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Activism, Atheism, Christianity, human nature

The Politics of Being Atheist

The annual American Atheists Conference is coming up, and the theme is “BLASPHEMY?–On The Dangers of Privileging Religious Beliefs.”  That seems like a really important topic, and I’m glad it’s being addressed on a large scale by so many atheist activists.  However, I watched an interesting episode of 30 Days a couple of nights ago, and it’s got me thinking in a couple of conflicting directions.

Spoiler Alert:  If you don’t want to know anything about it before you watch the episode I’m talking about, don’t read any further.  It’s Season 2, Episode 3.  Atheist and Christian.  You can navigate to it from this link. (You can also see it on Netflix instant view if you happen to subscribe.  I had some trouble getting the player to work at the FX site.)

At first, I was kind of upset with the episode.  It began with a summary of things most of my readers already know.  Atheists are the least trusted group in America.  We generally feel like we’re an oppressed minority, and we hate that we are always in situations where we’re having to stand up all alone against the majority of Christians around us.

After this little intro, we get to meet our atheist.  Brenda”s a 46 year old stay at home mom and wife, and in general she seems like a really nice person.  She’s soft spoken, and doesn’t seem like she has a confrontational bone in her body.  So what do the producers do next?  They throw her into a Christian home, surrounded by Christians, going to Bible study.  For 30 days. At this point, I was pretty upset.  Didn’t the host just get done saying that atheists are the oppressed minority?  So we’re going to throw an atheist into a situation she’s already completely familiar with?  I thought the whole point of this show was to take people and put them into an unfamiliar situation so that they’ll learn something about the other side.  What good does it do to put a meek little atheist lamb in the wolf pen and let her get beat up for 30 days?

It didn’t help that later in the show, we find out that Brenda was raised Christian, and was a Christian for 20 years.  By now, I was seething.  Wouldn’t it have made a lot more sense to take a Christian and put her in an atheist home for 30 days so that she could see that atheists aren’t vicious immoral animals?  Brenda already knows what it’s like to live as a Christian.  What in the world were the producers thinking?!

But these producers were sneakier than I thought.  By the end of the show, they’d gotten me to think about atheism in America from a completely unfamiliar angle.  And better yet, there had clearly been a minor change of heart in one of the participants — the Christian wife.  So the experiment did produce results — the exact results I was looking for.   And better yet, when I got to thinking about the show as a whole, I realized that the producers know a few things about human nature that you and I, fellow atheist activist, would do well to remember.

There was one thing that jumped out at me while I watched.  Throughout the whole episode, there was not a single argument for Christianity or atheism presented.  Not one.   There were references to them, though.  Several times, the Christians mentioned “very good questions” that Brenda had raised.  But we never got to hear what those questions were.  In fact, if anything, it looked as if the atheist really wasn’t doing all that much challenging of beliefs.  The Christian dad was very confrontational, and we got to see lots of shots of him making assumptions about Brenda, and talking about how he just didn’t understand her at all.  But not Brenda the Atheist.  She just went along with what she had to do.  She went to church, took notes, and dutifully went along with her thirty days in Atheist Hell.

When she wasn’t at church, Brenda was bonding.  She especially seemed to care for the Christian children, and we saw several scenes where she was taking an active roll with them.  Perhaps my favorite moment in the whole episode was near the very end when it was almost time to leave.  Brenda very naturally and absentmindedly tousled the hair of one of the Christian children, and it looked utterly and perfectly natural.

The whole group was taken to an “Atheist Church” who has been trying to get tax exempt status for years, and been denied because they don’t believe in God.  So the Christians did get to spend some time listening to atheists explain what it’s like to be the minority.  And it had an effect — on the Christian wife.  Brenda talked about how her kids were bullied and teased on the playground for being atheists, and the effect was palpable and instantaneous.

In some ways, I became fixated on Tracy — the Christian wife.  She’s a good hearted person, and she loves her family.  She found a kindred soul in Brenda.  And that’s where the producers hit the home run.   At first, Tracy was very unsure of the whole situation, and solidly backed her husband and her church.  And then, as she got to know Brenda, the walls began crumbling.  Brenda’s quiet and sincere charm had a profound effect.  Tracy couldn’t view her as some kind of monster because here she was, raising her own happy healthy family, and developing motherly bonds towards a Christian family’s children as well.   The emotional truth was more powerful than any scientific truth that could have been presented.

This caused some problems.  Tracy took Brenda’s side several times as the month progressed, and you could just see her poor husband, Michael, squirming uncomfortably as his wife became attached to the heathen.  He is a lost cause.  Authoritarian as they come, firmly entrenched in the truth of the Bible despite any evidence to the contrary.  At times, he looked like a cornered animal, unable to attack but unwilling to flee.

When I saw that, the epiphany hit me:  The producers are atheists, and they knew good and well what they were doing when they sent the atheist to live with the Christians!

The whole time Brenda was living with the Christians, she was perfectly fine.  She was comfortable answering their questions, asking them questions, and integrating herself into their lives.  When they prayed, she watched quietly.  She wasn’t afraid to go to their church sermons or study their Bible.  (Although there were several shots where it was obvious that she was trying to hide amusement or boredom.)

If the situation had been reversed, things would have been much worse, and the producers knew it.  For one thing, what would there have been to film?  Atheists don’t go to church or do “atheist studies.”  They just live their lives.  A Christian thrown into that situation would have come out with as many questions as when he came in.  He wouldn’t have learned the lesson that just living is perfectly fine.

Perhaps more importantly, the producers highlighted a fundamental difference between atheists and most Christians.  Atheists are the open minded ones.   Brenda knew that no harm would come to her from going to a few church services and sitting through some Bible studies.  She jumped through all the hoops, and kept her cool.  In fact, she seemed really unconcerned with most of the religiosity around her.   The only real objection to Christianity that we heard from her was that all the money spent on churches could have been better spent helping people in need.  (hint, hint… atheists care about other people!)

So then, here was the big epiphany:  By throwing this meek, loving, motherly woman to the wolves, the producers were trying to change the audience’s minds, not the Christians in the episode.  They were showing the average American viewer that atheists are far from the scary monsters that Christians would have us believe.  They’re just regular people, and they’re not angry at Christians or scared of them or trying to prevent them from worshiping in their own way.  Atheists are just regular folks who don’t believe in God.  That’s all.  And I think there are a lot of implications for us activists in this episode.

  • Atheists are the minority, but it’s the Christians who feel threatened.  Christians have lots of political and social power right now, but we’re very threatening to them.  They believe — with good reason — that if we ever got any organized political power, we’d try to reduce their political and economic power.  We might try to tax churches, for instance.   We’d end the nonsense about teaching religion as science.  We’d insist on intense regulation and testing of home-schooled children.  (I’m sure I’ll hear about other things we’d like to change at the conference next month.)
  • Political discrimination can only be maintained when it’s “Us and Them.”  When “they” become human, it becomes morally wrong. This is the lesson the producers were trying to teach atheists.  Tracy faltered.  Perhaps not in her faith in Jesus, but in her certainty that atheists are morally inferior, or less loving towards their families, or less… human.   Tracy’s conversion didn’t have to be complete for it to be a win for the good guys.  She will not be able to go back to discriminating against atheists without her conscience telling her she’s doing wrong.  Imagine if every Christian woman in the country had the same epiphany!
  • It’s not always about the arguments. This one is very difficult for me.  When I hear someone say something that’s clearly wrong, I want to correct them.  I’m a stickler for facts.  And so are a lot of other atheists.  I mean… that’s why we’re atheists, right?  We’re more concerned with the truth than comfort.  But all humans are concerned with comfort, and we have to realize that most Christians feel comfortable.  (This should probably be an entire blog post in itself.)  Sure, they may be dysfunctional in some ways, and may be doing genuine harm to themselves and others with their faith, but humans are creatures of inertia.  Change is threatening to us, even if it’s for our own good.  When rock-solid arguments against god or for atheism are rejected out of hand, it’s often not for intellectual reasons at all.  Remember, the intellect is not an all purpose adaptation, and humans often solve problems emotionally when they’re evolutionarily familiar.  And religion is evolutionarily familiar to us.

So what’s the moral of the story?  Well, there’s honestly more to talk about, and I’ll probably try to do it in the next week or so, but here’s the main idea:   There are a lot of things we atheists need to get together on politically.  Things are far from fair for us, and we do need to keep pushing for political, economic, and social tolerance, if not equality.  But at the end of the day, this is as much a battle for the emotions of the American Christian as it is for their minds.  Minds are funny things.  They often can’t see truth until their emotions want them to see truth.



3 thoughts on “The Politics of Being Atheist

  1. thanks, a good review.

    Posted by aforcier | March 16, 2010, 9:54 pm
  2. Thanks Hamby! I have found that when I speak with christians (I don’t know any other type of religious people) I cannot use intellect v belief – I just plain don’t know enough. However, people who know me before they find out I am a firm atheist find it hard to believe I am an atheist. In fact they have outright denied the possibility that I am an atheist – to my face! I can only hope that that seed of doubt will grow. Be it doubt about the atheist person or the fantasy of the supernatural. It is all I can honestly bring to the table. I do not eat puppies!

    Posted by PaigeB | March 17, 2010, 1:12 pm


  1. Pingback: The Politics of Tolerance « Life Without a Net - March 17, 2010

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