The Quiet Revolution

In a previous post in the Garden, “An Inspiring Story“, I discussed two ways in which atheism might make inroads into society:

It is not inconceivable that atheists are nearing a critical mass, one which when reached will inspire us to organize en masse. If such a thing were to happen, I have no doubt that we could become a tremendous force for societal change for the better. But even if not, there is another possibility: we may gain acceptance and influence one piece at a time, without there ever being a single defining moment – a quiet revolution, so to speak. Either scenario is a positive one, but of course, they both depend on every atheist taking every opportunity to speak out and to act.

The first of those two possibilities, I must admit, was wishful thinking on my part. While I still maintain that such an event is conceivable, and would dearly love to see such a day, I do not expect it to actually happen. It seems very unlikely that there will be a single event that will galvanize the freethought movement. However, the second scenario is far more plausible, and in fact, a slew of recent news stories provide reason to believe that it is already happening.

First, consider this story from last summer, about an explicitly non-religious summer camp for atheist and agnostic families, called Camp Quest (see also this ABC News story):

Providing a haven for the children of nonbelievers is what Camp Quest is all about. As the camp’s official T-shirt announces, it’s a place that’s “beyond belief.” More precisely, it claims to be the first summer sleep-away camp in the country for atheist, agnostic and secular humanist children.

As the article points out, many atheist and agnostic children experience discrimination, bigotry and religious harassment in public schools, especially if they come from the Bible Belt regions of the country. Camp Quest not only provides respite from that, but in addition to the usual summer camp activities, teaches its young visitors about science and critical thinking, for which it should be doubly commended. But what I found most wonderful and inspiring about this story is that there is sufficient interest for such a place to exist! Not only that, it is now opening branches in five other states, as its website points out. Small though it may yet be, Camp Quest is a greatly encouraging sign that freethinkers are becoming organized and teaching their children the value of rational thought.

A similar story comes from the February 2006 San Diego Union-Tribune, discussing the existence of a high school atheists and agnostics club at California’s Escondido High. (Similar clubs have been founded in Michigan, among other places.) Again, though these clubs are still small in number, their very existence is a hopeful sign, indicating that young nonbelievers – and there are many of them – have begun to take organizing into their own hands. As would be expected, these clubs have likewise met with harassment and censorship, not just from fellow students but even, in some cases, from school officials. But individual nonbelievers would be just as subject to such tactics, whereas organization gives them a much more prominent venue to speak out against discrimination, to defend each other, and to make atheism visible, which is the only way discrimination against atheists can ever be ended. I find myself very optimistic when considering what effect these young freethinkers may have later in life.

Some freethinkers are already battling to defend atheism’s image in public and to evangelize on its behalf. A recent article from the February San Francisco Chronicle introduces readers to Lori Lipman Brown, lobbyist for the newly formed Secular Coalition for America – an umbrella organization that unites several major freethought groups to promote church-state separation and fight for nonbelievers’ social rights. Again, the SCA is still small, but it is encouraging as a first step toward atheist unity, and it can only grow in size and influence as more atheists become aware of its existence and express interest in organization.

After all, the nonreligious are the fastest-growing “religious” group in America, a fact that has been pointed out by, among others, Julia Sweeney. The former “Saturday Night Live” cast member is currently reprising her one-woman show, “Letting Go of God“, which talks about her own journey to nonbelief and the many battles and disasters that have been wrought by humans belonging to different religious beliefs. One excerpt I found especially poignant was Sweeney’s account of meeting a woman at a Catholic mass who told her – in a whisper – that she was in agreement, despite her continued church attendance. It is precisely these people – the ones who are still outwardly religious, who have not yet found the courage to openly declare their nonbelief – that we need to reach, to let them know that atheism is a viable option and that they should not be ashamed to admit who they are. Every step toward atheists organizing and, more importantly, speaking out, is a part of this process.

Finally, consider this recent article, “Atheists put their faith in ethical behavior“. I could not have phrased it any better than this excerpt:

The overwhelming majority of U.S. citizens profess some religious faith, although far fewer attend worship services on a regular basis. The public square has become increasingly dominated by religious (specifically, Christian) rhetoric, from the “values voters” of the 2004 presidential election to hot-button cultural issues that carry a religious edge — abortion, gay rights, stem-cell research, intelligent design, the right to die.

And yet at the same time a compelling undercurrent is at work. A study done by the Graduate Center of the City University of New York found that the percentage of the population that describes itself as “nonreligious” more than doubled from 1990 to 2001, from 14.3 million to 29.4 million people. The only other group to show growth was Muslims.

…But what, exactly, do atheists believe in, if not in God?

In a nutshell, atheists believe in reason alone, in those things that can be arrived at through intellect and the scientific method. Concrete evidence for God, they argue, simply doesn’t exist. They don’t cotton to leaps of faith or anything that involves a supernatural being reaching into human lives. They believe you can live a happy, respectable life based on human ethics that were derived not from God handing down a tablet but from a code of rules that emerged naturally through an evolutionary process in which humans learned how to live together successfully.

Although I do not quite agree with the article’s characterization of atheists as people who “forthrightly affirm that there is no God” (it would be more accurate to say that atheists consider God’s existence unproven), that last paragraph sums it up excellently. (As an extra point of praise, it quotes Dan Barker of the Freedom from Religion Foundation!) As atheists, we guide our lives by reason, conscience and the common good, not by dogma or superstition. These are positive values, and we should not be afraid to say so and to stand up for them.

Granted, we have a long way to go. Although articles such as these are a few welcome gleams of light, in general media and politicians on the national stage pay extreme deference to even the most uninformed and regressive religious beliefs, while steadfastly ignoring even the most eloquent defenders of atheism. However, beneath their notice, the message of freethought is spreading. Largely unnoticed by the bombastic defenders of organized religion, the ground is beginning to shift under their feet, and by the time they realize what is happening, the tide may already have turned in our favor. Although our times seem dark, and the religious enemies of liberty press ever more closely around the small and precious light we have kindled, there is hope; the counterrevolution is quietly building momentum. When it reaches full strength, it may well sweep the heirs of the Dark Ages away entirely and usher in a new era of bright light and reason.

New on the Guardian: The Peaceful Side of Atheism
Atlas Shrugged: The Rapture of the Capitalists
Why Atheism Is a Force for Good
Why Atheism Is a Force for Good
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • BlackWizardMagus

    These are definately the posts I like best on this site. Conversation about atheism is always enjoyable, but I like seeing all the, let’s say, “gospel” out there regarding atheism. I’d have never of heard of Camp Quest, for example, if I hadn’t of seen it here. Thanks for finding it, Adam.

    And, in my personal perspective; I hope Camp Quest becomes a competitor to the BSA. I was member my entire teenage life, but I had to constantly hide my atheism, knowing that it was possible to be booted out for it. It’s a very unlikely occurance, but I do hope that as the number of atheist teens grows, Boy Scout Camps hostile to them begin to lose attendance and funding, to spur reform. I hope it’s no longer the Boy Scouts of Believing America someday.

  • Unbeliever

    What surprised me most about the “Atheists put their faith in ethical behavior” article was not its subject matter, but what paper it was in. This article could have been easily been published in the LA Times or the Washington Post, but to appear in the Fort Worth Star Telegram is very telling. Fort Worth, Texas, is smack in the middle of the bible belt. It is even more conservative than its neighbor, Dallas, itself not exactly a beacon of liberalism.

    As a Texan and an atheist, it is very gratifying to see one of our papers print an article that was thoughtful and positive about atheism. If it can happen in Texas, then it can happen anywhere!

    I feel as if I am watching the birth of a movement that will put atheists on an equal footing with the rest of the populace. Here’s to the future!

  • Quath

    I was also an atheist Boy Scout.So I am glad tthat Camp Quest is doing so well. Also, I would have loved to join an atheist group in high school, but I lacked the nerve to start up one.

    I am hoping that people who elected Bush because of his faith reconsider their actions. I hope that the dialoges about Islam lead people to question their own faith.

    Sometimes I just think it all just needs the right push to get the ball rolling.

  • beepbeepitsme

    Thank you for this news article ~ “Atheists put their faith in ethical behavior.” What I find interesting and perhaps disturbing is that though many people talk about ethics, few can differentiate between ethics and morality. I find it difficult myself sometimes unless I refer to a dictionary and think out the specifics. I do remember “Ethics and Education” as being part of a standard core subject when I went to school, but then the world was much different to what it is now.

  • Ebonmuse

    What surprised me most about the “Atheists put their faith in ethical behavior” article was not its subject matter, but what paper it was in. This article could have been easily been published in the LA Times or the Washington Post, but to appear in the Fort Worth Star Telegram is very telling. Fort Worth, Texas, is smack in the middle of the bible belt.

    I hadn’t even noticed that – many thanks for pointing it out. That definitely makes this article even more significant. It does concern me sometimes that, while it meets with little resistance in the coastal states, atheism is far more likely to meet with bigotry and discrimination in the Christian-dominated Bible belt states; we need to make inroads into those if we’re ever going to command respect and tolerance from society as a whole. Groups like Camp Quest are a good start.

    I feel as if I am watching the birth of a movement that will put atheists on an equal footing with the rest of the populace. Here’s to the future!

    To coin a phrase: Amen to that!