Expanding the Secular Community

In a world of hostile religious believers, a lone atheist is a target. Vjack of the always superb Atheist Revolution provides a chilling example, an atheist family in rural Pennsylvania who incurred severe harassment and reprisal from their believing neighbors after they complained about blatant religious indoctrination in the local public school, culminating with them being driven out of town.

But there’s an important lesson to be learned from this sad story: if an isolated atheist is a target for persecution, a community of atheists is far more resistant to such hateful attacks. When we stand together, we multiply our strength manyfold. A community of nonbelievers can support each other in times of need, chase off the bullying bigots who will only pick on the vulnerable, and perhaps best of all, present a united front to show the religious public that atheists are far more numerous and outspoken than they had guessed. Back in December, I wrote about building the secular community, and I want to offer some updates.

First, this lovely story from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Atheist group calls former church home. According to the article, the Atlanta Freethought Society (an arm of the Freedom from Religion Foundation), has bought a 142-year-old, Civil War-era church building to serve as their new meeting hall. The Atlanta Freethought Society’s home page, packed with social events and activities, is to my mind a perfect model of what a freethought group should be, and shows that even in the South, there are still freethinkers!

Meanwhile in Chicago, atheists are an increasingly outspoken minority – so says this CBS News article, interviewing and profiling a local family of atheists. The article has some important points about the greater tolerance for atheists, as well as their increasing numbers, especially among the young. Stories like this serve an important role in expanding the secular community by showing that, by and large, atheists are good, moral people and citizens just like everyone else.

And in Sacramento, a state college is playing host to a new Atheist Student Organization, which has already attracted substantial interest and a faculty host in Prof. Matthew McCormick (also the author of the blog Atheism: Proving The Negative, unless I miss my guess). Due to constant graduations, campus atheist groups have to work harder than most to keep their organization intact. Yet colleges and universities, with their atmosphere of open inquiry and their place during the time when many young people find their own identities, are the ideal place for a strong and visible atheist presence. Groups like the Secular Student Alliance have done fine work, but there’s plenty of room left to grow on campus.

To put the icing on this cake, it seems that while we expand the secular community, the forces of organized religion are in disarray. A recent, widely reported Pew survey found that Americans are switching religious affiliation in ever-greater numbers. As expected, Protestants are on the verge of losing their majority status, and a shocking 44% of adults have changed their affiliations or abandoned religious ties altogether. (About 10% of Americans are ex-Catholics, according to the study.) This survey also, for the first time that I’m aware, broke down the 16% of unaffiliated Americans, finding that 6.3% are secular unaffiliated and 5.8% religious unaffiliated. If these numbers are accurate, when added to the 4% or so that Pew found identify as atheist or agnostic, then as many as 10% of Americans – over thirty million of us! – may be nonbelievers. I note that the 4% figure itself represents almost a quadrupling of the number obtained in the landmark 2001 ARIS survey.

Among the traditionally religious, there’s a growing fear as they realize that their long-cherished societal dominance is slipping away. The sociologist Stephen Prothero, observing the basically secular bent and loose, unaffiliated spirituality of the young, ponders, “Is religion losing the millennial generation?” And orthodox Christians, despite their facade of confidence, are asking churches to step up their response to “militant” atheism – implying that we are chipping away at them to a greater extent than they’d like to admit.

All told, the future looks bright for atheists. We’re nowhere near demographic dominance in the United States, but we’ve already seen much growth and improved organization over just the last few years, and that trend is set to continue. As Linda Staten of Kansas City says, let us bow our heads in thanks for atheists:

While militant New Atheists fight on intellectual turf to replace dogma with rational thinking, humanists encourage believers and nonbelievers to get the moral work of peace, social justice and saving the environment done together.

Right-wing Christianity shook the atheist community out of its complacency with its relentless rhetorical badgering and attempts to co-opt the country. A missing piece of the real picture of America is finally being restored. Amen to that.

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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.