This started off as a piece on the blasphemy challenge but developed into a longer piece on something that I think the blasphemy challenge just may end up being the tip of the iceberg. Now some people will no doubt to choose to respond to the blasphemy challenge and ignore the rest of my essay, which is just fine, but I want to make it clear that I don't think that the main thrust of my essay stands or falls on peoples opinions on the merits of the challenge.http://www.blasphemychallenge.com
Now you could perhaps dismiss this as a college level stunt, nothing more than a collection of spotty youths taking advantage of the opportunities that the new mass media provides to create some cheap controversy and public exposure that will blow over by next Monday. Maybe that is all true, but then again it may also be the slow beginnings of something that has been slowing stirring into action since 9/11 and the hold over the white house that the Christian Right has held since the election of a favoured son.
Maybe this can be categorised as the latest development in a conscious raising movement by a group that is increasingly discontent to remain mostly disorganised, private and underground. A group that historically been categorised by a series of Big Lies and enduring fables. A series of lies and fables that has been allowed to endure by a historically unwillingness or inability to have the kind of consistent public platform to debate, expose and explode those lies and fables.
If you wonder what the effect of those lies and enduring fables have had on this group remember that prejudice against any minority by the majority has always been perpetrated and defended by a Big Lie.
With Women it was that they were the weaker sex and mentally unformed. Also that they should cover themselves because they cause men to lose control and perpetrated original sin.
With Blacks it was that they were savages, less evolved, less civilised and less intelligent.
With Homosexuals it was that homosexuality was a life-style choice chosen by immoral people.
With Atheism, the Big Lie is that Atheists are ammoral and have no moral character or basis, are nihilists and/or pessimists, and are less trustworthy.
In each of the groups listed before Atheism real advance in the recognition and acceptance of the groups has occurred in recent decades but only after a vocal "coming out campaign" where the sub-groups got organised, got noisy, made their own platform and made their case.
In each case they were accused of being trouble-makers, of being radicals, of representing something that was outside the moral majority of a particular time and place, of being deeply offensive and tiresome, of being “UnAmerican”. All the same things are now being said against Atheism now that in America it is finally getting organised properly, using the mass-media tools at its disposal and taking advantage of the backlash against the extreme, fundamentalist and powerful Christian Right that has had a lot of say in the last six years through its privileged access to the white house and powerful propaganda tools such as talkback radio and Fox news.
The catalyst for Atheists in America finally getting properly organised apart from the new media revolution combined with the charged religious atmosphere since 9/11 may also have been the series of polling that was done last year which revealed that Atheists were the most disliked and distrusted minority in America and that an open Atheist was more unlikely to get elected to be President of the United States than a devout Muslim or open homosexual. These results may have been part of the final straw that broke the camels back for some of the prominent Atheists in America. The unease that Atheists have felt over all of this has been crystallised and channelled in a way familiar with the stories of the other previously ostracised groups. That is, a small number of hard-hitting, even extreme members of their communities have released books and films and gone on speaking tours where they have openly and explicitly defended and promoted their communities views and values in the strongest possible way, airing views and giving a voice to many of those closet atheists in America who are frustrated into silence by living in families and communities who they fear will ostracise them if they come out as avowed atheists.
Over the past year, those strident, unashamed voices for Atheism have started to appear and in the case of two of the leading lights; Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, their respective books made No.1 and No2 concurrently on the American bestseller list. Now I have been critical of both of these characters in the past, and some of those criticisms remain pertinent, but I wonder if they are not serving an important historical purpose in the form of the raising of public consciousness in a similar way that the Pankhursts did for the women’s movement, that Malcolm X did for the Black movement, and that Stonewall and Peter Tatchell did for the gay movement (in Britain). That is, providing strong, controversial voices that though often polarising and simplistic get themselves heard and their communities issues on the table, leading to a situation where softer, more nuanced, more considered voices could take up the baton for the acceptance of their on a platform where they could finally be listened to and appreciated. It is in this context that I would place the Blasphemy Challenge and the Rational Response Unit no matter what your personal response to some of the messages left on the challenge or the overall approach taken.
Illustrating this point further is a comment Richard Dawkins made about his highly successful and recent tour of America where at one point he literally went into the heart of the beast and was accosted for almost an hour in a Q and A session dominated by Liberty University students (Jerry Falwell’s outfit) who came at him from almost every conceivable angle in an effort to upturn his Atheism. The electrifying effect on the rest of the audience by Professor Dawkins unapologetic and rigorous defence of Atheism at every turn points to the value of having a ‘big beast’ of Atheism crystallise and justify the beliefs of every closet or defensive atheist in America.http://richarddawkins.net/home
As an aside, I think every theist worthy of the name should do themselves a favour and seek out a leading light on atheism at least once in their lives. I remember talking to an impressive dean from Cambridge University who said that going to listen to Bertrand Russell denounce God and defend Atheism did not ultimately make him change his beliefs but it did improve his opinion of Atheism and Atheists immeasurably because he was finally able to understand and even appreciate the Atheist position.
It may seem strange that I am defining the struggle for public acceptance of Atheism as a social issue in the same way as gays, women, blacks, jews and catholics once struggled for the acceptance and recognition. However, given that Atheism is apparently the most disliked and distrusted group in America and is demonised and caricatured in a way that makes Atheism almost the last acceptable prejudice in America (apart from gays where the battle is only half-won), I do think that characterising the struggle that Atheists face in America and the way they are beginning to respond to it, as a social justice issue. Until such times as Atheists are given a similar public platform as theists on debates that impact on them, when they are no longer demonised or ostracised, and when a Atheist candidate for President or Congress doesn’t have to lie and cover up their Atheism, then hopefully such cheap but conscious raising stunts as the blasphemy challenge will no longer by required to make their point and having Atheists present on media panels and Capitol debating religion with their theist counterparts will become as commonplace as it is in other parts of the developed world. As an example of the importance of having a reasoned Atheist voice represented in the media was highlighted by Dawkins as part of the media coverage on the blasphemy challenge, a lot of which highlighted the lack of sympathy and understanding in the US media on Atheist perspectives and motivations in most of the other coverage. (Fox news predictably won the most hyperbolic, overblown piece of media coverage).http://richarddawkins.net/article,644,Richard-Dawkins-interview-with-Paula-Zahn,CNN http://www.blasphemychallenge.com/mediacoverage.html
Finally, I would say that the Rational Response Unit and similar American Atheist groups are providing an outlet for young Atheists to link up, form relationships and come out of the closet together, which if nothing else is an important social development for young Atheists, sceptics and free thinkers in a country where coming out in the wrong geographical location can have serious social and employment consequences.