Sometimes evolution seems to bestow a sort of karmic recompense upon certain hard-working members of a species. Sometimes the individual who demonstrates the greatest Protestant work ethic will, in fact, reap the greatest reward. A male Australian redback spider who courts a female for fewer than one hundred minutes may get a chance to enjoy a tryst with the object of his affection. However, as punishment for his lackluster foreplay, his paramour likely will gobble him up as her next meal as soon as he gets his penis-like organ into the required spot. On the other hand, if he puts just a little more effort into the courtship, if he spends just a bit more time on the “date,” the female is likely to show her appreciation by sparing him the cannibalistic finale.
Sometimes, however, one’s good fortune is more a matter of stealth than perseverance. Some Australian redback males have figured out a very clever trick: how to get “free” sex—that is, how to get it not only safely but cheaply, taking advantage of the set-up work of their more industrious fellows. After a more diligent male has spent the requisite time schmoozing the female—plucking on her web, making contact with her abdomen, and eventually copulating (and risking becoming her next meal, depending on her mood)—the lazy sex thief can pop in for sloppy seconds with the previously warmed-up female. Not only does he spare himself the lengthy courtship dance, he avoids being eaten, despite the brevity of his flattery.
Well into my fourth decade of life and having experienced relatively little harassment for daring to admit and even flaunt my godlessness, I am much like the sloppy-seconds spider—happily satisfied and yet guiltily free from having had to do any real work for the privilege I enjoy. Great strides in civil liberties have been accomplished in just this way. Campaigners for a worthy cause expend vast energy and take enormous risks, sometimes living long enough to delight in the fruits of their labor, sometimes not. Then, like the spider sex-thieves, later generations reap the real reward—at worst, a slightly more accepting and comfortable world; at best, a world wholly changed. Thanks to the work of gay-rights activists before him, Harvey Bernard Milk (1930–1978) became the first openly gay man to be elected to a public office. Likewise, Milk advanced the cause of gay rights for future generations with his bravery, while not living long enough to fully enjoy the slightly less homophobic world he helped to create.
Similarly, we in the nontheist community are descended from a long line of brave rule-breakers. Those of my parents’ generation (including my parents themselves) dared to question the tired maxim that a churchless child was bound for social decay, that even nontheist parents were better off accepting a church’s kind offer to serve as moral babysitter. Now, later generations have been brave enough not only to eschew religion but to criticize it openly and publicly among family members and work colleagues. Despite what may seem like frustrating setbacks (anti-evolution bills continue to pop up across the country; the word atheist continues to be synonymous with immoral among religious laypeople; a godless politician still has little chance at a successful career), atheism is flourishing. The Four Horsemen’s books sold in record numbers, and we even have a president who makes the occasional kind remark about “nonbelievers.” We can pat ourselves on the back for these victories all we like. But were it not for the long-dead-and-forgotten trailblazers—those assiduous spiders who groomed the web for our arrival—we might, for our own survival, still be hiding in the proverbial closet.
This is not to say that my generation or those to come can afford to relax. The Western world may be drastically more tolerant, indeed more intellectually sophisticated, than it was even twenty years ago. Still, changes don’t always stick. Like chronic illnesses, belief in creationism, school prayer, and discrimination against atheists are conditions that are never truly cured, only temporarily suppressed. After all, even the shrewdest sloppy-seconds spider knows he risks getting his head ripped off. Who is to say when the spider queen will wake up with a renewed appetite or simply be in a bad mood?