Hold and Build

Although there’s been plenty of good news for atheists in recent weeks, stories that showcase our growing influence and assertiveness, this is no time for us to become complacent. We still have significant work to do to shore up the foundations of our movement, as this Times op-ed by Charles M. Blow explains:

…a study entitled “Faith in Flux” issued this week by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life questioned nearly 3,000 people and found that most children raised unaffiliated with a religion later chose to join one.

That Pew study, here, confirms earlier work such as the ARIS in finding that the nonreligious continue to be one of America’s fastest-growing demographics. It also notes that the vast majority, 79%, of the nonreligious were raised in a religion and later left, as opposed to being brought up with no religion, and most of those people explained their decision by stating that they did not believe or could not accept the teachings of their church. Interestingly, a majority of former Catholics say that they left Catholicism because they disagreed with its teachings on abortion, homosexuality and birth control, which confirms my earlier prediction that the Catholic church’s archaic moral dogmas are a major factor in its continuing decline.

However, Blow points to another important finding: Many people who were raised nonreligious do not stay that way. Of those who were raised nonreligious (which, again, is just a small minority of the nonreligious as a whole), substantial percentages have since joined some religion, with the majority going to Christian faiths. Most of these people explain this decision by saying that their spiritual needs were not being met, or as Blow puts it:

As the nonreligious movement picks up steam, it needs to do a better job of appealing to the ethereal part of our human exceptionalism – that wondrous, precious part where logic and reason hold little purchase, where love and compassion reign. It’s the part that fears loneliness, craves companionship and needs affirmation and fellowship.

As the Pew findings show, the heart of religion is community. Most of the formerly unaffiliated joined a religion not because they preferred its moral teachings (only 26% said that), but because they enjoyed the social and communal aspects: participating in worship services, interacting with other members, and taking part in rituals for major life events such as marriage.

Atheists can draw some important lessons from these findings. First of all, there’s reason for optimism: we’re still growing, and doing so at the expense of traditional religions. We’re making significant inroads among people who have rational or moral objections to the teachings of their church, which shows that our rhetorical campaign against religion is having an effect. This gives the lie to those who complain that we’re being “disrespectful”. And best of all, we’re growing by leaps and bounds among the younger generation.

But at the same time, we have a lot of work left to do. We’ve done a lot of good in creating a beachhead for atheism, making our voices heard where they were previously passed over and giving an airing to the arguments against religion. What we need to do now is supplement those efforts by creating a secular community – a set of institutions that provide the social grounding and sense of belonging that people usually associate with religion. We’re not doing anything wrong; plenty of people are already hard at work on this. But we need to do more, to make further progress along the way we’ve already started taking.

As well, I think we ought to redouble our efforts to make the case for atheism more widely known. I suspect that many of the unaffiliated, rather than hardcore atheists or freethinkers, simply grew up without thinking much about religion. As a result, they were blindsided when they heard evangelists’ apologetics for the first time and ended up being drawn in. We need to do more to equip people with a toolkit of answers to common theist arguments, and to distribute this freethought vaccine as widely as possible, to ensure that the nonreligious will not be taken off guard in their first encounter with proselytizers.

To strengthen the atheist movement and expand the secular community, our strategy must be twofold. We need to hold and build, keeping the allegiance of people who’ve already come over to our side, while creating the institutions that will be ready to receive the future wave of freethinkers we can confidently expect. Debunking religion continues to be an effective strategy, but for atheism to truly expand and become influential in its own right, we still need to offer positive, appealing vision of what life can be like when free of superstition.

On Moral Superheroism
New on the Guardian: Non-Religious Theists
From the Mailbag: Minds Do Change
Movie Review: The Martian
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.