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.

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About Adam Lee

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