Atheists continue to be stigmatized by the general public and regarded as immoral and unapologetic “sinners” not worthy of trust or respect. A new initiative underway called #NormalizeAtheism seeks to increase visibility and encourage dialogue to challenge misconceptions about what it means to be an atheist.
Be Secular founder Mark Nebo started the #NormalizeAtheism campaign in 2014 and more recently Steve Shives (atheist video blogger) and Sincere Kirabo (American Humanist Association’s social justice coordinator) have signed on as managers to assist the development and expansion of the campaign. I spoke with Nebo, Shives, and Kirabo about their promotion of atheist awareness through social media and apparel.
TheHumanist.com: How did the #NormalizeAtheism campaign get started?
Mark Nebo: I started it in 2014 after really taking to heart David Silverman’s message in a speech about using the term “atheist” openly to help make it the norm. I initially started using the hashtag myself and a few others caught on. Once the Richard Dawkins Foundation retweeted me, it went viral. I made the first batch of awareness shirts and sold about 200 of them. The campaign didn’t really become a campaign until the fall of 2016 when Sincere, Steve, and I got together and decided to try and take it to the next level.
TheHumanist.com: Why is the #NormalizeAtheism campaign important?
Steve Shives: There are more people who identify as atheists than ever before, and an even larger number of people who don’t call themselves atheists, but who also don’t claim any particular religious affiliation. And yet there’s still a great deal of stigma attached to being avowedly non-religious, and especially to being an atheist. #NormalizeAtheism is a way for us to do our part toward reducing that stigma. I don’t want to speak for the others, but I feel safe saying that Mark, Sincere, and myself are all believers in secularism, which means that society should be religiously pluralistic but that no particular religion should be treated better under the law or given any special advantages. People of all religions, and people of no religion, including atheists, should be free and equal. #NormalizeAtheism is a way of pushing us toward that goal where atheists are concerned.
TheHumanist.com: Could you elaborate on the power of narratives and representation when it comes to society?
Sincere Kirabo: Media and culture thrive off narratives—established values and attitudes, as well as social group representation and stereotypes, are all influenced by this aspect of human socialization. Author and academic Robert McKee rightly points out, “Storytelling is the most powerful way to put ideas into the world.” The stories we are repeatedly told and believe shape our worldviews.
Most commonly accepted beliefs rely on mainstream narratives. The problem is that dominant group input is a key factor in what stories become routine and lodged in the cultural imagination. This means there is a tendency to normalize the ideas, concerns, anxiety, preferences, and agenda of majority group representation at the expense of other groups who, as a consequence, become misrepresented or marginalized.
Representation matters. This is why atheist activists fight against legislation influenced by religious assumptions. This is why atheist activists oppose organizations like The Good News Club that try to indoctrinate children in public schools. This is why atheist activists confront various expressions of religious bigotry so well-integrated into society that it’s considered normal. This is why it’s vital that atheists are brazen in our pushback against social norms that demonize us.
Atheists aren’t anomalies. We’re everywhere. We are relatives, neighbors, co-workers, and peers—desensitizing this taboo is long overdue. If nonbelievers are to gain more public acceptance, it will take openness as well as broad, consistent exposure.
TheHumanist.com: What are the current initiatives and goals of the campaign?
Nebo: Currently the goal is simply awareness. The more people go out, wear atheist gear, show they’re open about their disbelief, talk about their atheism, use the #NormalizeAtheism hashtag on social media, and so on, the better.
Shives: I think we would all like for this to become something of an outpost for positive, active, socially conscious atheists. There’s a great need for more of that, particularly online where sadly some of the most visible atheist voices are not terribly admirable, to put it extremely politely.
TheHumanist.com: How can people participate in the #NormalizeAtheism campaign?
Shives: The easiest way to get involved is simply to tweet using the #NormalizeAtheism hashtag. That helps a lot. Get that trending! And if folks want to support the campaign, they can go to the official #NormalizeAtheism website and buy something from the store.
Mark Nebo is an activist, atheist, father, husband, public speaker, and veteran. (Photo via twitter.com/marknebo)
Steve Shives is an atheist video blogger and social justice advocate who examines atheism, science, woo, politics, and social issues. (Photo via twitter.com/steve_shives)
Sincere Kirabo is the social justice coordinator at the American Humanist Association. Sincere is a longtime humanist activist and writer. His work can be found on TheHumanist.com, Everyday Feminism, and Patheos, among other media.