A Voice in the Crowd

A Voice in the Crowd September 19, 2008

In “The Bubble“, I discussed how religious sects shelter their members from criticism by creating isolated worlds where only orthodox viewpoints are heard from. No doubt, this insularity creates a serious obstacle for atheists and freethinkers who want to promote the message of reason. How can we even begin to persuade people unless we can reach them? How do we pierce that bubble and get our message where it needs to be heard the most?

Obviously, there’s no secret key to this. No special choice of wording or tone will unlock the church doors that are barred against us. But we do have one significant advantage that we can use. In a recent comment, Lynet eloquently alluded to this advantage:

I suspect the problem is largely that people are so used to whispering around religion that an everyday voice sounds like a shout.

Lynet’s comment was in reference to the tendency of apologists to demonize atheists who speak out as intolerant and prejudiced. Religious believers are so unaccustomed to serious criticism that, when it does arise, it often catches them completely off guard, and they perceive it as a shocking and vicious attack. This is unfortunate, because it means that stereotypes about us and our movement spread easily, and atheists have to spend considerable effort clearing them away just for our real message to be heard.

But, at the same time, this is something that we can benefit from as well. Simply stated, the modern atheist movement has a significant advantage: the advantage of novelty.

New movements and new ideas are inherently newsworthy, especially if – as is true in our case – the idea under discussion is not just a new and different way of doing things, but a challenge to a belief long held sacrosanct. Nothing attracts attention and interest like a controversy, and we have set our sights on the highest target there is. We have stepped up to challenge literally the most sacred idea there is, the one upon which whole cultures are built and countless millions of individuals have based their very identity. The audacity, the sheer outrageousness of this goal guarantees that atheists will not just be one more voice in the crowd. We will be heard far and wide, which means that our arguments have a tremendous opportunity to reach people who would otherwise not have heard them.

Granted, we can’t expect that our ideas will make it through the screen of religious polemic intact. They may only reach some people in distorted form, but even that is better than nothing. The masses who simply believe what their pastors tell them and swallow whole the slanderous stereotypes disseminated from the pulpit are not the ones we’d be likely to convince anyway. But there will always be some people, in the pews or wherever else, for whom our words will strike a spark. There will always be some who, once they learn of our existence, will take the initiative to seek us out and see what we say in our own words.

Once we’ve won this initial hearing, we have the advantage. Our arguments are stronger, and on a level playing field they can win the day. But because our power to be noticed, to get our names out there, stems from the novelty of our message, it is necessarily an advantage we have for only a limited time. Once the New Atheist movement becomes an accepted part of society’s discourse, it will not command the same headline-making prominence. We have a short time, so it’s vital we make the most of it – make the most noise, be audacious, and spread the message as far and wide as possible. We shouldn’t be afraid to be aggressive in getting the word out. Doing this is an investment, and in time, it’s one that will pay off.

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