Sometimes talking about atheism is like your mother talking about the merits of brussel sprouts to a room full of barbeque pork rib fanatics. It doesn’t matter how “correct” you are, or how honest your arguments are, or even whether you have supporting evidence. Outside of Northern Europe, and certain enclaves (like a college campus) it’s just not gripping, and lacks a certain panache in today’s marketplace of ideas.
That’s why I don’t attend atheist events. What is there to discuss? “You don’t believe in gods? Me too! …. How about some coffee?” I mean, it’s just a short discussion. “Did you catch the cricket match? No. Me neither.” Most of the speakers at atheist events are just bitching about believers, explaining why believers are wrong, bring up the same nasty old passages of the Bible/Koran/Torah, etc. So you end up talking about the things you don’t believe in, and which have no value for you. I would have more fun at a convention for people who don’t downhill ski, or who don’t fart in bed (except I wouldn’t qualify), or who have overcome the challenge of chewing gum and walking at the same time (which would be distinctly devoid of politicians, I suspect).
Sadly, there is no real way to get over atheism’s lack of gripping excitement. Even if you put cheese sauce over it, cauliflower is still tasteless, pale, coarse vegetable matter which even rabbits will only eat as a last resort. The atheist message is often viewed the same way by most people. Vegetarians might get excited over cauliflower, but for the rest of humanity, it’s never going to replace a bucket of KFC – no matter how artificial, unhealthy and contrived they know the delicious KFC to be.
When you talk to believers, you have three courses of action. First, you can get them angry, so they don’t lose interest in the discussion. But this is never a good idea, as angry people abandon reason about as fast as an alcoholic abandons sobriety in a bar where the drinks are free. Second, you can amaze them with science as an alternative to a belief in magical gods. But this only works if they understand science in the first place, otherwise it’s about as useful as two people trying to have a discussion when one only speaks Norwegian and the other only speaks Xhosa. At best they end up smiling at each other, and head to the nearest pub arm in arm, each convinced that the other is a well-meaning imbecile. Lastly, you can try to engage them in a calm, reasoned manner… and risk their falling asleep on you. You can tell they have lost interest when they don’t bother to tell you about the hell you’re undoubtedly going to enjoy after your death, and you have to remind them what you are trying to discuss when they constantly change the subject to something more engaging, like “what is the best brand of washing powder?” So, assuming you’re in the last category, here are some things to keep in mind when you’re talking to believers, because this is what’s likely going on in the back of their minds as they listen to you.
1. No Pageantry
Atheists show up wearing relatively normal street or dress clothes (unless you’re at a ComicCon event, in which case they may be Darth Vader or, if you’re lucky, Jessica Rabbit). There are no frocks nor gowns for men, no special headgear for women, no shawls, skull caps, magic underwear, little black boxes to wear on your forehead 1, and no accompanying jewelry, swinging censors, mitres, croziers, rosaries, yads (reading sticks for those with dirty fingers), and so on and so forth. If you don’t have a chance to “strut your stuff” and play dress up, then what is the point? No special reason to dress up nicely and parade in front of the neighbors? Book club meetings at Starbucks just don’t get people excited the same way (except for me, I love them). Maybe we should have the atheist book club meetings while dressed up for cosplay or as characters from the “Rocky Horror Picture Show 2”? Although, I believe if people saw me dressed up as Columbia today, I am sure they would flee screaming into the night in abject horror….
2. Lacking Cool Places
Most religions have their special places, where you are supposed to come closer to the divine. And these human built constructs were designed to awe and inspire the faithful (there are some natural ones too, especially in folk religions and nature religions, like Shinto, where Mt. Fuji is reverenced – it’s very hard to top Mt Fuji when it comes to raw majesty). Do atheists have a Vatican loaded with great artwork, like the Roman Catholics? Do they have a Temple and tabernacle choir like the Mormons? Do they have a Kaaba (well, actually that is pretty boring), or a Blue Mosque like the Muslims? Any atheist shrine like that of Ise, or comparable to the Buddhist temples or chedi like the golden pile that is the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, or the Todai-ji in Nara, or Wat Phra That Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai? Atheists clearly need to bring back the Garden of Epicurus to compete on this front.
3. Mating Opportunities?
All religions try to match up the kids of their adherents to one another. Keep the herd together, avoid outside contamination. You can get a mate from the outside, just so long as the kids are raised on the inside of the faith. And of course at the religious gatherings, you either get to see the fashion shows as singles dress their best to impress prospective mates, or in more traditional societies you have the parents (or aunties) talking to each other about what sort of match they can make for their progeny. If you go to an atheist event looking for a hook-up, you’re more likely to be burned alive on the pyres of incendiary blogs than land someone’s phone number.
4. Boring Stories
Atheism just doesn’t have the great stories that religions do. We don’t have kings riding in sky castles raining down magic arrows on enemies. We don’t have angels and demons, monsters of the depths, dragons on mountain tops, and angels ever at our side (counting the number of times we masturbate, no doubt). And people like this sort of stuff. More than that, we LOVE it. It’s not just in our religions, it’s in our books, our movies, our artwork, our televisions, our internet and our computer games. We adore the supernatural. It’s like catnip to cats, or heroin to an addict, or baked beans and bacon to a flatulent American Texan. Only we don’t know we are addicts, as even atheists get a rush watching the latest haunted horror film, or thrill to a Harry Potter book, or dream of a trip to Narnia through the wardrobe. “On the Origin of Species” has stood the test of time, but it’s not quite the same as reading Stephen King, Hesiod, the Prose Edda, or the Ramayana. I mean, how could you make a movie out of it with Tom Hanks? And the only sex scenes involve finches….
5. Educational TV
Let’s face it, some people just don’t like documentaries, shows about science, or watching economists argue (unless they are in a cage and armed with wiffle bats). Explaining to people the intricacies of taxonomy, and the difference between the theories of evolution and abiogenesis, and what the laws of thermodynamics actually mean, can be tedious, time consuming, and frankly not much fun for either party. People who want to believe that “god did it” only have to understand about three words - literally. And when you’re talking to people who don’t know the first thing about the natural sciences, well there is almost no way to avoid coming across as arrogant or obnoxious or a “know it all.” Educational TV gets pretty low ratings compared to sex, violence, and supernatural adventures – not to mention a good zombie apocalypse. Your average cat video gets more YouTube hits than your average atheist vlog. For many people, learning is painful, and something to be avoided in favor of entertainment, and “god doesn’t exist” coupled with a dissertation on quantum mechanics is just not the sort of entertainment most people fancy.
6. Charismatic Leaders
Atheists have a few leaders, and some of them down the years have been pretty impressive, like Bertrand Russell and the current Richard Dawkins. But, let’s be honest here, both are sort of eccentric in their own ways, rather than being charismatic in the populist sense. And arguably America’s most influential advocate for atheism, Madalyn Murray O'Hair 3, was hardly a lovable cuddly character, and in her lifetime was known as America’s most hated woman. Although in some ways Dawkins comes close to the charismatic ideal, we have never had another advocate like Thomas Huxley, who was sometimes called “Darwin’s Bulldog” in his day. He took on the fight for Darwin’s ideas that saved them from obscurity and forced them into the mainstream. He popularized those ideas beyond a narrow field of botanists and natural scientists and added a dash of philosophy and an appeal to the common element. Listening to the leading atheist proponents of today, only Dawkins comes close to this, but he decidedly lacks the common touch. A populist leader reaches an audience that otherwise sees no role for itself in the debate. If Joseph Campbell had been younger, lived longer, and had more publicity, he might have fit the bill and given the movement a very different path than it is on now 4.
7. It’s Not a Simple Message
How many times have I seen atheists in a discussion, or talking online, or in a debate make the mistake of thinking that atheism is simple. “It’s just a lack of belief in Gods.” That’s it, game over. But everyone who is a believer doesn’t see it this way. Faith is like an anchor to many people. It’s something you don’t need all the time, but you know it’s there in case you do. And it’s available for so many things. The believers’ message is “do this, and you get that.” It’s so simple a child would, and they do, understand it. But the atheists’ message is “don’t do it”…. and… you’ll be ok? It reminds me of the dialogue in “Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy 5” between Ford Prefect (a human looking alien) and a Vogon (space alien) guard who wants to throw the hitchhiking Ford and his human companion off a space ship and into space. Ford tries to convince the Vogon that his job as a guard is not very nice, and the Vogon seems swayed by the argument but then asks: “So, what’s the alternative?” And the only thing Ford has in response is “Well stop doing it, of course.” Which the Vogon doesn’t find attractive and proceeds to put Ford out of the airlock and into space. As atheists, we need to be able to offer more to believers than just “stop doing it.” 6
8. Cool Labels
Being an “atheist” and telling people that is what you are will get you a bored glance, sympathy, expectorated upon, shunned, jailed, reeducated, or even killed depending where you live and to whom you’re speaking. It’s not a badge to wear with pride and honor in most places. Recently we saw the term “gay” be turned from an insult in some places to an acceptable descriptive term. I doubt that will happen to “atheist” any time soon. And many atheists know this 7. Perhaps that’s why so many have decided to cling to a term which most of them really haven’t thought through very well – humanist. Others cling to the term “agnostic” under some complex definitional rubric just because it’s not quite so offensive to others 8. Being an atheist doesn’t make you a humanist, and I am not even sure if there is an agreed upon doctrine to back up the term. Quite a wide variety of philosophies have paraded under the flag of humanism, and most had some supernatural underpinnings, like “nature” which has been currently replaced by an appeal to “human nature” and then some reference to bonobos. What will it take for atheism to be “cool” and lasting? A long road towards international tolerance and acceptance lies ahead.
Almost every country has holidays which are based on religions. Some have holidays covering multiple religions, such as Hong Kong and Indonesia for example. I’ve frequently encountered people who can’t seem to fathom the idea of having fun on a holiday that has no religious meaning for you. Well, the first day of a New Year is not religious, and everyone has a good time and enjoys various traditions associated with the holiday. Atheism doesn’t have holidays, at least not yet. What they might be, I have no idea, and I don’t care. But having holidays shows you’re capable of having a good time and demonstrates a sense of community spirit. Something involving the consumption of hallucinogens and orgies would be nice, or maybe just the consumption of copious amounts of chocolate and compulsory kitten petting? Coupled with a mandatory “selfies” photo requirement, of course.
10. What to do With that Extra Day?
Most religions have a special day of the week when they are supposed to do something. Many, like Buddhists (in giving food to monks and meditating) and Muslims (who are admonished to pray five times a day) have things to do every day. For many people, this is the only regular community activity they do outside of work. They can’t all afford to go golfing. So what to do when you give that up? Where is the alternative intellectual stimulation? The community bonding? Atheism, I expect, will need to come up with alternatives. Maybe these will take the form of something like an expanded version of the British Royal Society lectures. But science is not for everyone, and people like entertainment frequently in the form of music, singing and participation. Just sitting through a lecture is not nearly as much fun (although it seems to work for Muslims 9, who are not known for their raucous music and choirs). So atheists will need to learn to sing and dance too, while they spread the work of some godless philosophies and the newest scientific theories. For some reason, I just don’t see Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins leading a sing-along or line dance…..
In conclusion, atheism needs some good publicity if it wants to become more prevalent. It needs to make itself look more like an actual alternative, rather than a mere rejection of something else. It needs to have positives, and not just negatives in the minds of the public at large. So remember that when you represent yourself as an atheist, you are creating an impression in the minds of those you meet about all atheists. So, please, try to be sexy, interesting, humorous, cute and oh so cuddly.
1. Jewish tefillin, and probably the most idiotic religious accoutrement I’ve ever come across. At least the Mormon magic underwear has a function.
2. I used to dress as Columbia, in case you’re interested.
4. He was interested in educating people about what religion was, and was useful for, as a human construct, rather than being an advocate of atheism. Sort of taking the sting out of the bee, rather than killing it.
5. A wonderful book if you’ve never come across it before. http://www.amazon.com/Hitchhikers-Guide-Galaxy-Douglas-Adams/dp/03453918....
7. Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett were trying to get the world to stop calling religious unbelievers “atheists” or “agnostics” and start calling them “brights,” which was met with considerable derision from many quarters – which seems to have been a surprise to them, which is a good indication of their lack of the common touch, I was talking about earlier. Still the “Bright” movement limps along: http://www.the-brights.net/. I suspect that the people who join this are the same sort of person who buys a “Who’s who” book when they are told they can have their name in it.
8. I was guilty of this myself, when telling my Catholic girlfriend’s father that I was agnostic when I was in high school. He told me that was just what a cowardly atheist called himself, and he was right. I tried to argue the difference, but it was as lame a distinction then as it is now. Either you believe, or you don’t. The rest is semantics. As an atheist, if I was given proof that God was real, then I would believe. But I doubt that I would worship any such God as might be revealed.
9. Except for Sufis, who have some great music. http://www.amazon.com/Sufi-Ustad-Nusrat-Fateh-Abida-Parveen/dp/B00009MGR...