At long last, it’s time for me to blog about the fifth pillar of the fight against religion, art. There are three main aspects to this pillar that I wish to discuss. The first aspect is art about atheism, the second is art by atheists, and the third is art with atheists. There is of course some overlap, but it is where the second two aspects do not overlap with the first that we need improvement.
The skeptic movement has produced a rather large amount of art about atheism. I’ve even made some limited contribution to this myself. But across the internet, one can find plenty of artistic works promoting atheism and criticizing religion. There’s several comic strips such as The Atheist Pig, music by people like Graydon Square, and even a bit of astronomical photography. We skeptics have shown that we are quite good at using art to criticize religion. But there are concerns from the public, and assertions by theists, that can only be addressed by atheist art that does not address religion. So while we have promoted plenty of art about atheism, we need to do a better job of creating and promoting art that involves atheists, but does not address religion.
See, there’s a fairly common public perception that without religion, one must become emotionless, soulless, and by extension, completely uninterested in anything emotionally fulfilling, like love or beauty or art. This isn’t just limited to people pointing out all the art produced/commissioned by religions. It also shows in people asking how atheists can value life, how they can live without any purpose (which assumes they can’t have any purpose), or why they should think love is any better than hate. By producing wondrous works of art that don’t dis religion, we can show people that an atheist would is not a ‘soulless’ world. We can show them that atheism can be just as emotionally satisfying as religion.
(Aside: I am not saying that we shouldn’t use art to bash religion, far from it. I’m simply saying that we also need to produce art for the purpose of emotional benefit, independent of any religious bashing. If all atheist art (or all prominent atheist art) is stuff that bashes religion, then people will think that atheists can only make negative art, art that criticizes. We need to produce art without criticism in order to shake this perception. So we need both kinds of art. And since the skeptic community has already proven itself more than capable of producing artistic criticism, I’m going to focus on non-critical art.)
Now I know many of you are already preparing lists of atheists who have acted, made films, drawn cartoons, or painted pictures that have nothing to do with religion. Yes, I know these people exist. The problem is that most of the time, their atheism is not readily apparent.
Here’s an example. I’ve selected a book off the shelf next to me, and I’m going to tell you the author. It’s C.E. Murphy. The book is written in English, and was purchased in the US. Now if you had to take a guess, what sex is the author? What race? What sexual orientation? And what are the author’s religious views?
Typically speaking, most Americans are going to guess that the author is a straight white Christian, and there’s a good chance most of them would guess male as well. In actuality, the author is female. And though I’ve read the book, I honestly don’t know her race, sexual orientation, or religious views. But if I had to guess without reading the book, I’d readily guess white, heterosexual, and Christian. And this is not because I am bigoted or racist. It is simply because the vast majority of people producing American novels are white, heterosexual, and Christian.
Just like whiteness, heterosexuality, and sometimes maleness, religiousness is the default in America. While this is a problem, it is not always something that any individual is wrong for assuming. In fact, it is often perfectly reasonable to make these guesses simply because whites, heterosexuals, theists, and in some subsections males, are in the majority. So in such cases, we should not fault people for making these assumptions. But that doesn’t mean we can’t take these assumptions into account.
An atheist who writes a great novel, sings a great song, or acts a great role, will provide virtually zero progress towards shattering the misconception that atheism = heartless if their atheism is not readily apparent. So while there are plenty of atheists out there producing art that has nothing to do with religion, most of them are not making their atheism readily apparent, and so much of their audience does not realize that these great works of art have been produced without the ‘aid’ of religion.
And wonderfully enough, this is something those non-combat atheists can get involved in. If you’re uncomfortable bashing religion, you’re in luck, because we actually need people who don’t bash religion. Just make sure that you are very clearly seen as an atheist. This may mean wearing an ‘Atheist’ t-shirt during your photo op, selecting ‘Atheist’ as your religious views in all your social media profiles, or simply mentioning your atheism in an interview. You can even refuse to engage in criticism or debate, refuse to answer further questions in the interview, refuse to engage in forum discussions, and so forth, and still help the cause of atheist rights worldwide by showing people that atheists can lead emotionally satisfying lives, providing emotionally stimulating entertainment for the rest of the world, in a manner that is not defined by their disagreement with religious people.
The last concern is atheists in art, which is to say, the portrayal of atheist characters. Many atheists will do a wonderful job of portraying atheist characters as readily capable of quickly, effortlessly, and humorously dispatching the senseless claims and positions of their theist rivals. This is especially apparent in the genre of atheist webcomics, where the ‘strip of the day’ typically features an atheist making one or more theists look like idiots. While this kind of art is valuable, it simply can’t exist in works not devoted to religion-bashing. And since this is the most common work that contains an atheist-written atheist character, it’s one of two very stereotypical roles for an atheist, the other being the theist-written chump who either gets their comeuppance, or learns to bow before their lord and maker.
In this sense, atheist characters find themselves in much the same situation that many black, Asian, female, or gay characters were in many years ago. The only time a character is an atheist is when their atheism is important, and that means they’re either showing the world why atheism is right, or showing the world why atheism is wrong. The atheist industry hasn’t even made it to standardizing the atheist-analogue of the smurfette principle or the token black guy. Writers aren’t even including atheists in lame attempts to diversify. They’re only around when their atheism is plot-critical.
In light of this realization, I’m going to offer some advice for including atheist characters in non-stereotypical ways, in works that are not about bashing religion. As should be obvious, this advice does not apply to works that are designed as a vehicle for promoting skepticism directly. For the record, I think it’s perfectly fine to include a small amount of dialogue about religion to establish that particular characters are atheists. But for non-bashing works, make sure the dialog is not just one character criticizing another. Just have the characters disagree, agree to disagree, and move on with the real plot.
The Skeptical Bechdel Test: Include at least one scene where an atheist has a conversation with another atheist about something other than religion.
The Aggressive Skeptical Bechdel Test: Include at least one scene where an atheist argues with another character about something other than religion.
Angry Atheists: Many theists can’t comprehend the idea of not believing in God, and so misrepresent atheists as believing in God, but being angry at him. Do try to make sure your atheists actually don’t believe in God (hint: It’s damn near impossible to be angry at something you don’t think exists). Similarly, make sure your atheist character isn’t a jerk to every theist in sight.
Religious Atheists: Please don’t have your atheists believing in ghosts, psychic powers, wiccan magic, demonic rituals, or random voodoo (unless of course these things actually exist/work in-universe, see below).
Ostrich Atheists: If your atheist doesn’t believe in magic, and then they meet an actual wizard, who repeatedly performs actual spells, they should start believing in magic. Similarly for any other fantastic events that transpire in your work, up to and including the intervention of various deities. In short, make sure your atheists aren’t ‘religious’ about their non-belief.
Automatic Worship: If your fictional world does have literal gods, and you’ve made sure to avoid any ‘ostrich atheists,’ then you’re going to wind up with ex-atheists who now accept the very obvious existence of the literal gods. Please keep in mind that this newfound realization need not be accompanied by automatic kneeling and ass-kissing on behalf of the ex-atheist.
Academic Atheists: While it is true that many atheists are somewhat more versed in science, not everyone needs a Ph.D. in SCIENCE! (Every Field) to notice the flaws in religious thinking.
Atheism-Induced Depression: If all your atheists are depressed loners, it gives the impression that atheism is lacking. Make sure you have atheists leading emotionally fulfilling lives, just like millions of Americans. Don't present atheism as some special detriment that needs to be overcome in order to lead a fulfilling life.
Sociopathic Atheism: Many theists can’t imagine how to have a moral system without religion, and so they depict atheists as depraved sociopaths. Try showing them how atheists actually behave. Throw in a few atheists who are noble, stick to their word, and look out for those less capable than themselves. This is especially potent when the atheist is risking their own life, so put some atheists in foxholes.
Arrogant Pricks: Many theists like to combat ‘intellectualism’ by portraying intellectuals as arrogant for thinking they know better than you. Please be sure to make some atheist characters who aren’t insufferable know-it-alls.
In Theory Only: Many theists like to combat ‘intellectualism’ by portraying intellectuals as out of touch with reality. This leads to a lot of atheist scientists who can’t apply their knowledge. If you are going to have a super-smart atheist, please make sure that their intelligence is actually applied to help solve various plot-critical problems, rather than handicapping them at every turn.
Driven to Atheism: Most theists imagine religious belief to be the natural state of things, and thus expect the need for some driving force to push people into atheism. Rather than having a character who’s an atheist because of some particular event or facet of the world, try having a character who’s an atheist simply because they find no need/want/reason to believe in gods.
Angry at God: Similarly most theists can’t imagine not believing in God, and so portray atheists as just being angry at god for various injustices. Please depict your atheists as actually lacking belief in gods. (Protip: It’s damn near impossible to be angry at something you don’t believe exists).
Emotionless Atheism: To many theists, science can’t explain emotion and thus a world without God is a world without love or happiness. To confront this, make sure you have atheists who mourn at funerals, hold weddings (without religious vows), and find selfless things to live and fight for.
God Hates Atheists: If your atheists are constantly suffering from horribly bad luck, while their theist friends are favored by every turn of events, it can easily come across as divine intervention. This also holds for 'mystic' powers that are only accessible through religious belief. If you’re presenting a fictional world without gods, don’t give your believers some kind of divine favor.
Black Swan Plot: Avoid having your atheist character proved wrong at the last minute, with no real foreshadowing, in order to portray skepticism as a flawed way of thinking. Remember that having the wrong conclusion because you lack critical evidence is very different from possessing a poor epistemology. Similarly, avoid plots where previously discarded (and often highly non-specific) prophecies suddenly come true, especially when the ‘predictions’ did not offer any solid justification for anticipating the foretold events.
Still need faith: Avoid teaching atheist characters lessons about the need to irrationally believe in something, even if they aren’t willing to believe in a god. If your atheist’s must believe in, say, the power of friendship, then show them the power of friendship working, and let them believe in it on the basis of their experience, rather than the say-so of some monk. Also remember that when someone's beliefs are based on evidence, there's no need to keep yourself convinced through ritual affirmation of the belief. That's what the evidence is for, remember?