Respectable Spectacles and a Perfect Part: My First Impressions of the Atheist Movement

It was a Sunday morning. An early Sunday morning. I’d dragged my ass out of bed to attend my first atheist-organization meeting since moving to LA for grad school. I was really excited. I’d lost my faith only a couple of years before and was feeling quite energized by this whole newfangled atheist-movement thing. Though my college is what most would consider liberal (not just liberal arts), Campus Crusade for Christ had been the dominant student group and there’d been zero secular groups. Thus, this morning was my first, my only real taste of any kind of atheist movement.

I remember entering the main meeting room. It was at the CFI building in Hollywood. At first glance, it looked disturbingly close to a modern church. You know, a sort of nondescript building with few trappings of what most call “religion.”  No giant religious symbols. No icons of long-dead saints. Just a podium, chairs, tables of hand-outs, and a kitchen.

I’m not really sure what I was expecting, but I was let down within a minute when I realized that none of the milling regulars was going to acknowledge me. Not one. Not even to say, “Hi and welcome to our aging, non-regenerating, non-inclusive, self-important movement for old, well-off white people who don’t give a piss about anything other than complaining about Christians.”

But I’ll get to all that in a sec.

So no one’s acknowledging me and I’m not sure what to do, where to go, etc. Luckily, a younger gent, someone who’d later become a friend for years to come, spotted me. We’d corresponded over e-mail recently on the desire for a youth-centered bit of the overall movement. He’d suggested I come to this meeting to get acquainted and to get a general sense of what was up.

So this guy and I chat for a little while and we both observe the fact of this mummy convention. Soon, the Head Poobah started the meeting, a speaker spoke, and more fuck-off-young-guy socializing commenced.

It was during this second session of being ignored that it happened. I was browsing one of the handout tables, very curious to see the kind of pamphlets and literature this organization was offering, what they were using as their initial interface with the public, with potential members. Much of it was pamphlets of Thomas Paine quotes, biographies of Madeline Murray O’Hair, you know, informative, inoffensive education material.

But then I saw it. It. The pamphlet. In all its desktop-published glory. It was an innocent enough page twice folded entitled something like: “What is Atheism?” That’s fine, right? Perfectly reasonable question title. But just below it was an illustration. A small, unremarkable portrait of a man. A middle-aged, white man. With respectable spectacles and a perfect part. He looked like what most grade-schoolers think of as a “scientist.” I don’t remember whether he wore a lab coat, but my memory tells me he did.

I sat there for a second regarding this illustration. It bothered me. Not angered, just bothered. I thought about it. “What is it that’s rubbing me the wrong way?” It wasn’t like the artist had created a poor rendition of a “scientist” guy thinking. The craft was fine. No, it was more the choice.

Allow me to explain with an example: A lot of people like Lady GaGa. I’m almost entirely ambivalent. But when she released her hit “Born this Way,” I wrote a post on about how much her song bothered me. Sure, it was all-inclusive in its acknowledgement that being gay wasn’t a choice, but rather an innate trait. But it also talked about God. A lot. It bothered me that, as the writer of the song, its creator had made the choice to include the LGBT crowd, but by essentially saying that God made them that way, she’d excluded anyone who didn’t happen to believe in the whole God bit. My main point was that she could’ve written whatever lyrics she wanted and those “not-everyone” lyrics were the ones she chose.

This was what I was thinking as I looked at at Glasses Man. This atheist group and its resident artist could’ve picked any image they wanted. Any at all. And the “scientist” stereotype was what they went with.

I opened the pamphlet, half hoping that the Boring White Guy was merely the first impression this organization was choosing to make.  Surely they’d picked additional images to more completely represent actual atheist demographics, nothoped-for demographics.

Nope. Not only were there no depictions of women, ethnic minorities, sexual-orientation minorities, or any other kind of minorities, there were no further depictions of anyone at all. Boring White Guy was the one and only face of this organization on the cover (and rest of) this welcome pamphlet.

As I looked up at the meandering Twilight cast. I realized two things: One, that this pamphlet was completely representative of the observed demographics, and two, that I was one of them (apart from age).

A (predominantly) pale, (mostly) male pissing party. That’s what the atheist movement looked like to me. Thankfully, in the years since, diversity has grown by leaps and bounds. I’ve heard of African-American groups, LGBT groups, and Generation Atheist geared towards the younger crowds. Things are changing for the better. But I may never be able to shake that initial dread. That one more time, I, the white, hetero male, was a run-of-the-mill potential member of  the non-believing country club in east Hollywood.

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