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My Cup Is Half Full -- Why I Am Optimistic about the Rights of Nonbelievers

"I don't know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God."--Vice-President George H. W. Bush, 1987
"Americans practice different faiths in churches, synagogues, mosques and temples. And many good people practice no faith at all."--President George W. Bush, 2002
Those two quotes, to me, are symbolic. They mark 15 years of progress for the rights of nonbelievers. A Republican President, supported and elected by theocrats, acknowledges that nonreligious people can be good. Ludicrous comments by Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson blaming secularism for the destruction of the Twin Towers were condemned by virtually everyone, including President Bush. Similarly asinine comments by leggy columnist and talking head Ann Coulter got her fired from National Review. Ben Stein, actor and conservative writer, immediately apologized for making comments insulting to atheists. I see all this as the beginning of equal rights for nonreligious people.
Our ranks are growing. The increase in the number of nonbelievers goes hand in hand with the increase in how we are seen in society--the larger and more visible a minority we are, the more respect we will get. According to the monumental "2001 American Religious Identification Survey" prepared by the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, the percentage of people calling themselves "nonreligious" more than doubled from 1990 to 2001, with 14.1% of the US population calling themselves nonreligious. American culture is growing more diverse. The United States has benefited from the "brain drain" from other countries and the many professors, scientists and doctors from abroad with different religious beliefs.
Why are there more nonreligious people today than ten years ago? I think there are many reasons, including the internet, religious scandals, monumental advances in science and an improved and increased portrayal of freethinkers in popular media.
In early 1994, I wrote an article about the internet and freethought for Freethought Today, predicting that the internet would potentially be the greatest thing ever to happen to freethought. Currently, the Secular Web (www.infidels.org), the largest freethought-related website, gets over 300,000 unique visitors per month. Many other freethought-related websites are also very popular.
The internet reaches an important demographic that organized atheism/humanism has generally been unable to reach: young people. This is critical, so that as people intellectually mature they have readily available sources from the atheistic point of view. I think my prediction of eight years ago has come to pass, and I claim no psychic powers.
Another reason why the ranks of nonbelievers have increased is the occurrence of religious scandals, from the Protestant televangelists of the late eighties to the molesting priests of today. Aside from the horrors that the victims of these scandals face, these scandals do have a side benefit: Religion cannot be regarded as beyond reproach when priests are molesting six-year-olds or mansion-dwelling televangelists are swindling elderly people out of their pensions and are involved in sex scandals. These scandals often catalyze a re-thinking of religious beliefs.
As history has shown, scientific breakthroughs tend to make religion superfluous. It happened with advances in evolutionary biology, astronomy and cosmological physics. Two advances are currently emerging that also threaten religious dogma: the genome project and cloning. Life becomes less mysterious and more scientific. (It also will have benefits in preventing genetic diseases and enhancing the quality of life of humankind.) The controversial advances in cloning cut at the philosophical concept of identity, which often has spiritual overtones. If scientists can clone life in a laboratory, what need is there for a deity?
The amount of atheism and satire of religion in popular culture is another important reason for an increase in freethought. Freethinkers have always been well-represented in intellectual publications. Fine humanistic writers like Katha Pollitt and Wendy Kaminer write for The Nation and other intellectual political publications. Nonbelievers dominate science and are well-represented in academic writings. Where we have been unrepresented is in popular culture. Traditionally, nonreligious people were portrayed as sinful or "lost" in movies and TV programs. If there was an atheist character, that person was evil or misguided and eventually "saw the light." Religion was beyond reproach. This has changed.
Radio "shock jocks" have done a lot to knock religion off its pedestal. They are typically on the air over 20 hours per week. They reach millions of people, a high percentage of whom are very dedicated fans. This genre, of course, is not for everyone and shock jocks do offend many.
One "shock jock" is Los Angeles-based Tom Leykis, an outspoken atheist. Leykis frequently has a segment called "Ask the Atheist," during which callers ask him questions about atheism. As can be expected, many of these callers are ignorant theists who challenge him. With a quick, sometimes acid wit he answers them and always comes across looking more reasonable than they. Leykis has also outspoken about priest molestation in Southern California. Thanks to one caller and Leykis' persistence, a molesting priest has been removed from a school where he was teaching. Leykis has also begun a weekly feature called "Tom's Confessional," in which people who had been molested by clergy call up and describe their experiences. If the victim is willing, Leykis' producers contact the relevant civil authorities. There has been no shortage of callers and several members of the clergy are being investigated due to the Leykis show.
Religious satire and freethought can be found in other forms of popular culture. The animated series "The Simpsons" and "South Park" have a long history of religious satire. One episode of "South Park" features a view of hell filled with everyone from ministers to entertainers. When a Protestant minister in hell protests, Satan explains he chose the wrong religion--Mormonism was the correct one. Heaven is shown full of men with white shirts and black ties. Another comedy, "The Daily Show," featured a segment called "Godstuff" in which Jon Bloom (Joe Bob Briggs) ran clips of televangelists ranting, and then commented on them in an irreverent way. Jen, one of the major characters in "Dawson's Creek," a show hugely popular with teenagers and young adults, is an atheist. This is, perhaps, one of the reasons conservative groups want this show off of the air.
Legendary comedian George Carlin, who is routinely critical of religion, has a hilarious bit in which he claims not to believe in God but in Joe Pecsi, because Joe "looks like a guy who can get things done." Other comedians, including Rick Reynolds, Janeane Garafalo, Bill Maher and the late Bill Hicks, have used their stand-up acts to effectively satirize religion. "Sin City" magicians Penn and Teller, both hardcore atheists, claim that atheism and skepticism are an integral part of their successful stage show. During an appearance on Mormon Donny and Marie Osmond's television show, Penn and Teller signed an autograph for them. Penn signed, "There is no god." Teller followed, "He's right."
Mainstream movies like "The Contender" and "Contact" feature atheistic characters positively in leading roles. Other movies like "Sirens" and "Chocolat" give whimsical views of humanism overtaking Puritanism, in the forms of sexuality and gourmet chocolate, respectively.
Rock music, especially modern or alternative rock, often has atheistic or skeptical overtones. Along with his schlock persona, Marilyn Manson's lyrics and performances are laced with anti-religious messages. Bands like Godsmack, Nine Inch Nails, Everclear, Rage against the Machine, Tool, Metallica, R.E.M., Bad Religion and Rush feature atheistic lyrics, though more subtly than Manson.
Bad Religion has a famous symbol, a "crossed out cross." Their lead singer, Greg Graffin, splits his time being lead singer for the band and working on his Ph.D. in evolutionary biology at Cornell University. Rush has a long history of skeptical and humanistic lyrics. Their 1991 album "Roll the Bones" may be the most humanistic album in rock history. Rush's lyrics are so deep that atheist philosopher Robert Price, a Jesus Seminar Fellow, wrote a book with his wife, analyzing Rush's philosophical vision.
Where do we go from here? I think the best thing we as atheists, humanists, agnostics, freethinkers, can do is to set good examples. When people get to know us, like us, and respect us, and then later learn we are nonreligious, we help destroy the stereotypes and prejudices that people have. People learn that we don't have horns, we're not evil. We're simply your friendly godless neighbors.

Additional Info

  • deck: Demographic Shifts and Emerging Views in Popular Media
  • byline: Clark D. Adams

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