Finding Our Voice

Last year, in a series of posts titled “The Quiet Revolution“, I observed that atheists were in many ways making inroads into society beneath the gaze of the media. But that quiet revolution, I’m most happy to say, is becoming increasingly noisy. More and more lately, I see atheists and atheist groups who are willing to stand up and defend their nonbelief in public. If this trend continues, editorials expressing sentiments like this one may soon become a thing of the past:

I didn’t know what many of the different religions believed, how the religion was practiced or what days of the year were important celebrations for that particular religion. I also discovered that there were people who were Agnostic and Atheist, and I had no idea what that meant.

The fact that some people still do not know what the word “atheist” even means testifies to the past overwhelming dominance of religion in our society. But believers are no longer having it all their own way. With passionate, dedicated spokespeople like Richard Dawkins to effectively defend atheism in public and rally nonbelievers to come out and organize (the focus of his new Out Campaign), it seems a true atheist movement is taking shape.

The Out Campaign is not the only group enjoying the fruits of atheism’s recent resurgence. A recent Washington Post article gave an overview of some other secular groups blossoming across the country, including the opening of humanist charter schools and summer camps like Camp Quest and the growing budget and political clout of the Council for Secular Humanism. Other groups have also seen increases in membership:

“People who were ashamed to say there is no God now say, ‘Wow, there are others out there who think like me, and it feels damned good,’ ” said Margaret Downey, president of the Atheist Alliance International, whose membership has almost doubled in the past year to 5,200. It has a 500-person waiting list for its convention in Crystal City later this month.

(The Freedom from Religion Foundation, incidentally, has recently seen its membership surpass 11,000.)

But one of our greatest recent triumphs must be the first openly nonbelieving congressman, California Representative Pete Stark, whose “outing” was orchestrated by the Secular Coalition for America. And though Rep. Stark may be the only freethinking member of Congress who’s announced himself, he may not be the only one there. A recent article in the Boston Globe hinted that there may be as many as 21 others! If we can succeed further in establishing a public presence for atheism and shucking the pernicious stereotypes we’ve been tarred with, we may well persuade yet more congresspeople to come out of the closet.

But the United States is not the only country where atheists are finding their voice and getting organized. Our neighbors to the north may be well ahead of us in that regard, according to a recent article in an independent Canadian newspaper, The Charlatan, titled “Atheism: Is it just a trend?”

According to a 2002 Statistics Canada survey, 25 per cent of men and women aged 15 to 29 said they have no religion. A Statistics Canada General Social Survey also found that in 2004, more than half of all Canadians between the ages of 15 and 29 either had no religious affiliation or did not attend religious services. This is a 16 per cent increase since 1985.

And across the pond in Europe, atheist groups are also on the rise (helped, no doubt, by the continent’s native freethinkers like Richard Dawkins):

Associations of nonbelievers are also moving to address the growing demand in Britain, Spain, Italy and other European countries for nonreligious weddings, funerals and celebrations for new babies. They are helping arrange ceremonies that steer clear of talk of God, heaven and miracles and celebrate, as they say, “this one life we know.”

The British Humanist Association, which urges people who think “the government pays too much attention to religious groups” to join them, has seen its membership double in two years to 6,500.

A humanist group in the British Parliament that looks out for the rights of the nonreligious now has about 120 members, up from about 25 a year ago.

I know I have readers in the United Kingdom, so perhaps one of them could clarify for me: does that last sentence mean that there are 120 humanist members of Parliament itself? If so, what a coup that would be! Even a mere 25 would put America and our one openly atheist congressperson to shame.

Now, for one final piece of good news, we return to America for a story I’m thrilled to announce: The Freedom from Religion Foundation’s weekly radio program, Freethought Radio, is going national! Freethought Radio will be joining Air America’s progressive lineup, and starting this Saturday, October 6, it will be broadcast on Air America affiliates across the country as well as on XM’s nationwide satellite broadcast.

This could not be better news for our movement. Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-presidents and Freethought Radio’s co-hosts, are a smart, lively, enthusiastic pair who have done tremendous work in defending church-state separation. Freethought Radio and the FFRF deserve to be a rallying point for nonbelievers nationwide, and with this new, broader platform, they may well fulfill that role. As an added bonus, their first national show will feature one of the most prestigious guests so far, the atheist firebrand Christopher Hitchens!

While atheist groups are coming into their own, meanwhile, it seems that the religious right’s influence is at a low ebb. Ed Brayton reports that a recent religious right convention, the “Family Impact Summit”, had a much lower turnout than expected – with nearly as many speakers as attendees. The Republican “Values Voter” debate held last month had a similarly disappointing (for the organizers) turnout, with nearly one-third of the auditorium’s seats left empty. Even the Catholic church is seeing severe decline in its numbers in Europe, to the point where the pope is now publicly worrying that it will go extinct there – and I, for one, would welcome that day. As these beliefs fade inexorably into the past, there is reason to hope that atheism will pick up the slack and lead humanity into a bright and secular future.

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.

  • Phil

    Interesting piece. According to this official government publication btw, the All Party Humanist Group had around 100 members in the UK parliament as of April 2007. They claim to be growing, so there could easily be 120 members now.

  • An Atheist

    Freethought on XM is great. I may have to get XM now.

  • john

    i for one welcome our new atheist masters. i personally think that a secular humanist nation would be great, but i do not see it getting there any time soon unfortunately. i hope that the day comes sooner than later.

  • Crotch

    There’s an upcoming bit on CBC News about the rise of atheism in Canada. I don’t know whether to be excited or worried about it…

  • heliobates

    And then you’ve got Sam Harris telling us to shut up already:

    http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/sam_harris/2007/10/the_problem_with_atheism.html

  • http://elfstoned.blogspot.com Elfstone

    heliobates, that’s not what Harris says! Come on, he’s one of the most vocal critics of religion! He brings up a lot of good points, but I think it’s too late to back from using the word “atheist”. To stop using it now would be even more awkward and problematic than what Harris describes. But he definitely doesn’t want anyone to “shut up”!

  • Valhar2000

    Yes, Harris has been misrepresented there. I don’t agree with him, though. It seems to me that it would bed a huge victory to remove the negative connotations of the word “atheist”, so it is something we should strive for, even if it will be difficult in the beggining.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    “We should go under the radar—for the rest of our lives. And while there, we should be decent, responsible people who destroy bad ideas wherever we find them.” — Sam Harris

    And what of those bad ideas which are supported by organized groups? Seems to me that if we all refused to organize, then winning the battle of ideas would be that much harder. While I am sympathetic to the general idea of not defining ourselves in terms of what we oppose, it seems mighty unrealistic to think that Focus on the Family or the Southern Baptist Leadership Conference are going to be undone by individuals. One may as well posit a mob defeating a standing army. How often does that happen?

    Further, in so remaining silent, we hand religionists a weapon to be used against us: They will spin our silence as shame — and our silence will not permit a riposte. Think of how that will resonate with the undecided.

    All-in-all, a muddled idea.

  • Jim Baerg

    However in partial defense of Harris, I think it’s worth emphasizing that the idea of faith is the worst thing about religion, not the idea of god.

    The notion that it is a *good thing* to believe without evidence & that one should not criticize what is stated by the prophet or the pope, is what allows evil to thrive.

    Perhaps choosing a name that emphasizes to opposition to faith rather than the non-belief in god(s) has some merit.

  • http://www.blacksunjournal.com BlackSun

    Ebonmuse, a very hopeful article. Thanks.

  • heliobates

    heliobates, that’s not what Harris says!

    Harris wants people to stop identifying as atheists. He advocates “flying under the radar” and compares the secular movement to civil rights. It’s a bad analogy and a stupid strategy.

    Civil rights workers in the late 50s and throughout the 60s didn’t call themselves “aracists”, that’s true. Instead, they called themselves… wait for it… “civil rights workers”. And they were slandered, insulted, dismissed, etc. Where Harris gets it wrong is that however they labeled themselves, they were vocal and demonstrative, extending their activism even as far as acts of civil disobedience. He claims to want to do this, but not attract the wrong kind of attention to himself. Boy howdy is that working already!

    Explain to me, Elfstone, how one “flies under the radar” without being silent? Harris wants us not to use “atheist”, but what label will apply to him the minute he speaks publicly about disbelief and his supposed “rationalism”?

    I mean really, how’s a conversation going to go with a believer, using Harris’ smashing new rhetorical strategy:

    Believer: “Well, because [$God,$Allah,$IPU] says so!”

    !Atheist: “You’re making that claim without evidence. What’s your proof that [$God,$Allah,$IPU] even exists?”

    Believer: “Don’t you believe in [$God,$Allah,$IPU]?”

    !Atheist: “No, I don’t”

    Believer: “So, you’re an atheist!”

    !Atheist: XXXXXXXXX

    You’ll have to fill in the last response for me because I can’t imagine how that wouldn’t spin me into a pointless argument.

    The word “atheist” is in the lexicon. We’re going to get that label, because our opponents will bestow it upon us and use that to derail the argument anyway. While it would be nice for me to identify myself as a “metaphysical naturalist” and leave it at that, I’m going to spend decades explaining it to people who simply have no exposure to this ontological system.

    “Atheist” may not be ideal, but it’s a flag that’s flying and there’s a gathering host beneath it.

    You know where to find me.

  • Crotch

    Alrighty, just watched the bit on CBC – “The Atheists: Spreading the Word”…

    Started with talking to members of an atheist meet-up who were discussing their “coming out” as an atheist, and the fear of rejection that entailed.

    Then they started talking to a theologian who went through the whole “the universe is too beautiful to not be made by God”.

    This was followed by a gang member-turned-soldier-turned-atheist rapper. He claimed religion “is a disease… introduced into society by power-hungry men… [God] was Santa Claus for adults.” He also believes atheism Vs religion will be the next great “clash of civilizations”. Both he and the theologian said that they would readily accept any evidence against their positions.

    The guy doing the story is clearly a Christian (“Who says there’s no God?” he asks, pointing out a beautiful beach).

    Sam Harris was on, too. Contradicted the narrator by stating that the burden of proof lay with Christians. The story then went on to talk about faith helping the survivors of Katrina, followed by a bit of Bush-bashing.

    Went back to the theologian, who seems to be the star of this piece on atheism so far. Harris claimed that said theologian’s moderate position was a major problem, but did not elaborate on that, sadly.

    Commercial Break!

    Now for the bit on morality. Went to a discussion about morality at Camp Quest. Talked to the kids – good, good. Kids are very sympathetic. Sam Harris may come across as angry, but how can you dislike a cute little 6-year-old?

    Now for a discussion on religion in Canada. Talked to an atheist threatened while putting up flyers for some event. “No religion” was the third most popular option in the last census, at five million – Catholics and Protestants are the only larger. 17% ain’t bad.

    Theologian (Remember him?) stated that atheists must ultimately realize their life is “built on despair.” Assorted atheists contradicted this. Sorta.

    Narrator described himself as a “fence-sitting agnostic” awaiting evidence. There was a final quote from a random atheist at a meet-up in Ontario, but I forgot it. Damn narrator.

  • heliobates

    Alrighty, just watched the bit on CBC – “The Atheists: Spreading the Word”…

    Neato, I just watched it as well. Decent exposure, I thought.

    Oh, and Elfstone, if my response to you is more heat than light, I apologize. Dunno why that speech touched a nerve with me, but it did.

  • Crotch

    In retrospect, that CBC piece had a lot less to do with the original topic here than its title lead me to believe. Aw well.

    Following E-Mail sent to CBC on the topic of their piece (The Atheists: Spreading the Word): “I was not sure whether to be worried or happy about your piece “The Atheists: Spreading the Word”. After having watched it, I’m still not sure which side of me was right.

    I was rather disappointed with the lack of focus on the specific arguments of atheists. Flipping between an angry Sam Harris and a calm, moderate theologian is certainly far easier – and far less controversial. Promoting atheism may not be the goal of the CBC, but given the title of your piece, I expected the focus to be one the actual reasons we are atheists – not angry references to the bloodthirstiness of the Old Testament’s god or mocking comparisons to Santa Claus.

    Firstname Lastname
    Town, Province”

  • KShep

    Quote from heliobates:

    I mean really, how’s a conversation going to go with a believer, using Harris’ smashing new rhetorical strategy:

    Since I’ve actually had exchanges like this with a co-worker who stuck a bible in my face, at work, I’ll take a stab at this.

    Believer: “Well, because [$God,$Allah,$IPU] says so!”

    !Atheist: “You’re making that claim without evidence. What’s your proof that [$God,$Allah,$IPU] even exists?”

    Believer: “Don’t you believe in [$God,$Allah,$IPU]?”

    !Atheist: “No, I don’t”

    Here’s where the atheist makes a mistake. He’s allowed the believer to define the terms of the argument and put the atheist in a defensive position. A better response might be, “I didn’t say that. I asked you for proof that your god exists. Are you going to answer my question?” This steers the point of the conversation back to where it needs to be—putting pressure on the believers to prove the existence of their god. This is what I believe Harris is trying to advocate. He spoke of using the word “reason.” We, as atheists, have the power to prevent the faithful from defining us in a negative light, and his weapons for battle are reason and knowledge. They have already attached a negative connotation to the word “atheist,” using it like a slur, as portrayed here by heliobates:

    Believer: “So, you’re an atheist!”

    We can avoid getting to this point by keeping the focus on the believers to prove their beliefs, instead of letting them control the terms of the debate. I am pretty sure this is what Harris is after. I think it can be effective, too, since I’ve used this strategy with the above-mentioned nutjob who stuck his bible in my face at work. Never once did I say I was an atheist, but he repeatedly tried to paint me with that brush, spitting the word out at me like it was the worst insult you could throw at someone. I just kept saying that his reasoning might be good enough for him, but I needed much more. The conversation always ended with him saying, “you just gotta believe!” He usually looked defeated, but came in every Monday with “new” ammunition to shoot at me, obviously picking up tips from his pastor over the weekend. Of course, I didn’t win him over, but I didn’t let him define me, either. A victory, if you ask me.

  • OMGF

    Maybe we need to do what the gay community has done with the word “queer.” Take the word back, so to speak.

  • Jeff T.

    I am going to post concerning the Sam Harris article mentioned in this thread. In the referenced article, Harris states that one should not identify oneself as an atheist due to the negative images that are associated with it. He also suggests flying under the radar.

    It has been my experience that if you fly under the radar, there will always be someone who is willing to take over and fly over the radar. This person may have a lot less qualification and knowledge than you do but since he is on the radar screen and making noise, he is heard while you are unnoticed.

    I am an atheist. If a person chooses to be religious then that is their problem, not mine. If they choose to judge me negatively for not believing unfalsifiable claims that they speak without any proof, then that is also their problem.

    I will not be silent and fly under the radar and one day find myself under American Islamic Sharia Law… forget being quiet… I proclaim that religion is a lie, religious people are hypocrits and that they are really after your money and your subjugation.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    “Dunno why that speech touched a nerve with me, but it did.” — Heliobates

    I can tell you why it touched a nerve in me: by advocating “flying under the radar”, the implication is that rationality and disbelief are shameful, good enough only to be hidden. Further, in so doing, the true weight of numbers we have will be misrepresented by the militant faithful as evidence of our decline, when in fact all the metrics indicate the opposite. Finally, any atheist who refuses to take a vow of silence will be asked why others are so afraid to subject their lack of faith to any sort of scrutiny.

    I personally agree with OMGF et al in arguing for the taking back of the word. It is indeed the banner under which I serve. And if some fanatic has a mistaken impression of my position, that only works in my favor in debate, for when he is shown wrong, his credibility is impugned. Such an honest presentation will never change the mind of the fanatics, but those aren’t the minds we should be working at anyways.

    We should be dialoguing with faithful moderates, who generally are more willing to apply reason to a matter. And the first step should not be to rid the world of religion, even if we could (that would be too threatening to believers, and sure to chase them away). The first step should be working with moderate believers to guarantee the freedom of conscience to every person.

    Our silence would harm this goal, perhaps irreparably.

  • heliobates

    KShep:

    Lots to think about in your reply and I thank you for it. I’m going to try the tactic myself and see what happens.

  • Damien

    With passionate, dedicated spokespeople like Richard Dawkins to effectively defend atheism in public and rally nonbelievers to come out and organize (the focus of his new Out Campaign), it seems a true atheist movement is taking shape.

    Professor Dawkins is clearly an excellent agitator, and I won’t deny his charisma. But I wonder if the…movement ought to invest quite so much of itself in a single figure, regardless of any faults he may or may not have. After all, Dawkins did not found atheism; there are plenty of other great minds who have something to say on the subject.

    The public perception of atheism is no longer merely “disbelief in God”, or even “a movement with the clearly stated goals A, B and C.” It is become “something Richard Dawkins is famous for preaching about”, or even — bloggers and ministers of logic defend us! — “the latest intellectual fad.” Celebrity has its place in any movement, but I worry that we are allowing it to replace justice and good argument.

  • KShep

    Heliobates—you’re very welcome. I’m certainly not the first to use or to advocate this tactic but it does work.

    Your hypothetical conversation is very accurate—believers will quickly try to pin you down by asking if you believe; if you admit your atheism they have an attack plan at the ready–”so, you’re an atheist, then?”–then you’re on the defensive and the subject of the conversation has now changed to something entirely different. This is called obfuscation (see: Coulter, Ann).

    You never have to say that you’re anything, just keep pushing the believers to prove their god’s existence. Ask them about some of the terrible things their bible advocates.

    Believe me, they can get a little testy when you push hard enough!

  • Drew Shaw

    Hello. Love the article, the site, and the work you do. However, I would caution against the use of statements such as “the religious right’s influence is at a low ebb.” I think, unfortunately, this statement is false, and making one false statement in an article tars the other statements. I agree that religion is slowly weakening, as polling data confirms this. However, one of the reason that atheists are becoming more active is that the religious right continues to wield, and continues to use, the powerful influence that it does have. Cheers, Drew.