Secularism and… Zombies?


Maybe I’m too much of a fan of The Walking Dead or Left 4 Dead, but the other day I thought of an interesting parallel to the secular(/atheist/skeptical) movement. The parallel is a popular genre and theme today in many forms of media, and while the comparison is silly and outlandish, I keep finding illuminating connections that I just have to share.

Yes, I’m talking about the zombie apocalypse: undead or infected rising from graves or slowly turning, creating chaos and hysteria around the world by trying to eat any human they see. And I’m going to compare that to peaceful atheists and skeptics writing, volunteering, and going to conferences.

Weird, I know. But hear me out!

First, I’d be simply dishonest if I didn’t address one big comparison. Yes, theists, especially those who push their beliefs on the rest of us, are the zombies. But I want to make clear that I in no way saying that religious people are “mindless” or stupid. I also am in no way condoning or promoting violence with what is supposed to be an amusing but hopefully insightful analogy.

Now the first and biggest comparison that sparked this idea comes from The Zombie Survival Guide, by Max Brooks. (He also wrote the book World War Z, which is now a film.) In this guide, Brooks goes to great lengths to establish the “facts” about zombies, where they come from, and how they differ from our Hollywood conception of them. He also counters the Hollywood portrayal of the human response and effort to survive.

Brooks’ book came out before The Walking Dead television series, which I consider it to be a positive example of what a real zombie outbreak would be like for survivors. So before that, it was much more common to see in films or imagine “surviving” as… kickass. Shotguns. Chainsaws. Running over the undead in a sick car. Burning them with a flamethrower.

Completing Dead Center in Left 4 Dead 2

Admittedly, they were forced into this situation.

While perhaps considered awesome, those are naive and shortsighted moves. And they’re quite close to what I and many others went through when we first started caring about atheism and the effects of superstitious beliefs.

When people first think they know something no one else knows, or worse, when others actively insist on the wrong idea, they may want to be bold about their new position, myself included. They want to extract some revenge for being duped for so long. Sometimes it’s a targeted effort towards people who specifically had a hand in deluding them. For me, I simply laid in heavily on whoever approached me with nonsense. I was looking for a fight, confident I would win against someone who underestimated my stance.

But there are consequences to this type of rash action. I lost a few friends by being a bit too eager to argue with them. My time spent arguing with strangers online, while honing my tactics, perhaps could have been put to better use. On the apocalypse side, it’s wasting time and energy and putting oneself in danger by going on killing sprees, potentially risking being abandoned by more forward-thinking groups of survivors.

The Walking Dead: "Better Angels"

After Dale dies, Glenn uses what he learned from him to get the RV working.

What fighting a zombie outbreak and standing up to harmful pseudoscience and superstition have in common, what they really end up being, are games of survival. They’re slow progressions to retake and reform society in a more positive way. And this is one of Brooks’ principal points. He rejects the flashy and cool and instead favors the productive and practical.

A person that knows how to get the water or electricity working is more valuable than another marksman. A cohesive group accomplishes more than a lone zombie hunter. Mechanics, doctors, engineers, and farmers are all needed to rebuild society after the apocalypse. Teachers to pass down this information to others are preparing for the future.

Keeping up with secularism in the news first showed this side of the issue to me. It wasn’t just about discovering the right answer to the question of a god’s existence. It wasn’t about fervently arguing with people to test your newfound position. In fact, it’s hardly about debating theism at all compared to arguing your simple right to be an atheist without undue hardship befalling you.

Though none of this is to say that it isn’t valuable to be able to hold your own when questioned of your lack of belief. (Everyone has to learn to handle a gun in a zombie apocalypse!) But that’s almost a necessary triviality compared to the importance of building a community.

And that’s the connection: secularists are in it for the long haul, needing people of all kinds and skills to thrive. Everyone has something they can bring to the table. People that can run organizations and motivate others are leaders who spur the movement on. Volunteers to help events like summer camps, conferences, charity, or activism are crucial in every way. Artists and those who talk about their interests celebrate the culture of freethought. Everyone who makes noise about current events raises awareness of the plight of the nonbeliever in the United States and abroad.

This is my serious point arising from an unorthodox comparison. The perception of the online atheist is a combative and snarky one. But people, like myself previously, will hopefully move from that state to a more cooperative, forward-looking one as time goes on.

I have a few more fun connections, too, just to justify the metaphor!

The final safe room in The Parish in Left 4 Dead 2

The skeptics and the critical thinkers are the ones armed with the facts on their side, much like survivors and their significantly advanced weaponry compared to the steadfast zombie’s “grab and bite”. (How about Occam’s “hatchet” against Pascal’s zombie “stagger”! …Anyone? No?)

And on that note, zombies’ techniques never change! When also was the last time anyone heard a truly, completely new argument for the existence of a god? Always those same logical fallacies.

Different deconversion or rationalization experiences can have interesting parallels. What about those who stay in the closet to protect themselves, or walk among those with whom they disagree (going to religious services) because the cost to escape is too great?

The Walking Dead: "Guts"

Glenn and Rick draped in zombie flesh as a disguise. (This MAY be where the comparison breaks down.)

I hope this was a fun way to get across the transition from new to mature skeptic or atheist. I also hope that it paints the secular movement in the positive, progressive light that I see it in, fighting for the humanity of all. I don’t think there’s a single cure to be discovered to easily counter the infection or dispel beliefs in the paranormal or supernatural. Just the slow march of education and outreach. Our efforts gather more followers every day, joining the ranks that will push to make the world a more rational, productive, and zombieless place.

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