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Godless is the New Black: Is Atheism Just a Trend?

Vogue“This atheism thing is just a trend.”

“I’m so bored with this atheism fad.”

“You’re just calling yourself an atheist because it’s cool right now, and everyone else is doing it.”

“Oh boy, another hanger-on to the (Dawkins/ Hitchens/ whoever) bandwagon.” (I was particularly entertained when a recent commenter in this blog accused me of parroting Hitchens — when I haven’t even read his damn book yet.)

“You’re just being trendy.”

Hula_hoopsI’m beginning to see this argument — if you can call it that — a fair amount lately. The newly visible, newly vocal atheist movement… it’s just people trying to be cool, jumping on the bandwagon, finding a new and exciting way to piss off their parents. Denying the existence of God, restructuring your life philosophy to a naturalistic worldview with no permanence and no intent behind it… it’s just a fad.

Like hula-hoops, or swallowing goldfish.

So I want to talk about the trendiness of the atheist movement.

And for the 4,626th time, I’m going to make an analogy to the gay rights movement.

PhiladelphiaThere was a period of the gay rights movement, right around the early ’90s, when “gay” suddenly became very trendy indeed. The news media was doing tons of stories on us; movies and TV shows were being made about us in droves; publishers were publishing our books; politicians were sucking up to us; advertisers were all over us like white on rice.

And then the trendiness passed. Fewer news stories, fewer movies and TV shows, fewer books being published just because they were about being queer. (I suppose I should be sad about this last one, but it’s hard to work up much grief over it, since a lot of those books were really, really bad.)

Now for today’s lesson.

Does any of that mean that the queer movement wasn’t important? That being queer and coming out was just a fad, a flash in the pan, something people did to be cool? That the queer movement was, and is, trivial?

No. Of course not.

Same_sex_weddingThe queer movement had been happening for decades before it became trendy. And it’s continued to carry on after the trendiness faded. It’s continued to have major social impact, has continued to shape culture and public policy. Our visibility continues to increase — not in an, “Oh, my goodness, gay people!” way, but in a “taking us for granted and just assuming we’re part of the picture” way. The trendiness came and went; the movement continues.

In fact, none of the trendiness had anything to do with the actual queer movement itself. Nothing had happened within the queer movement to make us trendy. We hadn’t all suddenly started dressing cool or something. (We’ve always dressed cool.)

What had happened was that our visibility had achieved a sufficient critical mass for the rest of the world to sit up and take notice.

Newsweek_lesbiansThe trendiness was not created by us. The trendiness was created by the mainstream world, the largely-straight world. We were willing to ride the wave and use it to our best advantage; but the wave was not of our own making, except insofar as our efforts towards greater visibility and recognition created the conditions in which it could happen.

So what does this have to do with atheism?

Borders_displayIt would be foolish to deny that atheism has a certain cachet right now. Atheism is trendy — in the sense that the mainstream world, the mostly-not-atheist world, is suddenly realizing that we’re here… and is finding us fascinating.

Does that mean that atheism is “just a trend”? That atheists are “just being trendy,” and when the fad passes most of us will move on to some other popular philosophy?

No. Of course not.

2000_years_of_disbeliefLike the queer movement, the atheist movement had been going on for some time before it suddenly became trendy. And it would surprise me a lot to see it just disappear. There is a world of difference between the realistic acknowledgment that atheism is somewhat trendy right now… and the dismissive attitude that it’s “just a trend,” or that atheists ourselves are doing it “just to be trendy.”

The fact that atheism is having a big rush of attention and prominence in the public discourse right now doesn’t mean that it’s “just a trend.” Quite the opposite. I think the trendiness phase is a natural side effect of any movement whose numbers and visibility have reached a certain critical mass.

Lindy_hopI’m sure there’ll come a point when there are fewer atheist books being published, fewer articles about atheism in the newspapers, fewer people gassing on about atheism on talk shows. But that won’t mean that atheism will just disappear into the invisible margins again. Again, I think it’ll be the opposite. Atheism won’t lose its trendiness when the “fad” passes, when everyone stops doing salsa and starts swing dancing instead. It’ll lose its trendiness when it starts being taken for granted. It’ll lose its trendiness when it becomes part of the cultural and political landscape.

Blaise_pascalBesides… do you really think people could become atheists just on a whim? Any more than people could become queer on a whim? They’re obviously not exactly parallel situations — I don’t think anyone is claiming that people are born atheist, the way people seem to be born queer — but belief isn’t subject to your wishes in that way. You can’t make yourself not believe in God when you really do… any more than you can make yourself believe in God when you really don’t. It’d be like Pascal’s Wager in reverse.

HipsterThe “atheism is just trendy” trope is essentially a way of trivializing atheism and the atheist movement… without actually taking the trouble to point out anything that’s wrong with it, or to engage in debate with people who are part of it.

It’s the cool, detached, hipster’s way of dismissing the movement without bothering to think about it.

And phooey on that.

MeangirlsIf you don’t want to engage with or think about the atheist movement, then don’t. Nobody’s making you. But if you don’t have anything to say about it, then don’t say anything about it. Don’t go into atheist blogs and forums, don’t get into conversations and debates about the atheist movement, if all you’re going to do is unthinkingly dismiss us by saying that our movement is “just a trend.” It’s insulting and trivializing to us… and it makes you look like a high school kid who thinks that not caring about anything makes you look cool.

Comments

  1. Erin says

    “I don’t think anyone is claiming that people are born atheist, the way people seem to be born queer…”
    I know what you’re trying to say here — that one’s belief, or lack thereof, has a dependency on external factors and elements of conscious choice that one’s sexual orientation does not — but the way the statement is worded in the entry is problematic: I often hear it asserted that everyone is, actually, born atheist, in the sense that children have to be taught to believe in imaginary deities.
    Otherwise, I completely agree with your analysis. Accusing atheists of having made a mere fashion choice is just… goofy.

  2. says

    Oh, yes, been an atheist for about 25 years, I’m just jumping on the bandwagon to be popular. (Not even counting the decade I was an agnostic before that…)
    They got something right, though. If the figures I’ve seen are any indication, atheism /is/ a trend:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trend_estimation
    maybe even a “secular” trend:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Market_trends
    (there, secular means “long term” – I love the smell of hot puns in the morning)
    - it is, however, not a fad:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fads_and_trends
    They also made a small typo. It’s not “just a trend” it’s “a just trend”. I can understand – that kind of error is easy for even the non-feebleminded to make.

  3. says

    “You can’t make yourself not believe in God when you really do… any more than you can make yourself believe in God when you really don’t”.
    That is so true. I’ve had a number of people ask me if I wish I could go back and unlearn all the stuff that turned me away from my belief in god. I don’t think I would, it made me realize that even if I wanted to go back there is no way I could make myself believe again.

  4. says

    “…the way people seem to be born queer — but belief isn’t subject to your wishes in that way.”
    Well, people *don’t* seem to be born queer. The scientific evidence, such as it is, points in exactly the other direction: that the “environment,” whatever *that* means, has much more effect on our sexuality.
    I agree that lack of religious belief — or the possession by it, for that matter — isn’t necessarily subject to one’s wishes. Which is one reason why the common observation that gay people are not able to change, even when we try very hard, does not support the “born that way” claim. Religion, or lack of religion, is no more freely changeable than “sexual orientation” (another term that dissolves into nonsense when you examine it closely). Yet no one seems to be arguing that it must therefore be inborn, “genetic,” etc.
    As far as the alleged trendiness of atheism goes, I heard the very same thing about being gay when I came out in the early 1970s. And similar claims about being gay have been made since at least the late 1800s. Maybe what’s really trendy is the claim that this or that issue is “trendy.” If anyone were to tell me that I’m atheist just to be trendy, I think I’d tell them that they are just saying *that* to be trendy.
    There is, however, nothing wrong with being trendy — with trying on an identity or a “lifestyle” to see if it fits. Sometimes it doesn’t, sometimes it does. It’s an important way that people find out who they are.

  5. says

    I hadn’t realized it had become trendy. So just to be on the safe side I posted on my LJ how I became an atheist all those many years ago just so people wouldn’t confuse me with some Dawkins-come-lately.

  6. AttemptingReason says

    I envision a future where teenagers flirt with religion to piss off their atheist parents.

  7. Jon Berger says

    So, as long as I’m posting links to Roy Zimmerman videos (which I just did over on the “scary black men” thread), here’s one that’s at least marginally relevant to the whole atheism discussion:

  8. Kagehi says

    Actually Duncan, too many of the *studies* that claim environment are funded by or conducted by groups I wouldn’t trust to tell me what color the sky was. But a more serious problem with “environment” is that agencies that do child placement in foster homes and adoptions have, for years, been placing kids in homes with gay parents. The statistics of the number of them that turned “gay” due to such an environment is *exactly* the same as the existing range of gay people in the general population. This kind of causes a bit of a problem, since one then has to ask what/how the environment is causing this huge shift in “supposed” normal behavior, only for some small percentage, regardless of what **type** of environment they are in. So, what factors exactly are *causing* this mysterious change, when not one of these, “It not genetic”, studies can’t define **any** of the factors, other than to say they *must* exists, because well, its, “mostly environment”. Sounds a lot like the definition of how the Disco Institute knows that ID is science. Well, ok, that is probably being too harsh, since environment *does* play into it. The problem is, claiming its the “major” factor in the overall population doesn’t say a damn thing about the minority for which it might not be. It would be just as stupid as claiming that because 90% of all anemics got that way due to lack of iron in their diets, the theory that Sickle Cell exists is completely unbelievable.
    So, most people are on the part of the bell curve where they would go *either* direction, and their environment is so hostile to going bi/gay that most don’t. It says jack about if there are those that can’t be anything but bi, or anything but gay, or anything but straight. And claiming it does, in the face of evidence that doesn’t fit that conclusion at all, is bad science.

  9. Patience says

    Kagehi, I agreed with you up till the bell curve. I’ve heard human sexuality described as either an inverse bell curve (with the majority towards either end) or a double peak curve (with two high points around a Kinsey 1.5 and 4.5), and both of those make the most sense to me from personal experience. Few people I know are perfectly 50/50 bi. I can’t think of any, actually. Many people I know are mildly to moderately bi–willing to sleep (or make out with) their non-preferred gender, but no relationship. This seems to support a more unusual curve.
    Everything else I agree with.

  10. says

    Its not a trend, we finally have a voice now and people are realizing that you don’t have to be a Christian to live in America. I’m glad its popular, I’m glad there are so many places for atheists to go, and I’m glad that high school students are standing up for secular beliefs. Ten years ago when I was in high school, I took a lot of crap for being an atheist; so if its a trend…then maybe i’ll finally be trendy:=)

  11. says

    Well, there are at least two things here.
    First, I think that in the 1980s and 1990s many of us were complacent that religion was no longer a social and political problem, so our disbelief was not something we made much fuss about in public. A whole raft of disturbing developments have combined to change that perception, and harsh, sceptical scrutiny of religion has now become urgent.
    Second, we can praise Poseidon that some highly-prominent public intellectuals – most notably Dawkins, but also others whom we could all name – have taken the previously unfashionable step of coming out strongly in attacking religion and breaking the taboo. They have helped make it possible for the rest of us to be heard.

  12. says

    Kagehi — “too many of the *studies* that claim environment are funded by or conducted by groups I wouldn’t trust to tell me what color the sky was.” Actually, I agree with you, but I suspect we aren’t talking about the same *studies.* I’m talking, for example,about the twin studies by Pillard and Bailey that got gay people so excited in the 1990s. Those showed that “environment” played at least as much of a role in the formation of sexual orientation as “genes” did, since only about half the twin pairs were both gay. When Bailey repeated this research with a much larger sample in Australia, the correspondence rate dropped by about half, to about 25%. That means that “environment” overrides “genes” most of the time. And the rate for fraternal twins was higher than that for ordinary siblings, which also indicates that something in the “environment” affected sexual orientation, since genetically, fraternal twins *are* just siblings. That’s leaving aside the other methodological problems with these twin studies (such as self-selection in the sample, use of questionnaires, letting the subjects self-assign a ‘Kinsey number,’ and so on). Dean Hamer claims that while men are born gay, lesbians are “socialized” (whatever TF that means!). The studies that show that “environment” has more effect than the “genes”, in other words, are the same studies that gay people widely claim show that we’re born gay. Which studies did you have in mind?
    I have no idea what forms sexual orientation/preference/whatever. But I think it is now clear that it isn’t genes or any other “biological” cause. We don’t know how the “environment” affects sexual orientation because 1) no one is trying to study the effects of the environment, largely because 2) no one has any idea how to study it.
    As for the bell curve, you’re wrong there too. Kinsey’s figures show that a majority (54% of males, over 70% of females) were monosexual throughtout their lives. That doesn’t map as a bell curve. Later major studies, like the Chicago survey, are even less bell-curvey in their results. Where did you get your figures?
    Valhar2000, if the womb were the “environment” that produced gay people, then it would at least theoretically be possible to change that environment to make sure that children turn out to be straight. I suspect you’re referring to the research that tries to show that li’l faglings were exposed to too much estrogen in the womb, and hence we have a compulsion to thrust our asses into the face of any male who attracts us. (That’s exactly how Michael Bailey put it on 20/20. He also believes that straight women have a compulsion to shove their asses in the face of any male who attracts them. What this shows is that Bailey is an idiot, certainly not anyone I’d trust to tell me what color the sky is. He also doesn’t believe in bisexuality, which I’m sure will endear him to Greta Christina. But despite his idiocy, he seems to have a following among my fellow queers.)

  13. Kate says

    I was an atheist up until my late teens–from the time I was a little kid, God made no sense to me. Once I got to college, I became more of an agnostic.
    I can see how it would be frustrating to those who are naturally atheist to be labeled members of a trendy herd.
    On the other hand, I’ve looked at a lot of the videos on youtube and the vast majority, indeed seem to be angsty, trendy college kids who just want something to rant about. As an agnostic I find it frustrating to engage in discussions with atheists who don’t know how to have a cordial discussion and immediately attack me with “you don’t have a mind of your own” when it is quite obvious that they are the ones trying to be cool–I’m just keeping an open mind and trying to have some interesting conversations.
    As I said earlier–again, not all atheists are part of a trend, and I have no problem with the ones who arrived at their conclusion via genuine intellectual curiosity. I just wish that fewer people would believe things to be trendy, especially when this involves accusing others of being mindless followers! And this applies equally to the “hipsters” you mentioned.
    Atheism and theism are both fine but when you pick up your worldview from a trendy book and start screaming it at everybody it can start to get annoying. Just my perspective on why some people might be complaining about an “atheism trend.”

  14. DSimon says

    I’m commenting late, but I just have to say: I love the shorthand “Disco Institute”! That’s instant meme-win right there.
    “Do the Hustle!
    Ir-re-duc-i-ble Complexity!
    Ir-re-duc-i-ble Complexity!
    Dun dun dun da-dun da-dun dun dun!
    Ir-re-duc-i-ble Complexity!
    Do the Hustle!”

  15. says

    Being an atheist is certainly not trendy in the South where I am! Being an atheist is more likely to get me run over by a car than seen as cool! :)

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