Generally speaking, humans are slow to accept and embrace change. Let’s talk about some recent social changes in history that were significant. During the civil rights movement in the 60’s, many states fought racial equality kicking and screaming. I think it is safe to say that we have come a very long way with racial equality. Are there still people who believe that “the south will rise again?” (I am a southerner, by the way) Sure, racism still exists, but it has gotten much better.
In the 70’s, it was time for women to stand up and demand the respect they deserved. Although we are still in the last gasps of the topic of income equality between men and women (can you believe that is still a “thing???”), women have come a long way. Television shows such as The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Maude starred strong women who refused to accept the rules of living in a man’s world. Gone were the days, generally speaking, of keeping a woman at home “barefoot and pregnant” while the man went work everyday. Women in the workplace may still be marginalized to some extent and not considered equal to their male counterparts by certain Neanderthals, but that has changed over the years. It has come a long way.
I’ll skip the 80’s. I didn’t like the 80’s. I am not 100% sure we really accomplished anything in the 80’s besides building ugly and undependable cars that were boxy and lucky to make it to 60,000 miles. And don’t get me started about the music, hair, and fashion…but I digress.
Fast forward to the 2000’s. Being gay was becoming less of a taboo and nothing to be ashamed of. Television shows began featuring gay characters as normal human beings and not flamboyant stereotypes like Nathan Lane in The Bird Cage (in which he was hilarious). Gay marriage is becoming a reality and accepted as States are falling like dominoes making it legal to marry someone of the same sex. Now we are almost (emphasis on “almost”) to the point where “coming out of the closet” is not as shocking as it would have been, say, 30 years ago. Remember when Ellen Degeneres came out on her TV show a few years ago? Remember what a big deal it was? Fast forward to today. Would it be the shocking, groundbreaking story that it was back then? Probably not. Identifying yourself as gay does not evoke the horror and disdain from others than it used to. Are there still those that discriminate and look down at gay people as “lesser beings on the highway to hell?” Absolutely. But we’ve come a long way.
This brings me to Atheists. When I talk about Atheism to other like-minded folks, the term “coming out of the closet” inevitably comes up. Do you “come out” as an Atheist in the same way gay people did (and still do to some extent)? Can sexual preference and religious (non-religious) beliefs be comparable?
I believe we are still “in the closet” to some degree. Calling yourself an Atheist will result in discrimination that can be similar to what gay people may experience (or have experienced) when they profess their sexuality. Is it the same type of thing?
Atheists still have the fear of condemnation by admitting their lack of faith. It is even getting a bit worse as the religious right has a loud voice and many people (voters) are listening. The frightful words of Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson is a good example. The religious right want to take the country back to “the good ‘ol days” which translates to the 50’s, where men were men and the sheep were scared. (That last part is a joke, lighten up!)
Let’s take a look at what other groups that were marginalized or otherwise suffered from discrimination did to progress over the years. African Americans pointed out how terrible segregation was in the U.S. Brave leaders decided that enough was enough…and rightfully so. Once the reality of racism finally started sinking in to the masses, reasonablism began to replace ignorance. Again, we as a society still have a ways to go, but there is no doubt that acceptance has improved tremendously since those shameful old days.
Women finally made men understand that they can contribute just as effectively in the workplace as anyone else. Now, for example, my COO, Senior VP, HR VP, and Operations VP are all women. They are doing a great job, too. It took brave women to say enough is enough and challenge the status quo. It was hard and there were many stereotypes to dispel, but can you honestly say anymore that women are less qualified than men to do a job effectively based on just the fact that they happen to be women? Sounds silly doesn’t it? Well, it was not that long ago when that was an acceptable stance to take that women “had their place” so to speak.
The gay community has made great strides in showing people that there is nothing to fear from them. They are not godless sodomites bent on destroying the American way of life, but real people who just so happen to be attracted to the same sex. Most of my gay friends and co-workers were never in the closet, they were just…gay. Isn’t that how it should be? Call me Pollyanna, but I think so. Is there still a “stigma” attached to being gay in the minds of many people? You bet, we’re not 100% there yet.
But Atheism. In a predominantly Christian (or simply a religious) society, Atheists are seen in the same way as Satanists and Pagans (not that there’s anything wrong with those groups…whatever floats your boat, man). They don’t get it. We are a threat for some reason. Our very existence is proof that Satan is hard at work corrupting the world. Well guess what? We are real people, too. We are your neighbors and coworkers. We seem perfectly normal (really, we are…I promise!) and generally well-adjusted people. Then the topic of Atheism comes up. “What religion do you follow?” asks a nice fellow making polite conversation. “Oh, I’m an Atheist” you say. Soon you notice that they don’t want to talk to you anymore. Family members are shocked and concerned for your soul. If you tell people that you molest Great Danes and eat guinea pigs for breakfast, you’ll get pretty much the same reaction…one of horror and disgust.
So when will it be safe for us to “come out of the closet?” What watershed event needs to occur for Atheists to gain acceptance from non-Atheists? History may provide some answers. How did other marginalized or otherwise misunderstood groups work towards gaining acceptance in society? They started a dialogue. They revealed that they were not a threat but actually brought something unique to the table. Can we start ripping through the stupid assumptions of who Atheists really are and what they believe? That non-belief is not necessarily a threat to what you happen to believe? Can that happen? I don’t know. I would like to think that little by little, they will begin to accept us as just having a different point of view.
Will it happen tomorrow? Nope. But we have to keep the dialogue going to dispel the myths that we are monsters with no sense of right or wrong. What if you would have told people in 1955 that gay people would be accepted openly as valued members of our society and no longer relegated to hiding in the shadows and fearful of revealing their true selves? Would certain people in Mississippi and Alabama in 1963 believe that racial diversity would ultimately be embraced by most and actually celebrated? Would a CEO of a large company in 1965 believe that a woman would be sitting in his chair one day?
It may take some time. It may not even happen in my lifetime. But the dialogue has become more frequent. I suppose we have the Internet to thank for that to some degree. More people are being vocal about being Atheists. Just like the other groups I mentioned in this article, society will (hopefully) wear down and accept us for what we are…people just like them. Trying to make our own way. Starting families. Reaching for goals. Pursuing happiness. We just have a different belief. It may sound like a long shot, but it WILL happen. Keep the dialogue going. Represent Atheism in a positive way. Be kind to others. Place value on your ethics and values that you have determined come from within ourselves and not dictated by a book and a God.
As Sam Cooke said, “a change is gonna come, oh yes it will.” Count on it.
As Sam Cooke said, “a change is gonna come, oh yes it will.” Count on it.