A recent Publisher’s Weekly article by Kimberly Winston in the category “Religion” summarizes recent social changes in the United States as they relate to the publishing industry. “Unbelievers and Unashamed” goes one subtitle in the article, which is titled “Atheists, the Next Generation: Unbelief Moves Further into the Mainstream.”
In the civic sense, such changes as reported (e.g., “nonbelief has become less stigmatized”) are definitely worthy of cheer. And yet, there is something narrow and incomplete and discomfiting at work in how the topic is treated.
Unbelief. Nonbeliever. These are favorite media terms. They are also how many of us have defined our stance and ourselves. The identity is a resolute symbol of nonconformity. It is how many who have a naturalistic outlook display a sense of self-worth and dignity.
But “nonbeliever pride” is hardly sufficient to serve as “bright pride.” In fact, status as nonbelievers may actually be a factor reducing culturally perceived humanity and civic worth of brights, and restricting their broader cultural influence.
In the Religion Arena
When we perceive and identify ourselves primarily by our agnostic or atheistic conclusion about whether there is or is not a god (or gods), we run the risk of diminishing broader aspects of productive participation as citizens.
And, when others impose such an identity on us, like it or not, we find ourselves caught in a narrow cultural circle both circumscribed and “owned” by religion.
The nonbeliever designation is quite clearly a “faith” designation. And to be characterized by what one does not believe is a negative designation when characterization of all the named religious faiths is based on what they do.
Heretics. Unbelievers. Irreligious. Godless. Nontheistic. Such terms evidence the general cultural and political capacity of dominant religion to single out those who step outside recognized bounds.
Of course, this faith focus has been useful to atheists and skeptics in certain ways. They are discovering like-minded citizens in their communities. Billboards and bus ads often tout the “doubts” and market the “Godless” aspects (giving God another advert each time, of course). In gaining a degree of notoriety, the focus has been helpful in highlighting for the broader citizenry that there are citizens who live outside the faith-delineated bounds.
Yet, when these religion-based labels permeate society and are the entirety used to define us, the narrow and typically oppositional identity surely carries civic consequence. Certainly we are more than that?
In the Civic Arena
If you haven’t yet seriously thought about “nonbelief” and civic status, then two videos that touch on this issue may be of interest.
Questioning of the nonbeliever term is not new. The Brights’ Net includes many individuals who have long distrusted the negative belief-focused designations. For example, on the Brights site, Hemant Mehta (The Friendly Atheist) and Paul Geisert (co-founder of the Brights’ Network) have shared their prior reservations in “Nixing Negations”.
Another similar point of view on this issue was expressed very recently by an American politician. Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa spoke at the Secular Summit and Lobby Day for nontheistic Americans sponsored by the Secular Coalition for America. Audio of his April 26 presentation is online at the SCA website and includes this entreaty: “[P]lease, don’t refer to yourselves as “nonbelievers.” Further, he congratulates the audience on their taking positive actions to evidence their values and to enhance their civic stance, as follows:
“We all remember Dr. Martin Luther King’s wonderful words, ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’ I would add, however, it doesn’t bend all by itself. It requires individuals who are willing to speak up and speak out. It requires affirmative acts of conscience and courage by those who have been excluded and discriminated against.”
Promoting Your Positives?
If there is the possibility that civic status is generally undermined by the focus on what we do not believe, then what alternatives exist that would enable us to press forward more constructively?
Humanists, with their manifestos, appear to have a handle on a more comprehensive and holistic way of depicting themselves. Atheists need to work harder to define themselves beyond the religion arena. Skeptics, too, focus on certain cognitive habits of mind but have far more to offer society.
At the least, Brights of all stripes need to shine a bright light on values and concepts that they stand for.
Brights of all the varied identity stripes are far more than any single issue, but too seldom clearly show it. So, whenever persons who have a naturalistic worldview are identified solely by religion, their civic stature is diminished.
Showing your individual naturalistic perspective across the board (what you do believe and not merely what you don’t), is the nature of “brightness”! It is important to continually evidence to others the values and concepts that you personally credit with confidence.