On The Amazingness of Atheists… And Why It’s Doomed

I think the contemporary atheist movement is amazing. I am inspired and enlightened and completely blown away by it, on an almost daily basis. Not to mention vastly entertained. I think the contemporary atheist movement is largely — although far from entirely — made up of people who are smart, thoughtful, ethical, caring, passionate, honest, funny, brave, and able to think for themselves… to an amazing degree.

And I think that amazingness is doomed.

More to the point: I think it should be doomed.

I want to talk about why.

And I want, for what I believe is the 86,467th time in this blog, to make a comparison with the queer movement.

When I was coming out as queer in the 80’s, coming out was still a hard thing to do. And you had to be a special person to do it. (Sorry if that sounds arrogant, but it’s true.) You had to have a strong personality, an independent spirit, a huge amount of self-confidence, a passion for social change, a vision for the future, a wicked sense of humor, a metric shitload of courage, an unbelievably thick skin. (That’s even more true the further back you go. Out queer people in the 60’s and 70’s were fucking phenomenal. I bow down to them.)

So it was easy to be deceived into thinking that there was something inherently special about being queer. After all, when you looked around you in the queer community, what you saw everywhere was totally amazing people. It was easy to forget that the difficulty of coming out was a powerful self-selecting filter for amazingness.

And as a result, there was often a thread of self-satisfied elitism woven into all that amazingness. The queer theory crowd especially was always going on about how queerness represented this radical paradigm shift, how we were the cutting edge of a new frontier of humanity, how being queer meant seeing the world in a completely different way, how it represented a brand new way of looking at gender, how the liberation of queerness was going to solve world hunger and fill the world with cute puppies.

But as the movement progressed, and coming out became easier and safer, the amazing specialness of the queer community became… well, less and less special and amazing.

Which is exactly as it should be.

I don’t remember who said this first, but the goal of any liberation movement is to make itself obsolete. That goal hasn’t been reached yet in the queer movement — far from it. But as the movement has progressed, as it’s become easier and easier to come out as queer, the queer community is looking more and more like just the regular old human community: not overwhelmingly populated by strong, independent, funny, brave, self-confident, thick-skinned visionaries with a passion for social change, but in fact populated largely by regular folks who just want to get on with their lives. Being queer has become increasingly normal, increasingly no big deal, increasingly not the central defining feature of every queer person’s identity. People have been able to come out of the closet who wouldn’t have had the strength and courage to do it twenty or thirty years ago.

And good for them. That’s exactly how it should be.

Now, this has been a hard pill to swallow for some, especially for the radical anti-assimilation queers. But it seems pretty clear now that having the hots for people of the same sex does not, in and of itself, make you a special and amazing person.

Which brings me back to the atheist movement.

Right now, coming out as an atheist is pretty damn hard. (Easier here in San Francisco… but still not super-easy. Among other things, I’ve had casual friendships lost and closer friendships seriously strained by my outspoken atheism. And the death threats haven’t been a picnic.) So you have to be a pretty amazing person to do it. You have to have a strong personality, an independent spirit, a huge amount of self-confidence, a passion for social change, a vision for the future, a wicked sense of humor, a metric shitload of courage, an unbelievably thick skin.

And as a result, the atheist community is amazing. Aggravating to the point of madness at times (as was the queer community of the 80’s and 90’s)… but still totally amazing. I love it to pieces.

But that’s not going to last.

We have to be prepared for that. And we have to not let our current amazingness go to our heads. We have to not succumb to elitism. We have to not fool ourselves into thinking that our amazingness comes from anything other than the difficulty of coming out, and the powerful self-selecting filter that this difficulty creates.

The recent debate here about the morality of atheists and believers is what reminded me of this, what made me decide to finally write about it instead of just musing about it in my head. See, I think this is part of the reason some atheists are inclined to think that atheist morality is more mature than theistic morality. Because right now, the atheist community is largely made up of people with a very mature, well-thought-out sense of morality and ethics. We’ve had to be. The assumption that morality comes from religion is very deeply ingrained in our culture, and those of us who’ve rejected religion have had to think long and hard and carefully about what our morality is and why. (Many theists have also thought about this carefully — in the same way that many straight people in the 80’s and 90’s had a thoughtful and perceptive understanding of gender — but coming out as an atheist today means having that thoughtfulness thrust upon you.)

But if we’re successful — if we succeed in making a world in which being an atheist is relatively easy, or at least a whole lot easier than it is now — then that’s going to change. As we succeed in making the world an easier place to be an atheist, we’re going to see more and more atheists who haven’t agonized over their atheism to the same degree that most of us have. As we succeed in making the world an easier place to be an atheist, we’re going to see more and more atheists who aren’t amazingly brave and strong, tough and independent, passionate and confident. We’re going to see more and more atheists who are pretty much regular folks who just want to get on with their lives.

And that’s exactly as it should be.

So we’d better prepare for it now.

On The Amazingness of Atheists… And Why It’s Doomed
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22 thoughts on “On The Amazingness of Atheists… And Why It’s Doomed

  1. 1

    Yeah, but…
    When I was living in France and working as a programmer, religion came up at work almost never. Yet the few times it did come up, the default assumption seemed to be “of course nobody actually takes that stuff seriously.” And it’s about the same in the mathematical community. And to be honest, it’s nice not to have to always be the ambassador or representative of atheism.
    I’m willing to stand up and be counted even when it’s not convenient. I was raised to believe it’s cool not to be afraid to be “peculiar” (see my deconversion part I: http://lfab-uvm.blogspot.com/2006/07/my-deconversion-part-1-background.html ) Yet I won’t be lamenting the day atheism isn’t special anymore.

  2. 2

    I think there is a difference to an extent — because atheism is an INTELLECTUAL position the mere fact of being an atheist might make you more likely to be an amazing person (I’m not saying it necessarily does, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it did). This is not true for the queer movement.
    Of course there might be other reasons being queer might make you statistically more likely to be amazing.
    But definitely right on the ball — even if the level of amazingness in queer and atheist communities is a tad above average, as the movements progress the perceived average will come down until it reaches this true average. If that makes sense 🙂

  3. 3

    I think what I look forward to is the day when I will no longer be defined by atheism. It’s true that LGBTs still have a way to go, but isn’t rather nice being thought of as something more than just queer?

  4. 4

    As painful as it is sometimes, we always have to keep in mind that atheism, by itself, confers no special virtues. It’s just a lack of god-belief, nothing more. Other than that, nothing unites us. There can be, and there are, atheists who are prejudiced, who are nasty, who hold irrational beliefs, and who are just plain unpleasant to be around. I’ve met some of them myself; of course, it goes without saying that none of the wonderful people who post or comment on this blog are among them. 😉
    That said, even though it’s not logically necessary that atheists share a common set of philosophical views or social aims, I have observed that most of us are broadly united around some common ideas: standing up for free speech and freedom of conscience, supporting science and reason, defending the rights of other minorities, etc. Much of that, as Greta observed, is probably because most of the atheists who are “out” have been shaped by common experiences dealing with the religious majority. But I don’t think we *have* to lose that humanist spirit as we become more numerous – at least, I hope not. What we need is a community that can articulately promote those ideals. That way, people who are interested in joining us will likely hear about what we stand for first, and the people who will be drawn to join us are the ones who will be sympathetic to that.

  5. 5

    Your post is bang on as usual Greta but I fail to see in what way this natural progression of things “dooms” atheism. To the contrary. In the same way that the final unacceptability of overt racism a generation ago permitted innumerable newly fearless inter-racial relationships to prosper normally, and how today the gradual acceptance of homosexuality is surely, among many other things, allowing many more a high school jock to discover the (hopefully) guiltless fun of ‘helpin’ their buddy out’ after the game once in a while (no I’m not speaking from experience! how dare you! whatever would make you suggest such a thing!?!). So too will be the eventual mainstreaming of the acceptability of living a superstition-free life. IMNSHO, the great pleasure of watching a society as a whole free itself from shackles of unreason and bigotry vastly outweighs any potential regret over the loss of some perceived specialness of the initial pioneers of such movements. Anything that has the effect of freeing some people, frees all people.

  6. 6

    Coming out as an atheist requires all those special qualities you describe, in America. I can only speak from my own experience, but here in Canada, atheism is father towards that point where atheism is nothing special and there’s nothing special about being an atheist. I just saw you use “world” once or twice and thought I’d point out one place that’s different.

  7. 7

    I think you’re partly right, and partly wrong. The disanalogy between the queer movement and the atheist movement is as instructive as the analogy. Queer is just something you are. Someone might come to *realize* or *accept* their own non-heteronormal sexuality or gender identity, but being queer isn’t really a choice for them. Atheism is different simply because being an atheist IS a choice – sort of.
    I say “sort of” simply because I cannot imagine being otherwise given who I am – but some of who I am is itself the creation of choices. At some level, in some way, my rejection of comfortable dogma, my embrace of critical and independent thinking, and my willingness to buck tradition and family and all that jazz has a voluntary component. Maybe natural inclination has a lot to do with how I made those choices, but those natural inclinations clearly aren’t as deep and strong as sexuality/gender identity inclinations. In contrast, I know a lot of people who are apatheists, who don’t believe but also just don’t give a crap – whereas I’ve never encountered anyone without any interest in and completely unmotivated by their own sexuality and/or gender identity.
    Both queers and atheists can choose to be outspoken or not, and the hostility of the environment in which they make that choice certainly does create a tendency towards “awesomeness” for the reasons you outline. But I think perhaps that atheist identity and the atheist “movement” (such as it is) has a greater tendency to maintain at least some level of awesomeness because even being an atheist in the first place has a much more voluntary character than being queer: Even someone raised in an atheist home in a largely atheist environment (Sweden, for example), while they *might* lack religious belief in the same unreflective, I-just-grew-up-that-way that many people adhere to religious belief, still has at least some element of choice involved on whether to positively identify themselves as “atheist” or simply not think about or discuss religion at all. I don’t think anyone has the choice not to think about their own sexuality/gender identity at all. (Or at least, those who have desires/identity/feelings outside the framework of culturally mandated heteronormativity have no choice but to think about it. Those who satisfy social norms are, in contract, exceptional if they *do* think about it at all – just as it’s rather exceptional for religious believers to reflect deeply on what they believe about the divine and why, and whether/how it fits into everything else the believe about the world and why.)

  8. 8

    Er, of course I meant “in contrast.” “In contract” makes no sense whatsoever. Which means that I needn’t have posted this correction, I suppose – but I hate type-os!

  9. 9

    Blake, a quick clarification: This natural progression doesn’t doom atheism. It just dooms the amazingness and specialness of the atheist community. I’m not saying the atheist community will disappear; I’m saying it’ll become less densely populated with amazing people.
    Ebon: You make a good point. To belabor the analogy (trust me, I am going to suck every bit of juice out of this analogy that I can): As being openly queer has gotten easier, the queer community has become less special and more just like the culture at large… but it’s also the case that the fight for queer rights has changed society, and is continuing to change society. Our ideas and definitions about gender, sexuality, family, etc., are changing… and I think the growing visibility and acceptance of queers is a big part of that.
    So while I don’t think that a more atheist- friendly world would be a beautiful utopia of peace and cute puppies, I think it might be a world in which humanist values are stronger than they are now.
    And Cory, you’re absolutely right. I do have a tendency to be U.S. centered in my thinking sometimes. My bad.

  10. 10

    I want to congratulate you on this wonderful blog/essay. As someone who is not gay–but uses the gay/atheist analogy ad nauseam–it is nice to hear from someone who pridefully both.
    I hope and pray (pun intended) the future you are predicting comes to pass. I live in Atlanta, which I’m sure you know, is quite bigoted in every way imaginable. It is difficult raising freethinking children in this environment. The threat my daughters encounter concerning God and Hell are quite disconcerting to say the least.
    I long for the day when people of reason will become the status quo. However, to get to this point, we are dependent on the smug “special” feeling people you wrote about.
    All movements depend on the pendulum effect. They must swing to the other extreme before they can bring balance. It took the crazy bra burners to get to equal rights for women. It took militant/pacifist blacks to bring racial acceptance. It took (and still takes) the flamboyant gay pride parades to get to equal sexual rights.
    So, come what will, I am encouraged by your post to continue being outspoken. I hope you and all atheists will keep taking it to the streets. Let’s feel “special” and wallow in our superiority. For only this extremism will lead to eventual balance and our fading into mediocrity.

  11. 11

    I do think our morality is superior in that we do the right thing simply BECAUSE it’s the right thing, and not because we’re afraid of what will happen when we die. We do good for its own sake, not because we expect divine reward, or escape from divine punishment. Although some would argue that all behavior is basically selfish, that all acts are done for reasons of self interest, basically, deep down inside. That we do good things for others just so we can feel good about ourselves. But that’s another argument.

  12. 13

    (JBH) When you are a religious believer, somebody is handing you a set of ethics. When you are an atheist, no one does this for you, you have to figure it out for yourself. It may be that (now or in the future) most people, both believers and atheists, just pick up their ethics from their parents, peers, and surrounding culture, so in practice they have the same sort of ethics, and follow it to the same degree. But I think it may be that having no theory you are “obligated” to believe (atheism) is inherently better than being handed a false theory (the Divine Command theory). The harm that religion does, AFAICT, all comes from taking alleged “revelation” seriously. The more seriously you take it, and the more OF it that you take seriously, the more harm it is likely to do.

  13. 14

    Atheism isn’t a New Age toy. When Trendies have moved along, we old timers will still be here, grateful for whatever momentum has been added by their enthusiasm.
    I met a fellow self-avowed non-believer 2 weeks ago. One of fewer than a half dozen in my 58 years. At this rate, I may be dead of old age before meeting another. Out here in just-plain-folks land, in middle-aged, middle America, far from academic circles and blogging, people are more apt to admit to having a mental illness or being a socialist than they are to describe themselves as an atheist. In this land, a fart is better received than a serious remark about religion.
    With so few of us, it’s hard to share a rapturous sense of being amazing and special.

  14. 15

    I agree with Cory, it is no big deal here in Canada. We are just folks like everyone else. I have been an atheist for 46 years and the only time it was an issue was in the U.S.

  15. 16

    I thought your essay was quite good. I am a believer, but I still appreciate a good essay. Also, I have several friends who are atheists, but I don’t feel that they think they are especially more amazing than anyone else. They are great, fun, smart, creative, nice people, of course. But, they never seem to be snobby or more self-important simply because they aren’t part of the “Bible-thumping” community. We all met in college in rural Georgia, so we were in the Bible belt (and all grew up there), so they could have chosen to act arrogant or self-important in the light of the environment we lived in. But, they didn’t.
    Sometimes it seems funny how atheists think all Christians are backwards or ignorant. Or that we act “good” simply to follow the rules to get into heaven. Unfortunately even religion doesn’t do that – if you are Catholic, you might think, “I’ll do this bad thing now, then go to confession.” If you are Baptist, you might think, “well, ‘once saved always saved,’ so I can go beat the kids and I”ll be OK.” I guess I’m saying it really comes down to not being a total ass more than it comes down to atheist vs. religious background. Wonderful people can exist in both trains of thought . . . it’s just beliefs about afterlife, supreme being, etc. that are different.
    Good blog – interesting stuff, and you have a great writing style. Thanks for sharing!

  16. Jms

    All in all, being in a movement, especially being in an oppressed movement, may give you that feeling of being part of something, of being better, of being vanguard, but persecution doesn’t mean you are right (cause otherwise, Christians would be just as right as atheists, and that can’t be so no matter how you feel).
    As far as morality goes, I still don’t see how an atheist comes up with a good reason for feeling the need for it, unless she turns to the territory covered pretty well by Buddhism and sorta just accepts her place as a temporary component of the universe(humanism has always seemed to me to be an attempt to serve a greater good while holding a belief that logically excludes it).
    There are some of us who have trouble with this, who probably need a belief in something higher(and how awful is it if that is just an irrational need thrust upon the rational mind?) The Biblical character I always identified with growing up was Nebuchadnezzar, I could sympathize with the Bible’s version of that king when he basically says “You seers, interpret my dreams. But since you claim a pipeline to the divine, interpret them for me before I explain them to you.” No Crossing Over crap there. He just tears up the world until God knocks him down, and hard, but then when he gets up again he has a real reason to believe. Not that I’d ever do anything like that, and doing the kind of intellectual searching you describe is certainly a better method to finding one’s world view, but without some kind of faith, living “morally” gives me the uneasy sense of living a lie for no good reason, and I just wanna cause some chaos until something reigns me in.

  17. 18

    I need to just say a few things. The difference between the gay movement and the atheist movement is this: Gays wanted straights to except them. Atheist want theist to think like them.

  18. 19

    As a queer atheist, I would just like to point out that trying to change people’s minds — which is clearly and unapologetically the goal of both of those movements as well as just about any other social movement I can think of — is hardly the same thing as trying to get people to “think like us.”
    Unless you mean “evaluate claims according to reason and evidence,” in which case I definitely do want people to think like us.
    But on a strictly pragmatic level, what most of us really want is not to be “accepted” (or “excepted” as you put it). What we want is for the homophobes and the god-botherers to let us live our lives in peace. They can believe whatever wackadoodle claptrap they want, as long as they keep it to themselves.

  19. 20

    In Sweden, my country, you’re perceived as a part of the majority if you’re an atheist, it’s nothing people mention that they are, because it’s already expected, but no one really care if you’re religious either; God simply isn’t such a big deal here. (I could be wrong though,I haven’t experienced how it is to be religious in this country)
    Reminds me of when my class at school visited a Mormon church, (We studied different religions at the time) and the guy who told us about the Mormon faith at the end of the visit asked how many of us believed in God, and only one out of 31 people answered that he did. That was only in my class, of course, not exactly a reliable source of statics that proves most people in my country are atheists, but I still remember that clearly.
    If you’re an atheist here, you’re very far from being amazing in any way, simply because it’s just a matter of lack in belief without having the need to think much for yourself, you just don’t think so much about religious ways to perceive the world from the start.
    I’m very happy that I was lucky enough to be born here, with parents that didn’t raise me into any faith, but didn’t tell me deities doesn’t exist either, I got the right to figure things out for myself, and I truly wish everyone could be able to do that.
    Sorry if I get a bit off-topic.

  20. 21

    I have never gotten shit for being an atheist in the States. I am a software engineer like one of the posters above, and it is pretty universal among my peers to be agnostic or atheist. This is Arizona I am talking about. I can’t believe that in San Francisco you run into problems.

  21. 22

    What you’ve said here makes a lot of sense, Greta–and in fact I’m seeing it already in one of those canary-in-a-mineshaft places, Yahoo! Answers. Every now and then I see something pretty dumb or low-class posted by an atheist there, but maybe now I should look at that as a good sign, not just something to feel embarrassed about.

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