I’ve had a Google news alert for “atheism” for several years now, to keep abreast of stories I might want to write about. In 2006, when I started Daylight Atheism, it was a fairly low-traffic feed with maybe one or a few stories trickling in each day. But the volume has steadily increased in the last three and a half years, to the point where today, I find it hard to keep up with. And that’s just one news feed – not even counting all the other atheist-themed blogs I read regularly.
This is anecdotal, but it fits in well with a larger pattern that’s becoming impossible to overlook: throughout the Western world, atheists and humanists are fast becoming more visible, more assertive, and more organized. From bus ads in Bloomington to billboards in Broward County, we’re stepping out of the closet all over, and increasingly fighting back against the religious majority that too often tries to deprive us of civil rights.
To defenders of the status quo, our newfound outspokenness must be the cause of much consternation. Ever since the atheist movement started emerging into the daylight, they’ve been trying to figure out how to stop us, only to meet with failure time and time again. Trying to shout us down with insult and calumny didn’t work. Endless invocations of the Courtier’s Reply didn’t work. Trying to shut us out by force didn’t work. The next tactic should have been easy to guess: they’ve turned wholesale to concern trolling.
Concern trolling is defined as masquerading as an ally or a friend in order to offer your enemies “helpful advice” that, if taken, would hurt and undermine them. For example, take this condescending report by Zoe Brennan of the U.K. Daily Mail on the summer camp for freethinking kids, Camp Quest. The headline is, “Is Britain’s first atheist summer camp harmless fun or should we be worried?” (Cue ominous music.)
The question remains: why do atheists feel the need to resort to such high-profile tactics at all? After all, with campaigns, fundraising endeavours, a ‘High Priest’ in the form of Richard Dawkins and now holiday camps for children, aren’t they simply turning into a parody of the organised religions they so sneer at?
If you read between the lines, you can see the fear in this. What “worries” Brennan is that this atheism stuff is catching on. What she’s basically saying is, “Why are you atheists so eager to organize and create a community together with other people who think the same way as you? Only religious people do that! If you’re really atheists and don’t want to be like religious people, you should just go back into the closet and stay silent and invisible!” It’s little cleverer than saying, “Religious people eat food and breathe air! If you don’t want to be like them, you should stop doing those things.”
Another instance of concern trolling is this story, where renowned philosopher (and Templeton Prize winner – what are the odds?) Charles Taylor scoffs at the atheist bus campaign that’s spread to Canada, calling it “pathetic”:
“A bus slogan! It’s not likely to trigger something very fundamental in anybody… This new phenomena is puzzling — atheists that want to spread the ‘gospel,’ and are sometimes very angry.”
I agree that we’re not going to see a wave of deconversions everywhere a bus goes carrying one of these ads. (But I also doubt the efficacy of religious ads and billboards, which Taylor doesn’t see fit to criticize.) But that’s not the goal of this ad campaign. What Taylor doesn’t grasp or, more likely, wants to obfuscate is that these ads are meant to encourage people who are already atheists to come out of the closet and organize, by letting them know that they’re not alone.
Again, religious concern trolls miss the point. There are plenty of nonbelievers, but we’re largely disorganized and isolated (the state of affairs Zoe Brennan wishes would continue). By promoting atheism as a positive, attractive philosophy, we can bring these people out of the shadows and into the developing atheist community. The “anger” that Taylor detects is largely a projection of how he feels when reading these signs. Speaking for the atheists, I can say unequivocally that the predominant emotion we feel is joy to see a strong, assertive community taking shape. If some call this “spreading the gospel,” I’m happy to agree – “gospel” means “good news”, and our message is that atheism is good news, a liberation from the fetters of superstition. Concern trolls may call us “angry”, as if that alone could discredit any movement, and I welcome them to try. They affect not to understand what drives us, but the more outspoken and stronger we grow, the sooner the time will come when they will have no choice but to understand.