I think the contemporary atheist movement is amazing. I am inspired and enlightened and completely blown away by it, on an almost daily basis. Not to mention vastly entertained. I think the contemporary atheist movement is largely — although far from entirely — made up of people who are smart, thoughtful, ethical, caring, passionate, honest, funny, brave, and able to think for themselves… to an amazing degree.
And I think that amazingness is doomed.
More to the point: I think it should be doomed.
I want to talk about why.
And I want, for what I believe is the 86,467th time in this blog, to make a comparison with the queer movement.
When I was coming out as queer in the 80’s, coming out was still a hard thing to do. And you had to be a special person to do it. (Sorry if that sounds arrogant, but it’s true.) You had to have a strong personality, an independent spirit, a huge amount of self-confidence, a passion for social change, a vision for the future, a wicked sense of humor, a metric shitload of courage, an unbelievably thick skin. (That’s even more true the further back you go. Out queer people in the 60’s and 70’s were fucking phenomenal. I bow down to them.)
So it was easy to be deceived into thinking that there was something inherently special about being queer. After all, when you looked around you in the queer community, what you saw everywhere was totally amazing people. It was easy to forget that the difficulty of coming out was a powerful self-selecting filter for amazingness.
And as a result, there was often a thread of self-satisfied elitism woven into all that amazingness. The queer theory crowd especially was always going on about how queerness represented this radical paradigm shift, how we were the cutting edge of a new frontier of humanity, how being queer meant seeing the world in a completely different way, how it represented a brand new way of looking at gender, how the liberation of queerness was going to solve world hunger and fill the world with cute puppies.
But as the movement progressed, and coming out became easier and safer, the amazing specialness of the queer community became… well, less and less special and amazing.
Which is exactly as it should be.
I don’t remember who said this first, but the goal of any liberation movement is to make itself obsolete. That goal hasn’t been reached yet in the queer movement — far from it. But as the movement has progressed, as it’s become easier and easier to come out as queer, the queer community is looking more and more like just the regular old human community: not overwhelmingly populated by strong, independent, funny, brave, self-confident, thick-skinned visionaries with a passion for social change, but in fact populated largely by regular folks who just want to get on with their lives. Being queer has become increasingly normal, increasingly no big deal, increasingly not the central defining feature of every queer person’s identity. People have been able to come out of the closet who wouldn’t have had the strength and courage to do it twenty or thirty years ago.
And good for them. That’s exactly how it should be.
Now, this has been a hard pill to swallow for some, especially for the radical anti-assimilation queers. But it seems pretty clear now that having the hots for people of the same sex does not, in and of itself, make you a special and amazing person.
Which brings me back to the atheist movement.
Right now, coming out as an atheist is pretty damn hard. (Easier here in San Francisco… but still not super-easy. Among other things, I’ve had casual friendships lost and closer friendships seriously strained by my outspoken atheism. And the death threats haven’t been a picnic.) So you have to be a pretty amazing person to do it. You have to have a strong personality, an independent spirit, a huge amount of self-confidence, a passion for social change, a vision for the future, a wicked sense of humor, a metric shitload of courage, an unbelievably thick skin.
But that’s not going to last.
We have to be prepared for that. And we have to not let our current amazingness go to our heads. We have to not succumb to elitism. We have to not fool ourselves into thinking that our amazingness comes from anything other than the difficulty of coming out, and the powerful self-selecting filter that this difficulty creates.
The recent debate here about the morality of atheists and believers is what reminded me of this, what made me decide to finally write about it instead of just musing about it in my head. See, I think this is part of the reason some atheists are inclined to think that atheist morality is more mature than theistic morality. Because right now, the atheist community is largely made up of people with a very mature, well-thought-out sense of morality and ethics. We’ve had to be. The assumption that morality comes from religion is very deeply ingrained in our culture, and those of us who’ve rejected religion have had to think long and hard and carefully about what our morality is and why. (Many theists have also thought about this carefully — in the same way that many straight people in the 80’s and 90’s had a thoughtful and perceptive understanding of gender — but coming out as an atheist today means having that thoughtfulness thrust upon you.)
But if we’re successful — if we succeed in making a world in which being an atheist is relatively easy, or at least a whole lot easier than it is now — then that’s going to change. As we succeed in making the world an easier place to be an atheist, we’re going to see more and more atheists who haven’t agonized over their atheism to the same degree that most of us have. As we succeed in making the world an easier place to be an atheist, we’re going to see more and more atheists who aren’t amazingly brave and strong, tough and independent, passionate and confident. We’re going to see more and more atheists who are pretty much regular folks who just want to get on with their lives.
And that’s exactly as it should be.
So we’d better prepare for it now.