A bit more than a month ago, I spoke about Thomas Kuhn’s notion of scientific revolutions. In the case of Copernicus’ heliocentric model, and in many other cases throughout history, a major scientific discovery was not accepted by the scientific community, or in the public at large, within the generation of the person who discovered it. This time, I’d like to talk some more about examples of social movements that have followed similar trends, and how this relates to atheist activism.
Atheists aren’t the only group that gets flack from Christian groups. We commonly discuss atheism as a movement that shares roots with civil rights movements and also the current push towards marriage equality.
Actually, those two other things have more in common than you might think. See, until the US Supreme Court case of Loving v Virginia in 1967, many states outlawed interracial marriage. It’s actually kind of surprising to contemplate how recently that was, given that it’s accepted by just about everybody now. The Virginia judge who sentenced the interracial couple to prison, in the case that eventually became the launching point for this USSC ruling, wrote the following:
“Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.”
Yeah, duh, right? It’s so obvious.
|Left: Maurissa Tancharoen with her husband Jed Whedon (Joss’s brother)
Right: Cuba Gooding Jr. with his wife Sara Kafer
Avert your eyes, folks! Don’t look at the SCAAAAAAARY lawbreakers!
Seriously, if these people had lived in Virginia 50 years ago, they could have been arrested, because it violates god’s plan. I don’t see many people working to roll back Loving v Virginia today, do you?
Similarly, let’s talk gay marriage. Yes, it’s still a long uphill slog. But maybe this graph will put things in perspective, copied from a research paper titled “Gay Rights in the States: Public Opinion and Policy Responsiveness“.
From left to right, the little shapes represent different age groups and their support for gay marriage in each state. What you can read from this graph is that no matter where you go, younger groups support gay marriage in much greater proportion than older people across the board. A solid majority of people aged 18-29 are in favor of it in all but twelve states, and the worst it gets is about 37% in Alabama, compared to 90% opposing it in the 65+ age range.
You know what’s notable about the 65+ age range in this case? In 50 years, they’ll all be dead.
Change happens slowly everywhere — just like during the Copernican Revolution. Frequently, within individuals, it never happens at all. Instead, as with evolution, we watch for it to happen over time, within populations.
A little encouragement for atheists
Okay, so most of the readers here are not gay, and most aren’t involved in interracial relationships. Although I would hope that most of our followers are believers in social justice to the point where they support this kind of equality in both cases. But what, specifically, does this have to do with atheism?
Some of the answer can be found in this recent study by our friend Gregory S. Paul. The study shows that in 12 of 16 first world countries, the number of theists went down and atheists went up. In some major countries the difference was quite dramatic. In Great Britain, the number of atheists nearly doubled, from 9.6% in 1998 to 17.7% in 2008; and even among those who remained theists, the number of people who said they had “no doubt” about God declined.
The bad news, for those of us here in the USA, is that we are one of the exceptions. In the United States, God belief actually increased by a slight amount. However, Paul also links to a separate Gallup poll which indicates that people disbelieve God at a rate that is four times higher in the US now than it was in the 60’s, so you still have to see that as progress in the long run.
As I’ve reported many times, we often get the question “Why bother arguing for atheism if you’re not going to change the minds of the most hardened fundamentalists?” The answer I always give is that I’m not in it to change any one person’s mind in particular. The fundamentalist on the other end of the phone line, I couldn’t care less if he individually decides to give up his religion.
What I want, instead, is to change the climate, in such a way that people feel comfortable with arguing for atheism. They understand that their arguments have weight and merit, and that the case for theism is flimsy at best. Atheists should be less timid, in general, about being out of the closet. Theists should feel like they have to think twice when they are about to hit somebody with Pascal’s Wager, or “Are you a good person?” for fear that the stranger they accost will be well informed in his rejection of religion. People on the fence should hear atheist voices regularly, so they don’t get fooled into thinking that the question of God’s existence is entirely one sided.
When that happens, kids will grow up thinking that atheism isn’t scary and doesn’t make life meaningless; it’s just one among many points of view, and it has legitimacy. Over time, that drift can accelerate, until maybe one day the idea of talking snakes and a wine-conjuring superhero will seem as outdated as a geocentric universe.