In the first years of the 21st century, atheism, nonbelief and freethought are resurgent all across the Western world. In the United States, by far the most religious of the industrialized democracies, the number of religious fundamentalists is dropping, while the number of nonreligious people is growing with each generation. Even ethnic groups coming from traditionally highly religious cultures show rising rates of nonbelief in accordance with the rest of society.
And yet, despite all this good news, something seems to be missing. Atheism does not lack for passionate individual advocates, and judging by the surveys, a significant cross-section of society is receptive to that message. But a robust, organized humanist movement, one that could compete with religion on its own terms, has yet to emerge. How can we build on our successes to transform atheism from a mere collection of like-minded individuals into a true, visible movement backed by the force of numbers?
There have been some steps in this direction, but not nearly enough. Groups like the Secular Coalition for America, an alliance of atheist and humanist organizations, are a welcome start, but they are still outnumbered and outraised by religious lobbyists. At best, they are like the support beams of a building – a vital framework for further growth, but the house itself must still be built around them.
I think what we still need, and what we have so far not done nearly enough of, is to put forth a positive, appealing picture of our beliefs and our movement. Direct criticism of religion has its place, and we still need to hear much more of it. But the other side of this coin, one to which I believe every humanist should devote at least equal effort and time, is to emphasize that we offer a fulfilling and desirable alternative.
Though we can and should continue to catalogue the harm caused by religion, the general idea that excessive religious belief can cause great harm is fairly widely known and uncontroversial, even among theists. But what many people still believe is that religion, for all its faults, is the only viable way to live a meaningful, purpose-driven life. That is the major misconception we must dispel.
If we are to succeed, we need to paint a picture of atheism as a joyous, welcoming worldview, one that holds the gate open to a life of bold and fearless self-direction and that has as much potential for happiness and fulfillment as any religious belief system. Just as importantly, we must make it clear that atheism provides a solid foundation for morality, a rational humanist morality that walks the middle way between excessive ethical relativism and excessive unjustified strictness.
If people hold back from joining us, it may only be because they fear that atheism cannot give them all that religion offers. It is this fear that persuades so many to put up with all manner of indignities and absurdities. These are the people to whom we need to reach out, to reassure them that nonbelievers can experience and appreciate all that is worthwhile in life just as believers can. If we can reach them and free them of this fear, that in itself would be a great service, and it could win many allies to the freethought cause that is even now taking shape.