Oh, to be Secular in the Summer

Nation Editor Katrina vanden Heuvel blogged on something atheists had to celebrate this 4th:

“After eight years in the Bush wilderness — and an even longer period of ostracism by the Washington political establishment — a rising demographic of like-minded Americans and a new president are guiding us back to our roots as a secular nation.”

Jaws dropped when Obama referenced nonbelievers in his inauguration speech. Though the day had its issues, from Rick Warren to a multiplicity of religious references and figures, with one word Obama handed a vital commodity to “nonbelievers”: visibility.

Say what you will about Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens, their snark snatched attention for atheism, which it desperately needed. (Now atheism has buses–I saw one of the mobile ads in New York yesterday.) While their less-than-perfectly-tolerant rhetoric might have offended some religious people, nonetheless I think they did more good than harm in capturing the spotlight. People often distrust the unfamiliar, so as long as atheists remain in the shadows, mistrust and misunderstanding proliferate.

Of course, Obama doesn’t need to grab headlines with ploys like Dawkins’ or Hitchens’. All he has to do is make use of his Obama star power, bringing visibility and a modicum of support.

Now, maybe you could complain that he could stand to do better than just a shout-out–and that he steered clear of the term “atheist,” which, for some reason, people tend to have trouble with (I recall a comedian once talking about coming out to her parents as an atheist–they knew she didn’t believe in God, but an atheist?!). He’s paid a lot of lip service to the LGBT community that hasn’t come to fruition either, once citing his Christianity as his reason for opposing gay marriage, and the inroads the Religious Right has made have not been reset to neutral. Just because atheists have been so downtrodden doesn’t mean we should give too much applause to scraps from on high.

Still, I’m happy for any help in confronting prejudice toward “nonbelievers” and helping draw them out of the closet. And for giving atheists a momentary warm fuzzy feeling: though rising above is admirable, it’s easier to treat religion with tolerance and respect when you’re getting a little in return.

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