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Wanted: Atheist Role Models

By Patrick Inniss

Patrick Inniss is a columnist with The Secular Humanist Press, the newsletter of the Humanists of Washington. The following is reprinted from the winter 2000-01 issue of the newsletter, with special permission of the author.

We need celebrity atheist "role models." In this country they are few and far between. We are overrun with people of accomplishment declaring their religious commitment. But where are the freethinkers? At times we have leapt out of our seats at the seeming appearance of an atheist who would finally be willing to take the bit in his or her teeth and say, "Yes, I'm an atheist, and proud of it." We yearn for freethinkers who would put themselves forward as an example to disprove the stereotypes and resolve misunderstanding. Yet in this country you can hardly point to one prominent individual who can be described as "proudly atheistic" in the way so many of our religious counterparts are.
The absence of any star caliber, up-front, in-your-face atheists has been recently dramatized by the Torah-thumping electioneering of Joe Lieberman. Lieberman has escalated our awareness of the religiosity of our public figures as never before, and by inference staked out religious devotion as a positive character trait. This message has been so explicit and repeated that less unreasonable leaders have even been moved to complain. But many more have applauded these attacks on unbelievers. There is obviously no atheist analog to Lieberman, and let's hope there never will be. But it would be nice to have someone of that stature to pit against him.

There are actually plenty of celebrity atheists, but they tend to be concentrated in the entertainment field. In this country the viability of an openly, even aggressively atheistic politician is, unfortunately, dubious. But have any of the atheists in entertainment and science really taken on the role of promoting freethought as have so many Christian celebrities?
Among the recent great hopes for freethinkers as public figures positioned to promote the public image have been Ted Turner, Carl Sagan, and Jesse Ventura. Each of these has, in the end, fallen short. Turner seems to be unsure what his stance is on religion, even after having been recognized by the American Humanist Association as a Humanist of the Year. His latest undertaking, perhaps in an attempt to rehabilitate his image to religionists, was to fund a UN convocation of religious leaders. So much for him. Carl Sagan, while unflagging in his devotion to reason, was hesitant to make any statements which could be interpreted as unambiguously anti-religious. The dope seemingly made Carl just a little too mellow. Jesse Ventura was reported to be an atheist, but has distanced himself from that identification. So even if he defends us publicly, if he's too chickenshit to identify with us, he doesn't really fill the bill.

What we need are people-preferably outstanding-citizen types with high-profile positions in government, entertainment, or industry-to boast about their atheism just as figures such as Lieberman and any number of other politicians, athletes, entertainers, and businesspersons drone on and on about their faith. Heck, even Scientology, with which any association would normally seem to be cause for embarrassment, has a circle of elite boosters.

The emergence of a prominent evangelist for atheism would advance freethought in a number of ways. Currently, if atheists are acknowledged at all, the dialog starts from the basic question of whether atheists are good people or not, and typically the people commenting on that question are not atheists. Furthermore, the "role model" aspect could by itself lend atheism a boost through positive association. Imagine the impact, if, say, Tiger Woods started to attend freethinker gatherings and involved himself in such issues as Boy Scout discrimination or posting of the Ten Commandments in our schools. This could only have a positive influence on these issues while at the same time elevating the image of atheists, giving people a real person (other than Madalyn Murray O'Hair) to associate with the word "atheist."

This is all a little sad. It is rather reminiscent of the position of African Americans in the 1950s, fighting against the stereotypes presented in literature and the media and lionizing every individual that would arise to prove the negative images wrong. The power of celebrity in our society is hardly something to rejoice about. But without the emergence of high profile atheists, the freethought movement stands at a considerable disadvantage relative to Christianity.

[*] AAH Examiner Selected Articles

[*] Secular Humanism Online Library

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