Reaching Out

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.

Europe can report similarly hopeful signs, including declining church attendance, a weakened church having difficulty recruiting enough clergy, and the rise of an outspoken atheist movement.

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.

About Adam Lee

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

  • LogicalCon

    Amen! (heh)

    To replace religion as a foundation for the average person, something at least as good must substitute. I agree whole-heartedly that a firm basis for morality and the host of other positives are absolutely critical, but I wonder if that will be enough.

    And one of my biggest concerns is: amen. And bless you. And peace be upon you. And blessings! And on and on and on. Religious phrasing is so interwoven into language that it’s almost inescapable, while atheist words (if such things could be said to exist) are sorely lacking. Words like ‘evolution’ have been assigned negative meanings they don’t possess, while words like ‘spirtual’, when describing a person, are always cast as a positive. I so look forward to the day when spiritual and empty-headed have the same weight and connotation. Devout and irrational. Savior/Prophet/Saint and invisible childhood friend. But beyond negative connotations, it’ll be important to have words like freethought indicate something positive to the average listener; akin to genius, or open-minded, or well-educated, or all of the above.

    Athiests need to work harder to control their own narrative. To begin to own the dialog by which we communicate.

    To that end I propose “gesundheit” (German: health) instead of “bless you” when someone sneezes. (That or “need a tissue?”) No more use of “black sheep”, or “scapegoat” or other Biblically infused/originated terms. (and there are hundreds)

    I’m sure there are a wealth of mechanisms by which we can begin to assert our long-suppressed control over society (and you’ve proposed many within this blog, Ebon) but I’d suggest that we need language as the underpinning.

  • http://onlycrook.wordpress.com Jude

    Gosh. This post makes you sound just like a frustrated evangelical Christian. “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?” I don’t understand why we need to create a “movement backed by the force of numbers.” I’m not into recruitment–that’s for Christians and Communists. I think that people are born with an ability to believe or not–just as we’re born gay or not. Some recent scientific studies seem to back that up. I don’t enjoy being persecuted for my non-belief, but I don’t want to create a bunch of atheists either.

  • The Vicar

    On the one hand, I kind of agree with Jude — leave evangelism to the evangelists.

    But I can also see a number of reasons why more atheists would be good. For example: if, say, a quarter of the U.S. were atheists, it would make us just as large a group as the fundamentalists are now, and you’d see politicians wooing the atheist/liberal religious bloc the way they now woo the fundamentalist/conservative religious one. This would probably, in turn, require more intelligent policy, since the fundamentalist/conservative bloc (at least as it is currently formulated) prefers an emotional narrative to a logical argument.

    I would suggest starting any attempt at a mass movement around some sort of charity, and veing very picky about keeping the people at the top honest. Not only would that provide a solid core, but it would protect the group from accusations of nihilism or apathy.

  • Amissio

    I love this post. I really do – I think your ideas are absolutely great.

    I’m of the vein of humanist that admits that religion isn’t a complete evil. Sure, a lot of religious doctrine has been twisted for bad ends and a lot of people’s religious practices keep them from being all they can be before they die. It frustrates me when atheists and humanists take it as their God-given mission to completely debunk religion and cast it down in the pits of hell where it belongs.

    Of course, that’s still OK… but it’s just not what atheism could be. It’s not the sort of atheism that I want to be associated with.

    I share the Jude’s worries about forming “Churches of Atheism” that would simply take the place of the churches of old… but I believe that it is in our best interest to show that being Atheist, being Humanist, is a socially acceptable and truly positive experience.

    There are naturally going to be problems and bumps in the road. The largest one that I foresee is the difficulty of forming a truly representative, accepting organization that has a viable public face and voice.

    It’s time that we move on from defining ourselves as what we are not. We are not Christians, we are not Muslims, we are not Buddhists. It is time we move on from being negative Atheists to referring to ourselves proudly as positive atheists.

  • http://stupac2.blogspot.com Stuart Coleman

    The problem is (as always) getting everyone to agree on something. I, for instance, don’t personally see the need for anything like this, even if I understand that many might want it. I just don’t (for myself). But it’s a good thing to have some people thinking about, especially guys like you, (rather than controversial people like Dawkins or PZ).

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    I sympathise with the view that the most important thing about atheism is allowing people to think for themselves. So we shouldn’t try to make our ideology so powerful that it discourages resistance for any reason beyond its merits.

    Nevertheless, I think the specific things Ebonmuse is suggesting are good ideas. Developing and disseminating positive atheist worldviews is helpful to those who are atheists already even without the added bonus that it makes our side of the fence look more comfortable. Similarly, it is imperative for those in America who hold atheist or secularist views to band together and make their voices heard.

  • rob

    I don’t think we should be defining any morality based on our atheism. An atheist doesn’t believe in God. The End. Any morality you bring to the table doesn’t come from your atheism, and should not be tied up in not believing in God. If you want to push rational values, that’s great, but it’s not like you can say “I don’t believe in god, therefore this is my morality” the way religious people can say “I do believe in God, therefore this is my morality.” As Christians are so fond of pointing out, Stalin and Mao were atheists, too, and not Scotsmen. Atheism is a non-position, and any humanist morality should make sense irrespective of your belief in a deity.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    I don’t understand why we need to create a “movement backed by the force of numbers.”

    Well, for starters, consider the religious groups who want to ban the teaching of science in public schools and replace it with their particular dogmas; who want to remove responsible sex education from schools and replace it with dangerous and ineffective “abstinence-only” classes; who are seeking, and have received, millions of dollars in tax money to proselytize; who want to deny people equal rights based on sexual orientation or gender; who wage war and kill in the name of God; or who believe that efforts toward peace or environmental production are futile because the world is ending soon anyway.

    Many of these groups are highly organized, well-funded, and frighteningly influential when it comes to politics and world affairs. How are we going to oppose these fanatics and prevent them from imposing their will on us, except through numbers and political organization? Court systems safeguarding the separation of church and state are a vital bulwark, but we cannot expect to rely on them forever if public opinion is strongly against us.

  • http://nesoo.wordpress.com/ Nes

    I’ve frequently thought over the past few months (notably since your post “Should Atheists Evangelize?”) that a “church” for humanists where there are weekly debates (announced in advance, of course) in which anyone may participate, instead of sermons from an authority figure, would be a great idea. The “pastor” would act as a moderator and figure out a topic for each week’s debate. Sure, it still wouldn’t provide a central dogma or anything, but it would be a great place to take a loved one or a spouse (or even the random curious stranger off the street who might stop in) so they could see how people get their morals without a deity. Personally, I think it would be great fun to go to something like that a few times a month just to watch it.

  • Pi Guy

    “…a “church” for humanists…”

    The sense of community that people feel congregating on Sundays or walking to Mecca is probably the single greates attribute of organized religion. That’s the one drawback that I see to global atheism. It may be difficult to replace that but I’m ont sure that we should try, actually.

    Groupthink is probably what got religion started down the path that we see now (I originally wrote “down the wrong path” but couldn’t think of a time when they were on the right path…). Whip ‘em up in a frenzy, “Us angainst Them”-style, and you’re right back to witch hunts and crusades.

    I fully support the idea of promoting a charity or some sort of community support activities. Hmmmm… wouldn’t it be interesting if an atheist group one day qualifies for tax-exempt status?

  • Chris

    I think you’re overlooking the downsides of organization. Organization leads to hierarchy, hierarchy leads to doctrine, doctrine leads to suppression of dissent – exactly some of the things we’re trying to avoid.

    A decentralized movement has the advantage that to enough eyes, all errors are obvious – and nobody is afraid to point out that the Decider is wrong. With the Internet’s ability to propagate one person’s idea – regardless of who that person is – to thousands or millions, there’s just no need for a Central Committee.

    Many organizations are better than one, because you have somewhere to go when one turns bad. And we already *have* many organizations – the reason their cumulative size isn’t as great as the fundies is that we are still a minority. (And that religion can motivate people to promote the religion to the detriment – and sometimes outright destruction – of their own lives.)

    If people hold back from joining us, it may only be because they fear that atheism cannot give them all that religion offers.

    Religion can’t give them all that religion offers, either. It just has a remarkable ability to take credit for others’s successes (including the very people who built their happy, purposeful life with their own mind and hands!) and avoid being held to account for its failures.

  • Jim Baerg

    Hey LogicalCon: “Live long & prosper”

    Amisso said “I’m of the vein of humanist that admits that religion isn’t a complete evil. Sure, a lot of religious doctrine has been twisted for bad ends and a lot of people’s religious practices keep them from being all they can be before they die. It frustrates me when atheists and humanists take it as their God-given mission to completely debunk religion and cast it down in the pits of hell where it belongs.”

    The problem with religion is the notion of faith. If you hold that believing despite a lack of evidence is a good thing then you eliminate the possibility of correcting any incorrect beliefs. You also eliminate the possibility of peacefully settling disputes.

    The ‘attack’ should be very specifically on ‘faith’ & aim at getting the religious to ask themselves what parts of their doctrines are harmful & what can be beneficial.

  • http://www.bitbutter.com bitbutter

    I don’t think we should be defining any morality based on our atheism. An atheist doesn’t believe in God. The End.

    Quite. Atheism isn’t an ideology. Atheism can’t offer what religion offers (just like a-teapotism can’t). Please don’t confuse atheism with humanism. The two are entirely different things.

    If we are to succeed, we need to paint a picture of atheism as a joyous, welcoming worldview

    But that would be a lie. Atheism isn’t a worldview, it’s a simple lack of belief in a certain type of thing.

  • Alex Weaver

    I think the point Adam’s trying to make is that we need to illustrate that atheism is not only not mutually exclusive with, but can be actively conducive to, a joyous, welcoming worldview and positive life experience. This sort of reaction is like arguing against a rebuttal to the claim that Road A leads off a cliff by pointing out that Road A is not itself a desirable destination.

  • AJS

    What I propose is to use religious metaphors in such a way as to play up the negative connotations attached to religion.

    eg. “Dude, that is just so totally christian!” ….. as opposed to “lame”, “gay” or “uncool”. Meaning literally “missing one or more of the defining characteristics of its genre” — think christian rock music. Or “She only took the kid in for the huge government grant ….. what a f***ing christian!” (i.e. a hypocrite, one who is doing outwardly-good deeds mainly or only in order to accrue some benefit for oneself.) Not that we should stop with christians, of course; other religions have their own negative stereotypes. So we could say things like “Stop feeling so sorry for yourself or you’ll have the jews demanding royalty payments”, or even “He beats his wife, his kids are scared s**tless of him and he won’t listen to opposing points of view. What a muslim!”

  • Vicki B.

    I can see that there is a need for a “3rd place”(not home, not work/school) for non-religious people.

    For example, Ebonmuse could start a group called “3rd place for atheists” in his local area. You can take up to a certain amount of donations ($4000 here in CA) without incorporating. You need to be clear though as to whether you are a regular non-profit or a political action group. $4000 funds a lot of informal meetings, a few small mailings to the local membership. Awards ceremonies, like the “Queer Youth Leadership Awards” we have every year in my town, don’t cost a lot of money and can get a lot of publicity. At some point, Ebonmuse could put together a “starter pack” of written materials or videos to help others start similar groups in other cities. The groups could be loosely affiliated via the internet and be able to pool their resources when it makes sense, like for printing posters and bumper stickers.

    I also think that for the broader goals of good science education, re-establishing separation of church and state, and progressive social issues, there is room for a great deal of cooperation with the religious left and others who don’t identify as “atheists”. So, another model might be to create affinity groups within a larger organization or movement.

  • Vicki B.

    Why haven’t any atheist moderates denounced AJS’s bigoted comments?

  • http://www.skepchick.com writerdd

    And many of the comments for this post show why, alas, we will always be a failing minority. What a negative bunch.

  • http://www.bitbutter.com bitbutter

    @alex weaver:
    “This sort of reaction is like arguing against a rebuttal to the claim that Road A leads off a cliff by pointing out that Road A is not itself a desirable destination.”

    I don’t follow your analogy. My comment spoke only to the correctness of treating atheism as a belief system, which it’s not.

    On the other hand i _do_ think its’ very important to promote alternatives like Humanism, to demonstrate that they are viable alternatives to religion.

  • http://www.bitbutter.com bitbutter

    I fully support the intention of the opening post. I know that isn’t entirely evident from my previous posts. I’m sensitive to cases where atheism is ‘stretched’ to do more than it can. The reason for the sensitivity is that not all atheists are humanists and I’ve seen atheists displeased about being misrepresented when people have conflated the two.

  • Alex Weaver

    Why haven’t any atheist moderates denounced AJS’s bigoted comments?

    Because
    A) At the time you posted this they had been present for less than 8 hours. Some of us have things like jobs and families we spend our time on, so it takes us a while to get to these things.
    B) Unlike Robertson et al, who have a large contingent of slavish followers, I don’t think there’s any risk of AJS being taken seriously.

    And many of the comments for this post show why, alas, we will always be a failing minority. What a negative bunch.

    And of course you don’t bother to add anything constructive or positive yourself. Is the irony thick enough yet?

  • Alex Weaver

    As for AJS’ comments, they’re insensitive and childish. I wouldn’t call them “bigoted” since he’s describing a framing technique rather than an actual attitude, and particularly since the technique described is very much “fighting fire with fire.” Nevertheless, I agree that his approach is unlikely to be productive.

    By the way, are you actually under the impression that who is is, what he said, how, and to who, is in any way comparable to televangelists like Robertson? O.o

  • Vicki Baker

    Hmmm, still not exactly a rush of commenters eager to disassociate themselves from the implication that Jews are money-grubbers who make capital out of their tales of oppression…

  • Polly

    Oh for goodness sake! I didn’t want to give AJS the satisfaction of a reaction, but I’ll add my voice for your review V.B..
    I think what he’s suggesting is pathetically juvenile and incredibly offensive. It attempts to degrade theists and is self-degrading to anyone who uses those religious labels in that manner. Why? Because to pick on others for their beliefs makes one an ignorant bastard.
    I found his comment, “Stop feeling so sorry for yourself or you’ll have the jews demanding royalty payments” to be borderline anti-semitic. Though I seriously doubt that’s his intention, others wouldn’t necessarily make the needed distinction. And, he’s putting this out there as a culture-wide shift in syntax, so how other people think does matter.
    The whole point of the original post is to discuss what’s GOOD about atheism not to tear down theism. Just because one, lone, anonymous commenter took that as an opportunity to espouse an idea that is completely contrary to the spirit of that message, doesn’t mean we should have to shift the discussion in the name of equal time.

  • Vicki B.

    I think a simple comment to the effect that ethnic slurs fail to present a welcoming and inclusive worldview would be both on topic and an effective response.

  • http://www.rwandanatheist.blogspot.com BANGAMBIKI

    I propose eminent atheists meet up and produce an Atheist Bible,encompassing all we know about atheism,arguments against religion,atheist morality,etc.We atheists may unite around that.The book should not be canonical,but open to criticism and adaptation whenever necessary.We can use that to defend our ideas.It can comfort especially those atheists who are not sophisticated.For what we have today are scattered books and ideas which I don’t think help much unite atheism and eventually foster a strong movement capable of making a difference.We hate atheism as a religion but if atheist don’t organize themselves one way or another they will always suffer despite the fact that they are reasonable

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    I’m almost certain that there is just no way we could put anything like a ‘Bible’ together that even a slim majority of us could agree on for even a short period of time. Many of us would be suspicious of the idea in the first place.

  • http://gods4suckers.net/ Naomi

    LogicalCon: Bless you! I just had an epiphany!

    I seriously object to the idea that they “own” those words, although they do, since they invented them to describe specific circumstances. But getting around this issue will be a struggle.

    For instance, in eighth-grade, I learned the word “uxorious” and its meaning. Nobody uses that word when they want to say “hen-pecked” – they just say hen-pecked (or the coarse “p*ssy-whipped”). Do we begin to say: “a usually sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature of meaning of something”? Or: “an intuitive grasp of reality through [an event]“? Or: “an illuminating discovery”? Or: a revealing scene or moment”?

    No, epiphany does just fine. Like uxorious, it’s a one-word symbol for a more complex meme. But, unlike uxorious, it’s in common usage already, is a vital part of our language and is euphonious.

    PS: I’ve already removed “god-bless-you, sneezer”. I just don’t say anything at all. However, “do you need a tissue” is an improvement. Unless you’ve read Stephen King’s The Stand

  • norman ravitch

    Atheists may see the need for gathering together — like an alternative for kids who socialize in church groups where they get a lot of nonsense which lasts their whole lives — but actually non-belief is so obvious, so right, so little in need of defense that atheists getting together is just a parody of religions.

    I attended a Unitarian church for three Sundays and was totally turned off by the attempt of non-believers or little-belivers to turn themselves into a church with ritual of sorts, hymns about light and truth and fire, etc. It was absurd.

  • NM

    The reason atheists cannot get together is because one doesn’t get together out of a “not”. That’s a silly reason. However, I do encourage everyone to get involved in their communities, local, national or international in whatever way works for them (blogging, for instance) and point out when necessary that we don’t find belief in the supernatural a necessary component of our lives. I also do not think atheists have to be fulfilled: why can’t we be as miserable,or mixed up or as average as everybody else? We really are just EVERYBODY ELSE, just minus the Sky Pixie

  • Alex Weaver

    I’m not saying this, but God is. He gave us his love letter to us to prove it.

    Why does so much of his “love letter” read like a bad horror novel?


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