There's no question that we've made an enormous amount of social and scientific progress over the centuries, perhaps most of that progress being in the last half century or so. Even though the current political landscape and discourse can make us feel the contrary, things are definitely the best and most evolved that they've ever been in the history of our species. However, as I see it, there remains one major hurdle that desperately needs to be overcome in the near future: clearing up misconceptions about atheism, which is the purpose of this essay.
Whether you are an atheist or not, we need to start having more honest conversations about the topic. We can still have disagreements, of course. People can disagree about the existence of a god(s), but do so in a civil way in which no one is portrayed as a villain. Here's the short of it: atheism is nothing more than a lack of a belief in a god, but an inordinate amount of people, still today, believe that atheism is some sort of immoral doctrine. This insanity has to stop. Let me explain this very plainly. Atheism is not a doctrine nor a dogma, it's not a belief "system", nor a choice. It simply means that one hasn't been convinced that a god exists. That's it. "I've seen the arguments for and the evidence against, I've read the books, and I'm simply not convinced that a god exists." Nothing more. And yet, it seems that there are still a lot of people who think that atheism is some sort of unethical, immoral, evil, dogmatic belief system, some sort of hedonistic chaos doctrine that says, "nothing matters, so let's all just have orgies willy nilly and kill each other." Nothing could be further from the truth. Atheists, by and large, belief that life matters a great deal. In fact, it is specifically because of the finality of death that we believe every moment is precious, but that's a larger tangent that I don't want to get into right now. The point is that atheism isn't a set of rules or some sort of satanic belief system. It just means one isn't convinced. If I handed you a copy of Harry Potter and said, "Now, do you believe that Lord Voldemort is real?", you would obviously say no. Even if the book itself said that every word was literally true, you probably still wouldn't be convinced. Not without evidence. What if I asked you if you believe in fairies? Unicorns? Dragons? You wouldn't be convinced of the existence of any of those without evidence. It's not outright impossible for any of those to exist, but we have no reason to believe they do. We've never seen a shred of evidence. So, you wouldn't be convinced. It's no different with respect to atheists and god(s). We're just not convinced. It's not a choice, and it's not an active rejection of any of the good teachings of god or the bible (of which there aren't many. :/ ) It's simply a position of looking at the bible and going, "Eh, I just don't see any evidence. I'm not convinced."
Before continuing, I'd like to add that atheist are not dogmatic. We don't say that it's impossible for a god to exist, and absolutely nothing can change our minds. No, not at all. Quite the contrary. You show us some evidence, and our minds will be changed accordingly. If a god descends from the clouds and says, "Here I am," they by golly, I'll be a believer. I simply don't believe in things for no reason with no evidence.
Not being convinced that a god exists is clearly an amoral belief--neither moral nor immoral. It has nothing to do with whether you're a good person or not, just as not being convinced that unicorns are real has nothing to do with morals. Arguably, not believing in a god often results in better morals because one must get their morals from themselves and other people, and modern people are far more moral, and far better arbiters of morality than an ancient book. Moreover, most religious people don't get the majority of their morality from their holy book. If they did, they'd be executing gays and stoning their children to death for back-talk. Religious people still get the vast majority of their morality from the other people in their culture, and that morality is a product of centuries of secular progress. For instance, figuring out that gay people are just people, and deserving of the same respect, rights, and compassion as everyone else, was the result of secular ideas and pressure. This realization didn't come from rereading and reinterpreting the bible. We have become more moral and more ethical throughout the ages because we are thinking beings with an innate ability to reason, to tell right from wrong, and improve our morality. Morality doesn't come from a god. It comes from us. But whether or not you believe in a god, it's time we stop thinking that atheism is inherently immoral.
I chose the subtitle for this essay because there have been so many social hurdles that have been cleared, and are now commonplace and widely accepted, but atheism still has so far to go. In the not too distant past, the issue of the day was civil rights, racial equality and integration. Even though racism is still a problem, there is absolutely no comparison to how it was in the 1960's and prior. We've had a black president, interracial relationships are completely commonplace, and there's lots of black people in the entertainment industry, and in media, and has been for many years. Even though it's not perfect, I'd say we're basically past that hurdle. In my generation, the big issue has been homosexuality. I'd say we are by and large past that hurdle as well. We got gay marriage, and there's a quite a lot of gay representation in entertainment. I mean, you've got sitcoms like Will & Grace, you've got gay characters on shows and in movies, you've got entire LGBT networks, and hell, just the other day I say a jewelry commercial--y'know, one of these "a diamond is forever" things--that featured a lesbian couple. Sure, there's still lots of gay hatred and intolerance, but homosexuality is brazenly out there in the media, and most people seem cool with it. Most shows/movies/networks don't seem afraid to have a gay character. Most filmmakers or tv show producers, or game developers for that matter, don't seem to be scared that if they include a gay character, they'll lose their audience. It's not an issue. But atheism hasn't made much headway, here. Atheism is still kept in the shadows, and having an openly atheist character is taboo. The only openly atheist characters on tv are edgy cartoon characters like Brian Griffin and Rick Sanchez. The makers of these shows get away with it, in part because of their target audience, but also, I believe, because people have an easier time stomaching this position from a cartoon character who isn't real. I suspect that if live action sitcom characters were openly atheist, people would have a completely different and objectionable reaction. I suspect they'd become soured, start hating the show and the character, and possibly even conflate the character with the actor, thinking that they are immoral and such. Cartoon characters don't seem to have this problem as they are so much further removed from the real world. Personally, I think it's tragic that the Big Bang Theory guys are not openly atheist. Of all people, they absolutely should be, and yet with some of them, they just don't mention it, and with others, they are "culturally" religious--they identify as a particular religion, but don't seem to really practice it. I have no doubt that the writers felt that openly atheist characters would drive the audience away. This is absolutely shameful. It is time that we have atheists represented in entertainment at the same level as gays. One of the only openly atheist characters in television history was Mike from All in the Family, a show that was far ahead of its time. Atheism needs to be commonplace in the media. The misconceptions about it will probably never stop until people start seeing atheists in the media and realizing that they're just people, not a cult of vampires or something.
We need to start talking honestly about atheism. We need to stop tiptoeing around the word, saying it hushed tones, and being afraid to admit that we're not convinced that a god exists. Regardless of one's beliefs about a god, it needs to be understood that atheism absolutely is not something unnatural, sinister, or immoral. You may have noticed that I always used the phrase "a god", not just, "god", like a name. I do this intentionally to raise awareness that the Abrahamic god is not unique, special, or different from the thousands of other gods that have been created throughout history, thousands of which are still worshipped today. The god of the bible is just one god--one among many. Every believer is an atheist with respect to every other god that's ever been worshipped. We non-believers just take it one god further.