An atheist association's decision to take their latest billboard campaign to the heart of Muslim and Jewish enclaves in New York and New Jersey today seems like an outright provocation. "You know it's a myth ... and you have a choice", the billboards being erected say - in Arabic, Hebrew and English.
But Dave Silverman, the president of American Atheists, claims the aim is not to stir up tension but to reach out to non-believers who feel isolated and beleaguered because they are surrounded by devout people. He and his fellow atheists want to encourage Americans to "come out", something that is, of course, most closely associated with gays and lesbians. The billboards are also an advertisement for the Reason Rally, to be held in Washington, D.C. later this month. According to its website, the goal of this gathering is "to encourage attendees ... to come out of the closet as secular Americans, or supporters of secular equality".
This idea that closet-atheists need to be coaxed out into the open and that they need to claim the right to rally together as proud non-believers has become a central tenet of the "new atheist" movement. The approach comes across as a curious blend of therapeutic thinking and fearmongering, and it is expressed with a kind of fervor that would not be altogether alien to the deeply devout. Mr Silverman, for instance, believes that the Christian Right "has unleashed an unparalleled slew of efforts aimed at Christianizing the country". The same kind of shrillness is heard among those religious people who imagine that atheists are tearing down the social fabric of America and are conducting a "war on religion".
In an article outlining the importance of coming out, Mr Silverman speaks of the "fear of rejection", the "shame" and the "mental and physical" toll experienced by closet atheist. Admitting you're a non-believer is, Mr Silverman says, "the first step", but he implores readers also to be "proud, open, honest" atheists and not "another closeted victim of the Christian Right". The advice here reads like a 12-step programme for people recovering from religion. Rather than a positive clarion call for secular values, this is a self-help scheme for people who see themselves as traumatised abuse-victims.
But are Mr Silverman's sentiments even borne out by reality? Are atheists really a beleaguered minority in the US? Is it really a great taboo today to profess that you do not believe in God?
The so-called "new atheism" movement has been headed up by esteemed writers like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens, and supported by famous people like Bill Maher, Tim Minchin and - unsurprisingly - the band Bad Religion. In other words, this is an outspoken crowd that does not need to cower in fear or meet behind closed doors. The Reason Rally will take place on the Mall, for God's sake, on the doorsteps of the US political establishment.
No doubt there are Americans growing up in religious communities who do not feel like they belong there. Some of these communities are very closed off, including the Jewish orthodox neighbourhood in Williamsburg, Brooklyn where the American Atheists are putting up their signs. And no doubt many politicians are antagonistic to the idea of completely separating church and state. But atheists are not being persecuted for denying the existence of God or prevented from holding secular values and expressing them in public. Hard as it may be from a personal point of view, even Jews in Williamsburg are free to leave the orthodox life behind.
American Atheists and other supporters of the Reason Rally say they want to promote secular values, but in asserting that they are beleaguered and ought to forge a sense of togetherness based on that, they reveal that their true roots lie in therapy culture and in its relative - identity politics. Of course, non-belief, self-victimisation and religion-bashing make for a pretty negative and weak ground for common identification.
It seems, in fact, that the very thing that irks today's atheists about religious people is that they have a strong, unifying vision of good society and that they are willing to live by it, well, religiously. But those of us interested in advancing a human-centred vision of the future would do better focusing on important things like wealth creation, liberty, scientific advancement and creating great art. With these things comes enlightenment. With plastering religious areas with insulting billboards and attending feel-good events in D.C. come smugness and cheap thrills. The Reason Rally really isn't worth coming out for.
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