While the voracious hordes of religious proselytizers continue to bombard society, demanding that their beliefs be wedged in wherever they can find a crack, atheism continues to grow quietly in the background. Largely unnoticed by the mainstream media and politicians, the advocates of nonbelief are still making their case, and they are increasingly finding people receptive and even eager to hear their message. There are many encouraging signs that, after the frenzied religious madness that has dominated the headlines over the last few years, ordinary people are finally growing tired of it and becoming more willing to listen to an alternative viewpoint.
The most visible sign of this quiet revolution – the tip of the iceberg, so to speak – is the publication, in recent months, of several prominent and widely discussed mainstream books making the case for atheism. Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers, Sam Harris’ The End of Faith, Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell, and soon, Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion are at the forefront of this advance. The very publication of these books – the fact that publishers are willing not just to touch, but to embrace them – is a hopeful sign. (Such books, I venture to say, would probably have been universally shunned by American publishing houses as recently as ten years ago. Atheists have undoubtedly come a long way, even if we have a long distance left to go as well.) But even more encouraging is their success, both critical and commercial. The End of Faith was a New York Times bestseller and won the 2005 PEN/Martha Albrand Award for First Nonfiction; Freethinkers, likewise, is in its tenth hardcover printing run and has received wide favorable reviews, including the Washington Post‘s Best Nonfiction Book of 2004.
However, we must not let the deserved success of these trailblazing authors cause us to overlook the many other individual atheists speaking out. Here are some representative stories from the last several months:
First, a poignant piece entitled Atheists are used to being reviled, but that doesn’t make it any easier, about the local Freethinkers and Atheists of Virginia association. The group’s members tell of the hostility they have endured from the ignorant and bigoted religious majority:
“I’ve seen people gritting their teeth and balling their hands up while they listen to me,” said Martin, 33, who lives in Maple in Currituck County, N.C. “I’ve gotten some loaded statements like, ‘What are you going to do when you find yourself in a lake of fire?'”
…It was a measure of the stigma atheists say they face that five of the 11 members present on this night last month refused to be interviewed. One man said he was job-hunting and feared that being known as an atheist could cost him employment.
Yvette and Matt Edwards, who live in Norfolk, said hostility was plain in the reactions their atheist-themed bumper stickers seemed to elicit from passers-by.
“We’ve had people raise their Bible and yell at us,” Matt Edwards said. The couple ultimately stripped the fenders clean after wearying of finding scribbled messages such as “Go to church” and “God loves you” on their parked minivan.
Nevertheless, the article closes on a hopeful note:
Lauren Floyd said he has increasingly come to believe that atheists need to be both proud and loud to counter what he calls a post-Sept. 11 increase in public religiosity.
That climate, he said, foments public spending on faith-based initiatives and attacks on teaching evolution, as well as distrust of atheists.
“More and more of us are willing to stand up and say, ‘Don’t take this anymore,'” he said.
…”You’ve got to fight back, and a lot of people are coming out” as atheists, he said. “We are definitely getting feisty.”
We atheists do indeed have to do just that, and the call is not going unanswered. Our second article concerns a group of atheists who are doing just that, fighting fire with fire by countering invasive Christian proselytizing at the evangelical-dominated Air Force Academy in Colorado with some friendly freethought evangelism of their own.
Free Thinkers of Colorado Springs, which promotes nonreligious themes including science, logic lessons and humanism, has joined the academy’s Special Programs in Religious Education, which is an umbrella for extracurricular faith programs.
“The academy continues to adhere to the highest American intellectual tradition of open mindedness and fairness, values that have contributed to our country’s greatness,” the group said in a news release.
The Christian theocrat group Focus in the Family (the standard rejoinder is “Focus on your own damn family”) notes this news with a surprisingly neutral article. Amusingly, their piece ends with a boilerplate appeal for donations: “Support this effort to promote the family in the public policy arena.” I would agree that atheism promotes strong families and should be supported, but I doubt Focus on the Family meant it that way. (And by the way, who was it that said there were no atheists in foxholes?)
And from the Columbus Dispatch, a piece profiling several prominent regional atheists titled Godless by Choice:
Sterling — a programmer for Chase Bank with a degree in physics from Ohio State University — was among those who studied and pondered his way to atheism.
When he first left his church, he was troubled by the idea of a world without divine purpose. He was depressed for a time, he said, but discovered that life still had meaning.
“I just kind of realized after living and getting up every day it’s like, look, there’s more reasons to live than because God tells you to, or God provides purpose,” Sterling said.
“Our emotions and our culture and our attachments to other people create things that we as humans need and want. And that’s where our goals come from.”
In addition to these news stories, there have also been some eloquent and heartening editorials from papers all around the country on behalf of atheism. For example, here is a piece titled Honesty and God, from retired Navy officer Keith Taylor:
Last week I used one of the two most opprobrious words in the English language to describe myself. It’s the one that does not start with “F.” I said I was an atheist. Folks have a terrible time with that word. An old friend expressed surprise that I could be both an atheist and compassionate. Other letters haven’t even been that nice.
…if it touches on religion, facts come in second! Tell most folks you believe dancing with rattlesnakes is a good way to salvation and they’ll likely tell you “That’s nice. Everybody should believe in something.”
Taylor’s plain-spoken article tells it like it is: while atheists are misunderstood and reviled, people who profess the most ridiculous and nonsensical beliefs are accepted without question, just as long as they “believe something“. In reality, religiosity is no substitute for virtue, and Taylor points out that atheists who do the right thing quietly, without expecting societal praise for it, on average tend to be more moral than those who swagger and tout their deity-belief as if it were a magical token of goodness.
Next, from the Minnesota Daily, U atheist shares his views on religion:
Announcing he is a nonbeliever was a relief, he said.
“When I finally said I don’t believe in God, I felt a lot more calm and peaceful than I ever did before,” Volk said.
…In the end, Volk said he thinks the same as everyone else on most morals and societal rules and said he doesn’t need religion to know it is wrong to kill and steal.
“What makes me different? Nothing, really.”
That last line sums up the matter perfectly. The truth is that nothing fundamental divides atheists from their neighbors; nothing fundamental makes us unlike everyone else. The human mind seems to thrive on labeling, on the need to divide people into groups, and throughout history religion has given all too convenient an excuse to do that. Wars, slavery and other evils have been the result, as the fires of hatred and xenophobia are far more easily stoked against an amorphous “other” who can be easily stereotyped as opposed to everything the in-group holds dear. But atheism provides no such easy excuses for prejudice, and instead forces us to recognize a vital truth: what we have in common is not what we believe, but that we are all human.
In the Arizona Daily Star, Gilbert Shapiro opines that Atheism is a liberating world view, and echoes the earlier remarks about atheists becoming “feisty”:
It is therefore time for atheists to “come out of the closet” and shout out loud the famous line, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any longer!”
…Atheism is the liberating view incorporated in the philosophy of secular humanism. Its central theme is that man alone is solely responsible for his destiny on earth. Morality has been shown to be a product of human development over thousands of years; no deity is necessary to counsel us about right and wrong.
…God, faith, religion, and the supernatural are, in the atheist’s world view, the causes of the delusional wishful thinking that has at best, wasted man’s time and at worst, been responsible for his most awful behaviors.
Atheism absolutely is a liberating world view – free from the mental slavery of religion, free from the poisons of guilt and fear, free from the endless proclamations of human inferiority, free from the dogmas that may not be questioned, free from the pompous church hierarchies who fantasize that they have a special right to rule over others. The only wonder is that so many people prefer the shadows of oppression to this exhilarating and joyous freedom.
Last but not least, I came across a wry short piece from earlier this summer titled Save Yourself By Becoming An Atheist:
It will be the simplest thing you will ever experience. Here’s how to do it. Walk slowly into your bedroom, skip the kneeling by your bedside thing, and lay calmly down on your bed. Close your eyes and begin thinking about Santa Claus, remember to be perfectly silent. Now, compare Santa Claus to God and repeat three times, God and Santa are the same. Soon you will begin to hear jingle bells outside of your bedroom and you will see the red glowing nose of Rudolph. This is the first step to an atheist epiphany. Once you realize that God is actually Santa Claus, your belief in the mythical Armageddon will dissipate into the atmosphere; in other words, it will vaporize into the land of make believe.
Although atheists, lacking belief in a mythical heaven to escape to, must still share this world with the dangerous zealots who want to make their fantasies of Armageddon become all too real, the author’s point is well taken. If enough people were to do this, those flames of faith might be quenched, and the violent fantasies of global destruction will fade away and never become any more substantial than ideas. Though we have a long way left to go before we reach this point, there are nevertheless many encouraging signs that atheism is making headway against the roaring waters of fundamentalist religion.