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.

Weekend Coffee: March 28
Why People Are Flocking to a New Wave of Secular Communities: Atheist Churches
Thoughts on the Chapel Hill Shooting
The Atheist Community Is Diversifying
About Adam Lee

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

  • Scotlyn

    This is a very interesting issue – within my own mainly born-again evangelical family there is a very definite division between the “saved” and the “black sheep” – my children are therefore exposed to ongoing discussions similar to some of the ones contained here. From what I can see, they themselves are thinking deeply on the issues.

    They go to state-sponsored Catholic ethos schools (not very much in the way of alternatives in Ireland), and I left the choice up to them as to whether to participate in the communal rituals of First Communion and Confirmation. I realised that if I decided for them, I could be robbing them of classroom participation and singling them out in ways that could be uncomfortable for them. Both participated in First Communions at approx age 7. By age 12, both decided it would be dishonest of them to make a Confirmation, so asked me to get them excused from participation, which I happily did. The lure of extra money from relatives and neighbours, and/or the lure of the social side of the occasion did not supercede, for them, the desire to act in accordance with their beliefs.

    But I agree – as humans, we need one another, we need events, rituals, celebrations, music, dance, ways of defining groups of people on whom we can rely in an emergency – something a bit larger than family. It has to be said, religions have addressed this need abundantly.

  • Socius

    Scotlyn brings up a good point: Children of atheists might are likely subject to proselytizing by their still-religious grandparents. No doubt the grandparents in this situation probably feel morally obligated to “rescue” these children from the black sheep of the family. An atheist might want their child to make his or her own decisions about religion, but it has not been my experience that theists are quite as willing to let kids decide for themselves.

    Also, I can’t help but wonder if the increase in later-life religious affiliation among those who were raised in a non-religious environment is the result of marriage. I can see a more apathetic atheist or agnostic joining a church for reasons of community and martial harmony.

  • Penguin_Factory

    “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.”

    This is a good idea, but I think an even better strategy would be to try and promote reason and rational thinking in general. Rather than just focusing on refuting apologetics, teach people how to seperate truth from nonsense.

    In this regard, I’d say that efforts to debunk homeopathy and other pseudoscience, or even challenging things like 9/11 conspiracies and holocaust denial, could go hand in hand with our own efforts as part of a larger, cohesive push for reason.

    In the issue of a secular community, I’m always perplexed that the idea seems to be met with hostility by many atheists. The assumption seems to be that a community will essentially lead to atheism becoming an organized religion.

  • bdh


    When I finally left the Protestant church for good, it became clear very quickly that I was giving up what Ray Oldenburg writes about in “The Great Good Place”. Or that other book -”Bowling Alone”. I have been watching my peers (30′s) start having children and returning to church, even knowing they aren’t ardent literal believers. They need a place to plug in, to find free babysitters in exchange, someone who, for all practial purposes, really does care about them. Some are singles, looking for a partner, and find church is a pretty good mechanism for doing this successfully. All they have to do is tithe 10% and subscribe to superstition, oh and inculcate that in their children. Sure, there are alternatives, but they’re not as well-developed.

    I would propose that the lack of “secular community” is much more critical than equiping people with a toolkit of arguements. At the end of the day we are social creatures, and arguements don’t buy me a beer. The people that I have observed returning to religion for the most part are well out of college and their “who am i, what is reality” phase of life. They want friends, and as they start families church makes it sinisterly easy to find friends there. Hence, the growth in the USA of churches with gyms, and daycare, and what have you.

    In other words, the debates are fine, and necessary, but I think a strong secular community would ultimatly be the final ‘evidence that demands a verdict’ (yuk – sorry, had to) – and would convince those teetering to stick with their rational values since they would truly have nothing to gain from going back to church, or temple, or mosque.

  • Wayne Essel

    I don’t think it prudent to assume that non-religious conversions are the result of proselytizing. I do think that people will shop around until they find a match to their emotional or spiritual needs.

  • Hank Bones

    I definitely see the need for some sort of church-like non-religious organizations, but I’m not exactly sure what form these would take. Every time I think about it, they end up taking on Lion or Rotary Club shape. This doesn’t really seem to fill the same function though. I guess it’s just hard for me to picture a bunch of atheists getting together and doing sing-a-longs of “Imagine.”

    However, having recently moved to a new city, it would have been nice to have somewhere to go once a week to commune with like-minded folks. To my mind, the biggest thing missing from a non-religious life is the support group which is near automatic within religion.

  • Stacey Melissa

    This reminds me, I still need to make some posters to hang up at work for the Wichita atheists meetup group that I run. We had a nice spike in attendance last month, after FFRF sponsored their “Praise Darwin” billboard here. It was enough of a spike that I’ve added a monthly Sunday meetup to the existing monthly Tuesday meetup.

    My idea for the Sunday meetup posters is something that will evoke a comparison and contrast to the typical Sunday evening church social. Something like… “The Wichita Atheists Meetup. It’s like a Sunday evening church social, except without the extraneous church… or those gossipy old ladies staring at you and whispering over there in the corner.” And if anyone has any (short and snappy!) ideas for improvements to the slogan, I’m all ears.

  • Scotlyn

    Stacey Melissa:

    “The Wichita Atheists Meetup. It’s like a Sunday evening church social, except without the extraneous church… or those gossipy old ladies staring at you and whispering over there in the corner.”

    Yeah, but everybody needs a “gossipy old lady staring at you” from time to time – it’s well known that “gossipy old ladies” long predate churches as institutions of social control.

    That’s why, I’m still planning to grow up to be one…I’ve been working on my evil-eye squint in the mirror already :)

    Anyway, the meet sounds like a good idea – what do you actually do when you get there?

  • Scotlyn

    B@##%r…the extraneous comma strikes again!!!

  • EndUnknown

    I am an atheist who goes to church for just that reason(lack of an atheist community)

  • Stacey Melissa

    Scotlyn asked:

    Anyway, the meet sounds like a good idea – what do you actually do when you get there?

    We just gather at some predetermined restaurant and chat for a couple hours over dinner. It’s a purely social thing. Every great once in awhile, we do a potluck and movie when a member feels like hosting the meetup at their home. There actually hasn’t been a bit of gossip, at least in the four years I’ve been there. I know… weird.

  • Nurse Ingrid

    @ Hank Bones:

    “I guess it’s just hard for me to picture a bunch of atheists getting together and doing sing-a-longs of “Imagine.””

    I realize this identifies me as the Nerd Queen of Dork Land, but I actually have something amazing like this in my life: my Morris dancing team. There are about 15-25 of us who get together and practice weekly, and perform on weekends, and travel to folk festivals, and have regular parties and singalongs (English drinking songs, mostly). We are mostly atheists, pagans, secular Jews and such. We even sometimes host “Atheist Movie Nights.” (so far we’ve seen Dawkins’ “Root of all Evil,” “Marjoe,” and “The Jerry Springer Opera” — all highly recommended!)

    My point is that any hobby that you really love can become the basis for an extended family/community of like-minded people.

    Or, as Dave Barry says, it’s a fine line between “hobby” and “mental illness.”

  • http://www.myspace.com/driftwoodduo Steve Bowen

    We are mostly atheists, pagans, secular Jews and such.

    I’m as liberal as they come and all of the above are fine company… I have to draw the line a Morris Dancers :)

  • Hank Bones

    @ Nurse Ingrid

    1) Morris, as in University of Minnesota, Morris?

    2) I’ve got atheist friends and we do….atheist things, I guess. (Though I’m not really sure what that means.) It’s not that I don’t like a hearty sing-a-long; my favorite part of college football games was always the breaks where they play pop songs and everyone sings along. Maybe I just need to get to an atheist meetup at some point to see what all the fuss there is about. I just have trouble imagining a series of ubiquitous church-like organizations of atheists. It just always ends up being a hobby-group in my mind’s eye. So…I agree with you, I guess.

  • Julia

    I wonder if the conversion from atheist upbringing to adult believer is due to inadequate innoculation (against religion) when they were children. From what I’ve seen it tends to be the kids who’ve had no exposure to religion that are most susceptable (of course 80% suggests there may well be something else going on too). I’m not sure why the parents stay mute on the subject, but I suspect it may be because it’s ‘rude’ to question religion and they don’t want their kids to spout out ‘rude’ questions in public.

    I have a friend who grew up in an atheist family in Iran (apparently much more common than you might suspect). When she was a little kid she was at her friends house when the prayers came on TV. She ran over and turned off the TV for them because that’s what her always dad did at home and she was trying to be helpful. Apparently her dad was very, very proud of her. hehehe

  • http://brilliant-blue.blogspot.com Josh SN

    I’m of a mind generally like bdh and Hank Bones.

    Just because religions (all of them, not just Christianity) are barbaric gobbledygook when taken as a whole does not mean that meeting once a week to talk about morality and ethics and good and evil is such a bade idea.

    Nor is it even, I’d argue, such a bad idea to pay for, from the community’s funds, the salary of one person (obviously not much) to devote their life to the study of morality and ethics. Even (gasp) encouraging them to read all the religious texts of the world (if it is a full time job, that shouldn’t be tough) in addition to (and after) reading the non-fantasy ethics and morals (philosophies too? heretic!)

    There’s even a nice reason to make sure the buildings in which these conversations occur are among the most spectacular.

  • http://thechapel.wordpress.com the chaplain

    Julia beat me to my comment. That’s okay, because she probably said it better than I would have done. I’ve heard people say that they don’t want to teach their kids anything at all about religion because they want the kids to decide for themselves. The end is right, but the means are iffy. Atheist parents probably should teach their children about both the appeals and the pitfalls of religion, along with helping them to think critically about everything, not just religion.

    Julia: I love the story about your Iranian friend. LOL!

  • Scotlyn

    Yeah, as a freethinking parent, there is this dilemma, in that it is a strong value for me that my children learn to think for themselves, therefore I would be reluctant to present them with 100% certainties. I myself lack such, because I keep all my beliefs and certainties within the 0.1%-99.9% range – never enough to be completely dogmatic with.

    But, here are some reasons why I think that they will probably remain immune to the allure of the faith of their grandfathers. They know that “I don’t know – how could we find out?” is a perfectly legitimate answer to lots of questions – and one they get from me increasingly as they get older and grow onto a more even playing ground with me in terms of the knowledge we have.

    But mainly because they’ve had to defend their own ideas both against their gung-ho evangelical cousins, on the one hand, and their (I hate to say it, but it’s probably 87% true) wishy-washy catholic friends at school*, and they can do so splendidly – and with good manners, even. This constant exposure to challenges from differently minded people is what I think is the key. If there is freedom of speech, and free exchanges of ideas are constantly encouraged – especially when there is a diversity of views, then they will be exposed to the same honing of ideas that applies within any university, and the same process that leads to independence of thought.

    * The issue there being – why keep going through the rituals if you don’t really believe?

  • Jim Baerg

    I guess it’s just hard for me to picture a bunch of atheists getting together and doing sing-a-longs of “Imagine.”

    How about this instead?

    Variations on these verses are common ‘filk’ songs at Science Fiction conventions.

  • Archimedez

    Unfortunately there is a major ambiguity in the PEW study’s use of the term “unaffiliated,” and this has led both Blow and Ebonmuse to make unwarranted conclusions about the “nonreligious.” “Unaffiliated” is not “nonreligious.” If you look at the presentation of the questionnaire methodology and results at the PEW site, most “unaffiliateds” in the PEW study say they have (or had) at least some religious faith while they “were not/ are not identified with [some specific] religion [i.e., subset of Christianity].” In other words, the vast majority of “unaffiliateds” are/were Christian believers who are/were identified with no particular denomination. The results presented in this study tell us practically nothing about nonbelievers converting to a faith.

  • Archimedez

    Blow wrote: “As the nonreligious movement picks up steam, it needs 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.”

    1. As I mentioned above, most of the “unaffiliateds” are believers (i.e., they believe in some form of Christian religion, though they do not identify with any particular sect/denomination. For example, see Qs 9, 12, 13, etc. in the Questionnaire methodology pdf, available at the PEW link provided by Ebonmuse). To the extent that Blow’s recommendations apply, then, they would apply mostly to Christian religious believers who are not identified with a particular group or sect.

    2. Love and compassion need not have anything to do with religion.

    3. Ebonmuse wrote: “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.”

    Yes, it would be very useful to have online a comprehensive source dealing with all the theist arguments and apologetics, with our (atheist) concise responses, backed up by references where needed.


  • Archimedez

    Indeed, according to questions 9, 12, 13, and others, only about 1 to 2% of “unaffiliateds” “don’t have religious faith.” This PEW study does not tell us anything about those 1-2% (i.e., those who are nonbelievers). It tells us about people who have some Christian religious faith (ranging from not strong to very strong) who do not “identify” with one particular sect or denomination.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Ebonmuse

    Hey Archimedez,

    I don’t agree with that interpretation of the survey results. It’s true what you say that, when the survey asked about the strength of the respondent’s faith, it listed very low percentages for the answer “don’t have religious faith”. But note that “(VOL)” is also listed next to those answers. If I understand correctly, that means it was a voluntarily given answer, not one of the responses listed for survey participants. The listed answer was “Not strong at all”, which is probably what most atheists and agnostics gave as a reply, and those answers were in the neighborhood of 30-40%.

  • Archimedez


    The interpretation you suggest, wherein many nonreligious people may have identified themselves as having faith that is “not strong at all” is also reasonable. (It’s hard to know how the range of options were interpreted without an example of the options as presented to respondents). However, even on your interpretation, 30-40% is not enough of the sample upon which to draw conclusions. Also, some religious people may also have been in that 30-40%, saying that their faith was “not strong at all”. In any case, the categories are rather ambiguous and open to a variety of interpretations. We cannot draw conclusions about nonbelievers from an undifferentiated sample that contains a mixture of nonbelievers and believers, where the largest portion of the sample are religious believers. To draw conclusions about nonbelievers, we would have to have a separate analysis focusing exclusively on the nonreligious subsample.

  • bbk

    Ugh… I get so sick and tired of people saying that atheism doesn’t fill some ethereal (aka “spiritual”) need. Everyone I ever encountered, from peddlers of New Age spiritualism to stuffy old Catholics, none of them have a god damned clue. If church is really all that great, then why do their followers have no clue about basic medical facts about sex and human nature? These organizations don’t provide a social fabric for their followers, they just seek to obtain a monopoly over it and dole it out in a slow and rigidly controlled manner that always leaves the followers more deprived and more clueless than they would have been if left to their own devices. Religion fits right smack in the middle between cults and self help gurus. It’s all tripe. Anyone who truly needs it is sadly mistaken.

  • 5acos(phi/2)

    Maybe it’s just because I’m anti-social, but the need for “social gathering” doesn’t make much sense to me. I hate meeting up with people just for the sake of it, but if we have common interest/hobby or meeting up for the sake of old times, sign me up!

    That said, I think theists have it easy. Religion is common background and common interest rolled into one. They don’t have to find any awkward excuse for their gatherings, especially if their holy book decrees it.

    Atheists, on the other hand, would find it hard to gather in the name of atheism. Even if you twist it a bit to a social gathering concerning “secular lifestyles” or “skepticism” or “scientific thinking”, for example, it might be too dull and/or depressing for a lot of (to-be) atheists out there. The godless me, for instance, can fulfill my daily dose of philosophical discussions by just surfing the internet, and would rather spend the rest of my free time gaming.

    To put it another way, I think the main message of most atheistic communities shouldn’t be “We are not religious”, but it should be “We care about something more than religions and we think your might like it too. Would you like to hear more?”

  • nfpendleton

    Another aspect of this is that churches – both within a denomination and inter-denominationally – are networked, like McGawd franchises. They support each other and help provide each other with some kind of basic framework for structuring and funding meeting places and services and etc. I know many of us would be willing to do the “dirty work” of setting up freethought meeting places in our local communities, if we knew we could find resources, moral support, and maybe even a “how-to” template on how to get the whole thing rolling.

    I personally can’t wait for the first schism and tax exempt status. ;D

  • Julia

    … McGawd franchises …

    And their burgers are terrible! All dry and cracker-ish… ;)

  • John

    I’m an atheist that is a member of a Unitarian Universalist church. Ebonmuse has blogged on a visit he had to one. I’ve brought this up before, but it seems to me that this church is the best approximation to what Ebonmuse is suggesting. If you live on the east coast and are single or married to someone who is also atheist, you may be lucky enough to find an Ethical Society already existing to satisfy your community oriented needs. But your best bet if you don’t find a existing community, try a UU church. I especially suggest this to atheists like EndUnknown who attend a church because their spouse wants to go. Since their spouse is already married to an atheist, they might appreciate going to a church that doesn’t proclaim their spouse is going to hell. But UUs are also not going affirm a specific god or gods exist (or that they don’t exist) or that there is any kind of afterlife, so it won’t be for every mixed couple, if the theist has specific supernatural beliefs they need others to agree on.

    It probably depends a lot on the minister and you may not find every service to fit your conceptions, but I’ve been attending for many years and look forward to the sermons as well as volunteering my time which is mostly with the youth. I’ve had many people tell me they are atheist at church without them necessarily knowing my own (non)beliefs. In fact I’m not sure I’ve had anyone mention they are atheist to me in any other place.

    If you are going to have to argue with someone/everyone over their deism, panentheism, judaism, buddhism, or christianity, etc., then it might not be for you. Though you may find some who would like such conversations as long as they are respectful. But if you are looking for a religion where atheism is considered just as valid a starting point as any of the previously mentioned, then give it a try.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Comment #15 by Julia brings up points I concerned myself when my 11 yo son was born. I tried my best to equip him with Sagan’s BS detector, answered his questions as best I could, showed him the beauty and horror in the Bible, and told his mother (we broke up when he was two) she was free to tell him all about her Catholicism. Filled him with a love of science and culture. He says he’s atheist, and if he later adopts religion, I’ll be at peace with it — I’ve already made my peace with that possibility– but I doubt that’ll happen, because he is so full of impertinent questions. (BTW, his mother is also an atheist now).

    But weekly gatherings? Perhaps for others. When I want company, I throw a barbecue. When I want contemplation, I hike or go to the beach. And ethics are mighty personal things, aren’t they?