The Null Device

Rainbow Brights

In his recent book The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins asserted that, in today's America, atheists have a standing similar to what gays had 50 years ago. (According to a poll quoted by Dawkins, only 49% of Americans would approve of an atheist holding public office; other traditionally disenfranchised minorities (women, gays and African-Americans) get scores in the high 70s to 90s.) Dawkins' picture is grim for American atheists: they're routinely vilified as amoral nihilists, and often subjected to intimidation.

Scott Adams (the Dilbert one, not the text-adventure one), however, presents a more optimistic picture: according to him, atheists are the new gays; books by Dawkins and gung-ho neoconservative atheist Sam Harris are topping the sales charts, and, as likeable gay characters did a few decades ago, openly atheist characters are now filtering into TV shows:

Prior to 9/11, it would have been career suicide for a public figure to come right out and say God is a fairy tale. Now it's a feature of popular culture. You can see it on cable of course, in shows such as BullSh*t, Real Time, The Daily Show, and Southpark. But it's also a feature of network TV. The main character on House is written as the most brilliant human on the planet, and he's an atheist. The new show 3lbs has a similar character. I can't remember anything like that ten years ago.
Adams puts this down to 9/11; whereas during the Cold War, America was fighting a nominally atheistic Soviet Union (hence "In God We Trust" having been added to US currency during the McCarthy era), it is now fighting adversaries who, whichever way you look at them, epitomise religious faith at its most extreme.
Ask a deeply religious Christian if he'd rather live next to a bearded Muslim that may or may not be plotting a terror attack, or an atheist that may or may not show him how to set up a wireless network in his house. On the scale of prejudice, atheists don't seem so bad lately.
Depends on the "deeply religious Christian"; don't a lot of religious hardliners in the US lump everybody outside of the One True Religion, from Godless feminists to Wahhabi Islamists, as part of the same Satanic Other?

Anyway, Dawkins suggested in his book that there are many more atheists in America than are willing to identify them as such, and that many of political leaders (and even some religious leaders) who, for reasons of pragmatism, profess to be acceptably religious, are closet atheists, and that if they started coming out of the closet, this could trigger a change in American political culture. Adams suggests that this may be happening now. He furthers that to propose America's first explicitly Atheist President: Bill Gates.

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