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.

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.

  • velkyn

    Well, on the chance that the story from Atheist Revolution was questionable, as some of the comments there suspected, I’ve written to WTAE to see if they ever covered a story like that. If it is true, and unfortunately it wouldn’t suprise me at all considering my own experiences with Christians, it makes me sick that supposed “good Christians” would be such blatant liars. It’s like they haven’t read their own bible, which I know, many haven’t.

    I love what the Atlantans are doing.

  • Eric

    I posted about my experience here in my little small Alaska town and how I, the “kooky atheist on the hill” was angry about a cross on municpal land during the holidays and went to city council about it. Since the reporting and getting in touch with the AKCLU I have become an outcast in a town that I have called home for years. Talk about “Christian Love and Forgiveness”! Since bringing up this CONSITUTIONAL ISSUE to city council I have been harassed by the poilce (a southern baptist preacher is the cheif of police and has a long record of digressions), been verbally harassed by people I thought I knew (in one glaring example, I was in our only grocery store shopping when a woman – older and not able to care for her houses basic needs, and who I used to go over to shovel here sidewalks because it is the neighborly thing to do – verbally torn me a new one calling me “the horse’s ass who is trying to get rid of our cross”! I have not been invited to any dinner parties, parties, ski excurisions or other social event since I reported it.

    We have no formal Freethinker Group here, and it would be a hard sell. But even having something available in the larger community of Juneau (even though it is hard to get to) would be a great help. I am sick of the persecution. I am sick of the “stink-eye” I get EVERYTIME I go to town. We need to get a rally-call.

    The pisser is, I was bringing up the cross issue because it was a contitutional disgression, and it is an act of patritotism against a progression towards theocracy. And the AKCLU has been busy with another religious case in Achorage so they haven’t been able to dedicate time to the Skagway (my town) case as of yet. And the city council voted to keep the cross lit up, going against the rule of law. AND out of spite, they still have it lit up NOW.

    I respect what the folks in Atlanta and other places are doing. We NEED this.

  • javaman

    Eric -Question ? can you take the city council to state court, and file a hate crime of verbal hasassment against these people, and the town for not protecting you? Aren’t atheists also covered under hate crimes protection? If you contact the FFRF could they advice you? Hang in there brother, you got guts and balls!

  • Eric

    java,

    I have been in touch with the FFRF and as yet have not heard back from them. In regards to hate crime protection, I haven’t technically been assaulted, just words, so that is a VERY grey area.

    And the cops here wouldn’t cross the street to piss on me if I was on fire, so in regards to getting a “crime” reported, I had better have some solid evidence. In fact, it is the chief I have to avoid for fear of tickets/harrasment/or worse (and I am not being dramatic or using hyperbole here. I actually fear for getting framed for something by this guy.)

    As soon as Jason Brandeis, the lawyer from AKCLU is finished with the other religious case he is involved with (in Anchorage) they are going to put time into this case.

    But, I am at a point where I am giving serious consideration to moving. And that is awful because this has been home for years. But, again, and I can;t emphasize this enough, in my experience with this, the “true christians” have been hypocrites, harsh, mean spirited, spiteful, and very dangerous. There is an irony in that I guess.

  • javaman

    Eric- videotape it ? if you could get this stuff recorded to use as evidence in trial? mike yourself and hidden video?

  • javaman

    PS -Eric,constant verbal harrasment is a crime. If your gut is detecting danger thats enough, you don’t have to wait until you are really assulted, can you go to a free lawyer? or the local media? Police are there to protect all equally, sounds like the deep south in the 50′sCan you turn this to your benifit and post it on line?, or write a book? of film it for a short movie? Just thinking out of the box

  • Eric

    The “problem” with Skagway is that mo one wants to rock the boat. Meaning, the only newspaper in town is owned by a man who won’t rock the boat. His report on the cross issue was very unflattering to me, and he only prints what his particular views are. And no one wants to have big attention on this because we are a HUGE tourist town (our economy is around 85-90 percent tourism dependent) so they know that if this issue gets national media attention it will make us look damn silly (think Kansas School Board and ID). The police won’t lift a damn finger to help me out.

    I have the AKCLU lawyer, but even he told me basically to keep my head low and try to fly under the radar.

    I’ve posted this online in several sources. I have been interviewd on the Sam Seder Show (Air America) and had about 2 1/2 minutes on air – national – with the issue. My sister is a Private Detective in New York and she has given me info and tools for video taping and voice recording things should I get stopped by the police etc…It has gotten to the point where I don’t go into town to even check my mail without a small recorder on my person in case something happens.

    And the big issue too, is not me, it is that the city council still has the cross lit up on the side of the Mountain! If you want pictures of it, email me and I will send you some. It is very much an affront to the chruch/state issue. It is on PUBLIC land and is just a symbol of oppresion in this instance. If they moved it to private land, my beef would end. I would not want to see the cross, but if it was private land, that is the private land owners choice. But seeing as this is municipal land it needs to come down. And when I attend city council meetings, my testimony is hissed and hushtoned, and then summarily dismissed from the council.

    The way I see it, the issue needs HUGE attention, and threat of tourist boycotts or a huge letter campaign flooding both the city council and the Skagway Tourism Director’s offices.

    If you want pictures of the cross (or if anyone does) you may email me at:

    backcountryservices@aptalaska.net

    Please, no spam-bots, and if there are any theists or apologists reading this post, have some respect and do not flood my email account.

  • DKrap

    As a second, or third generation atheist, I am happy to see all of the progress that is being made in the secular, rational community. I live in Sacramento, so I’ll have to make contact to the student group here. Since I am near retirement age, I can at least support them through encouragement.

    I can see the growth in secularism right in my own extended family. My wife was raised as Jew. Her family seldom observes any of the religious aspects of their faith. They (nearly 40) are more concerned with the effects of hate crime, discrimination and preserving the memory of the Holocaust. Any observance of the Jewish faith is put more into a historical perspective, rather than a religious one.

    Since I am near retirement, I’d like to ask Eric if Skagway is a nice place to live, other than his current troubles. I am looking to relocate and, having lived in the most populous state my entire life, maybe Alaska would be a refreshing change of pace and scenery. It sounds like he could sure use some help up there!

  • Eric

    DKrap,

    From the sheer wilds and aesthetic beauty point of view, Skagway is paradise. I wake up each day and look out at the Harding Glacier, see at least a couple dozen harbor seasl daily, have bears wander through my yard from time to time, and eagles are as plentiful as sparrows in San Juan Capistrano. As an avid outdoor recreationist, this place is paradise as well. Some great sea kayaking right out the front door, great rivers to raft, hiking beyond superlatives, and some of the best backcountry skiing in the world. It is dreamy.

    BUT, the downside is the theist/atheist ration is about 685/1! Also, it is extremely isolated and SMALL. Did I mention it was small and isolated! SMALL!
    Come on up! We can alwyas use some new freethinking blood up this way!

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    On statistical grounds alone, a 685:1 theist/atheist ratio is rather unlikely. :) I suspect, Eric, that you may have more friends in town than you realize – it’s probably just that most of them, unlike you, are too intimidated to speak out about it.

  • Eric

    Ebon,

    No you are correct. I was trying to be funny! HTML can really not translate well to a dry sense of humor!

    There are a few people here in town who have supported the taking down of the cross, but like you said, they are too intimidated to speak up. Mostly for financial reasons. And the very few who have voiced “kudos” to me, I have a hard time with in that I don’t need silent supporters. Call me hard-deaded, but if you believe in a cause, sitting quietly on the sidelines and slipping supportive notes to the galdiators doesn’t help.

    It makes me think of the old Mel Brook’s movie “Blazing Saddles” when the little old lady comes by to deliver the home made pie to Sheriff Bart. She tells him sorry for the “N word” comment and to take the pie, but also “You do have the decency not to tell anyone I stopped by”.

  • Alex Weaver

    I need to get in touch with that Sacramento group as well, since I’m looking at possibly transferring to CSUS this fall. I’m still wondering how I failed to notice the short-term Creationist takeover of the student government at my present school (ARC).

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    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.

    I might suggest that the tactics and goals of these two groups are mutually exclusive. The MO of the “New Atheists” are ridicule and demonization of believers. This kind of rhetoric hardly makes us more amenable then to working together with humanistic atheists on works of peace, social justice and environmental care. Why would would we want to work together with those who think we “poison everything”? For that matter, why would you want to work with us?

    But I do think working together for these goals is an admirable idea. However, I’d suggest that if you want to work together with believers for peace, then you should probably first practice peace in your relationships with them. It’s hard to promote peace on the international level if you aren’t already practicing it on the interpersonal level. My advice (if anyone cares, and if not, please feel free to ignore me) is that humanistic atheists should make an effort to distance themselves from the anti-theist rhetoric of the “New Atheists”. Believe it or not, but it is possible to disagree with others without calling them names or thinking them to be stupid, immoral or deluded. And those that can learn that trick I think will be far more effective in their attempts to work together with those others for shared goals.

    Just my .02…

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    Hi Mike,

    The MO of the “New Atheists” are ridicule and demonization of believers.

    What specific examples of this do you have in mind? Can you quote some statements by prominent atheists that you feel cross the line of acceptable discourse?

  • OMGF

    Might I add Mike that criticizing your beliefs is not the same as attacking you personally.