheist world, is suddenly realizing that we’re here… and is finding us fascinating.
Does that mean that atheism is “just a trend”? That atheists are “just being trendy,” and when the fad passes most of us will move on to some other popular philosophy?
No. Of course not.
Like the queer movement, the atheist movement had been going on for some time before it suddenly became trendy. And it would surprise me a lot to see it just disappear. There is a world of difference between the realistic acknowledgment that atheism is somewhat trendy right now… and the dismissive attitude that it’s “just a trend,” or that atheists ourselves are doing it “just to be trendy.”
The fact that atheism is having a big rush of attention and prominence in the public discourse right now doesn’t mean that it’s “just a trend.” Quite the opposite. I think the trendiness phase is a natural side effect of any movement whose numbers and visibility have reached a certain critical mass.
I’m sure there’ll come a point when there are fewer atheist books being published, fewer articles about atheism in the newspapers, fewer people gassing on about atheism on talk shows. But that won’t mean that atheism will just disappear into the invisible margins again. Again, I think it’ll be the opposite. Atheism won’t lose its trendiness when the “fad” passes, when everyone stops doing salsa and starts swing dancing instead. It’ll lose its trendiness when it starts being taken for granted. It’ll lose its trendiness when it becomes part of the cultural and political landscape.
Besides… do you really think people could become atheists just on a whim? Any more than people could become queer on a whim? They’re obviously not exactly parallel situations — I don’t think anyone is claiming that people are born atheist, the way people seem to be born queer — but belief isn’t subject to your wishes in that way. You can’t make yourself not believe in God when you really do… any more than you can make yourself believe in God when you really don’t. It’d be like Pascal’s Wager in reverse.
The “atheism is just trendy” trope is essentially a way of trivializing atheism and the atheist movement… without actually taking the trouble to point out anything that’s wrong with it, or to engage in debate with people who are part of it.
It’s the cool, detached, hipster’s way of dismissing the movement without bothering to think about it.
And phooey on that.
If you don’t want to engage with or think about the atheist movement, then don’t. Nobody’s making you. But if you don’t have anything to say about it, then don’t say anything about it. Don’t go into atheist blogs and forums, don’t get into conversations and debates about the atheist movement, if all you’re going to do is unthinkingly dismiss us by saying that our movement is “just a trend.” It’s insulting and trivializing to us… and it makes you look like a high school kid who thinks that not caring about anything makes you look cool.