I was just watching Piers Morgan of CNN interview Ricky Gervais in regards to his appearance as the host of the 2011 Golden Globes. Gervais spent several minutes mercilessly demolishing various attending celebrities in a monologue which I personally found hilarious. Now, not too surprisingly, Gervais's rant was eclipsed by a comment he made at the close of the show- "Thank you to God, for making me an atheist." This incurred the wrath of American culture swiftly and effectively. Atheism in America seems to be a lot like the kid in school that nobody really likes- we know he's there, we put up with him by not really paying any attention to him, and everyone is content with ignoring him; as soon as someone actually acknowledges him and tries to include him, people get upset. Nobody will outright say that atheists should not be treated equally (except perhaps George H.W. Bush, who I am sure would pin the whole thing on a misinterpretation of sorts), but the vast majority of America secretly hopes they'll keep to themselves. This is exactly what Ricky Gervais did not do, and I applaud him for this; he was not condescending or critical of others' beliefs, he simply stated his own lack of belief with pride and a little bit of Ricky Gervais humor. Yet Morgan still warns him that he may be "offending" Americans with his comment. How does that work, I ask? Let's remember the positions of Christianity and atheism here: Christianity is making a claim, atheism is rejecting it. Surely it is not offensive to state one's neutrality. Gervais is really not making any sort of claim here, save for the fact that he does not share America's belief. Let us imagine that there are two religions in America: Christianity and Judaism. If someone says, "I am not Christian. I don't agree with it. I am Jewish," then no one would have a problem with his rejection of Christianity. They don't mind because he is choosing a different religion. Now, if that same someone said, "I am neither Christian nor Jewish," it would be considered offensive. What has changed? He is only rejecting a belief, which wasn't considered offensive in our former hypothetical. What has changed here is that he is not choosing another belief to profess in the absence of Christianity or Judaism; people are offended because he is not choosing a religion as most Americans do. Ricky Gervais managed to offend America, it seems, by professing no beliefs at all, which is quite silly when we think of it in that light.
I assure you I have not forgotten my original statements about atheism in America at some point during my zealous defense of Ricky Gervais; it is now that I come full circle. This tactic- claiming offense at something which really should not even have the ability to offend someone- is the trick that my dominantly Christian nation will pull when someone has the audacity to not only take note of atheism, but speak of it with approval or even preference. This is why atheists will come under fire whenever they step into the public eye- because they are "offending" people of faith (which have the advantage of being both the majority and the cultural norm). It does not matter, as Gervais has proved, if all an atheist does is say "I am glad to be an atheist" in a place where America can hear him- it is offensive. If there is one thing I have noticed about American culture, it is that anything new and strongly counter-cultural will be treated with caution and distaste, if not fear and hatred. An atheist will rarely have rights denied him on account of his nonbelief; but his rights are given to him in a rather begrudging way, and if there is some way that he can be swept under the rug and silenced, the media and the general public will be only too happy to do so.
Gervais showed us once again how much discomfort there is towards atheism in America, and all he did was say he was thankful to be an atheist (the mention of God was a little dash of oxymoronic Gervais humor, as I saw it). Imagine if he had spoken about his atheism with half the zeal we see in Christian fundamentalists all over America- the consequences would have been ten times as dire for him. It is for this reason- this unwritten rule of silence that we find ourselves facing, this attitude of "Don't talk about it and we won't complain"- that we must be as vocal as possible, more vocal than we have been to date. We are not a valued minority in America. We are hugely ignored, unappreciated, and fundamentally misunderstood. It is because we are something new, stronger in numbers than atheists have ever been before in our history, that our country will resist us initially, as a body will often reject a substance it has never experienced before. We must not be content with staying silent and submissive. We will not be given a voice; we must make one for ourselves.