Atheism Is Breaking Out All Over

Right around the time I received James A. Haught’s editorial “Fading Faith“, I was working on a similar post of my own. It was motivated by the brutal murder of Salman Taseer and the other signs that religious eliminationism is growing throughout the world, which drove me to wonder if there’s any reason left to hope. Although recent events argue persuasively that the liberal spirit is alive and well, I think there’s still room for this post as well: evidence that atheism is breaking out all over, and that a secular spirit is rising throughout the industrialized world.

In many ways, the U.K. is at the epicenter. Even the guardians of orthodoxy have noticed, as in this article from Nick Spencer lamenting how “the overwhelming feeling [toward Christianity] is one of disinterest and disengagement” among Generation Y. This essay by Johann Hari, deploring the guaranteed seats in Parliament for clerics, expresses a more positive perspective on the same news:

Britain is one of the most blessedly irreligious societies on Earth… The British Social Attitudes Survey, the most detailed study of public opinion, found that 59 per cent of us say we are not religious.

As in Britain, so in Germany: 60% of Berlin residents are nonreligious. Even more inspiring was the news that, after the brutal 2006 “honor killing” of a Turkish woman, the city government introduced a secular ethics class to the public school curriculum. When religious interest groups pressed for a ballot initiative to add a religion class as an alternative to the ethics class, that referendum was soundly defeated by voters.

Similarly, a recent census in Melbourne, Australia found that 32% of the city’s 3.6 million residents identified as nonreligious, and 13% as atheists. (The article didn’t make it clear whether these were overlapping categories.)

Even in Indonesia, atheists are using the internet to find each other and organize. Although this movement is just getting off the ground and isn’t as large as in Western countries, it’s still an achievement worth recognizing – especially in a Muslim-majority country where every citizen is required to carry an identity card stating their religion, and for which only six officially recognized options are allowed, atheism not among them.

It was such a stigma that prompted a 35-year-old teacher from West Sumatra, known online as “XYZMan,” to start an email mailing list in 2004 to allow atheists to discuss their beliefs. The list now has more than 350 members.

Despite the success of the mailing list, XYZMan said he is forced to keep his own atheism secret in the real world…

“If everyone knew that I’m an atheist, I could lose my job, my family would hate me and also some friends,” he said in an email interview.

“It’s also more likely that I could be physically attacked or killed because I’m a kafir (unbeliever) and my blood is halal (allowed to be spilled) according to Islam.”

And last but not least, that wealthy bastion of religious fundamentalism, the U.S. The slow decline of all Christian denominations, accompanied by the steady growth of the unaffiliated, has long been noted by demographers (see the charts and graphs in the linked article). But even more pertinently, it’s not just our absolute numbers that are growing, it’s our electoral clout:

In every presidential election since 1988… the ranks of what pollsters call “the religiously unaffiliated” has grown. In 2008, some 12% of the electorate – or 15 million voters – identified themselves as nonbelievers. That’s bigger than the Latino vote (9%), the gay vote (4%), or the Jewish vote (2%), and it’s competitive with the African American vote (13%).

There’s also this excellent article detailing the growth of atheist political organization, with welcome coverage of groups like the Secular Coalition for America, representing our interests in Washington, or the Secular Student Alliance, organizing the next generation of freethinkers in colleges and high schools across the country (despite resistance from bigots). This may be the most important part of the atheist movement – creating an infrastructure that can absorb our growth and make us a visible social force, rather than an amorphous collection of individuals. Such an organization could effectively speak out for the rights of nonbelievers around the world and forcefully advocate all the causes that freethinkers should care about.

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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.

  • Rollingforest

    Yes, I have noticed that Obama has mentioned those without religious beliefs when he is listing off religions in America, something I haven’t ever heard of Bill Clinton doing during his presidency, so their definitely has been change.

    I’m glad that Europe is secularizing, and not to dampen down anything, but I think there are a few things Europe could do to make it even better. One is put forward tax incentives for people to have 2 or more kids. Too many European countries are not having enough kids to replace the current population and that’s a bad sign down the road for these countries.

    Two, their immigration policy needs to have some sort of requirement that the person seeking entry understands basic human rights (testing to see what they understand is not the same as making sure they follow them, but it is a start) There are many parties in Europe that are making Islam the enemy, but the real enemy is Fundamentalism. If you can keep the Fundamentalist of every religion out of your country, you will do better long term.

  • L.Long

    The growth of ‘irreligious’ or ‘no religion’ and outright atheism is heartening but the requirements of atheism are too high for most people.
    But belief in g0d is one thing and being religious is another.
    Usually belief does not lead to bigotry or hate, so the growth in ‘non-religious’ is a good thing but only in the shirt term. People are a social animal, the believers will get together and more then two like minded believers collected is called? Yep! A religion and the cycle starts over again.
    The important thing is to keep the controls (gov’mint) secular and good laws in place.
    This was started at the founding of the USA because religious groups hated each other, but the one thing they hate worse then each other are the atheists. You can see that as we grow the fundies are pushing back HARD! But then I’m a pessimist.

  • kennypo65

    I too am a pessimist,however when I hear about these figures around the world and here in the U.S. I ALMOST see a glimmer of hope. We non-believers still have a long row to hoe but I try to do my part. I used to be hesitant about expressing my lack of belief, but no longer. If asked I proudly state, “I’m an atheist.” Then of course there is the standard “Don’t you worry about hell?” and “On what do you base your morality then?”

    Just the other day I wa talking with a few people I knew and one guy was lamenting his need for employment. It went something like this:

    Person B: Guys my unemployment is going to run out real soon.

    Person A: I’ll pray for you

    Person B: Thanks, I really need to find work.

    Person A: You should really say a prayer for yourself.

    Person C: I thought that you should never pray for yourself.

    Me: It doesn’t matter who you pray for, in the end you’re only talking to yourself.

    Person A: What do you mean?

    Me: Since there is no one on the other end of your prayer, your talking to yourself.

    Person C: What are you some kind of atheist?

    Me: Yes, matter of fact I’m the best kind of atheist. I think all religion is nothing but BS. However unlike these guys, Person B, I’ll actually do something to help you and see if they are hiring at my job. If so I’ll put in a good word for you.

    Person B: Hey man, that would be great.

    Persons A & C: You’re a real fucking asshole, Ken.

    Full disclosure: People have been calling me an asshole long before I ever came out as an atheist, and I’m pretty proud of that.

  • J. Quinton

    I’ve met a few Christians who consider themselves “non-religious”. It’s probably due to a rising stigma of religiosity in Western society. It’s the same reasoning that many Christians don’t consider Christianity a religion, but “a personal relationship with Jesus”. These people are obviously religious, but are for some reason not labeling themselves as religious.

    So I would be a bit hesitant about accepting the non-religious label as a telltale sign of irreligiosity.

  • David Hart

    That whole ‘Christianity is not a religion’ shtick always irks me. It sounds suspiciously like an attempt to linguistically engineer an unjustified distinction between their ‘correct’ supernatural belief and everyone else’s ‘incorrect’ supernatural beliefs.

    Having talked to some people about it, it emerges that they are defining ‘religion’ as meaning something like ‘practicing rituals in an empty display of trying to impress a god or gods’; whereas most people understand ‘religion’ to have the much broader meaning of ‘believing in the existence of a god or gods’, which may or may not include a certain amount of arbitrary ritual behaviour.
    So the next time a Christian tells you they’re not religious, do point out to them that they can make that claim only if they are using ‘religious’ as a technical term of art, with a precise meaning which is different from its common, everyday meaning, and suggest to them that the proper word for what they are calling ‘religious’ is actually ‘ritualistic’.

    Also, and at the risk of veering wildly off-topic, I was reminded by the bit about voting blocks of this delightful if slightly cruel skit by the performance poet Mr Social Control (talking after the election of George W Bush):

    I realised that the election could be swung not by the Black vote or the Hispanic vote, the gay vote or the grey vote, but by the numerically superior stupid vote. I set out to portray myself not merely as sympathetic to, but actually a member of, the ‘stupid community’. As with all actor-presidents, however, there is the danger of becoming confined by one’s role.

  • Jon Jermey

    The best indication of how fast atheism is winning over the west is the desperation with which apologists like Karen Armstrong are scrambling to try and show that Christians were really atheists all along. “We didn’t really believe this nonsense! Where did you get THAT idea?”

  • themann1086


    The specific variations I hear most are “Just because you’re not religious doesn’t mean you have to disbelieve in God!” and “Christianity isn’t a religion, it’s a relationship with Jesus!” Excuse me while I go beat my head into a wall.

  • Jeep-Eep

    Yes. Those guys are almost as annoying as libertarian… verdammt, getting out before I explode like a blood firecracker from thinking about them.

    Damnation. I cannot get those annoying stravags out of my mind. ARRGGGGGHH.

  • Jormungund

    “Christianity isn’t a religion, it’s a relationship with Jesus!”

    I’ve heard that one.
    I also heard someone claim that the existence of Christians predates the birth of Jesus. She claimed that the Jews who were awaiting their savior were early Christians awaiting Christ.
    My attempts to explain that modern Jews are awaiting their savior and that Jesus wasn’t it as far as they can tell didn’t go over well.
    And she wasn’t a stupid woman when it came to academics. She just went weird when religion came up.

  • John Nernoff

    I was a pathologist in a community hospital from 1982 to 1967 in a Bible belt community in Pennsylvania. I was a “confirmed” atheist when I started there and saw no reason to keep it a secret. I wore it on my sleeve and wrote occasional letters to the paper commenting on related matters. Some would notice and cheer out their favor. I did not suffer any repercussions and if anything I was a source of amusement and wonderment to some.

  • Rieux
    Britain is one of the most blessedly irreligious societies on Earth… The British Social Attitudes Survey, the most detailed study of public opinion, found that 59 per cent of us say we are not religious.

    As in Britain, so in Germany: 60% of Berlin residents are nonreligious.

    Hey, watch the apples’n’oranges, there: Berlin is a nice big cosmopolitan place. Not so the many rural areas of Germany (especially in Bavaria).

    I’m sure Germany-as-a-whole still boasts an irreligion level that puts us Americans to shame, but comparing Britain to Berlin inevitably skews the comparison a bit.

  • TEP

    “Christianity isn’t a religion, it’s a relationship with Jesus!”

    I wonder how that’s supposed to work. It’s a bit difficult to have a relationship with somebody who’s dead – and given that Chrisianity apparently isn’t a religion, it isn’t like you can get around that by suggesting that he had supernatural abilities or rose from the dead. So how exactly does someone manage to have a relationship with someone who’s been dead for two millennia, and had no magical abilities whatsoever, and no means of surviving death?

  • Uzza

    Second #2 above, it’s all a matter of terminology. Virtually everyone believes there is some “higher power” as they say in AA, even if it’s only Jack Frostism . We seem to be at a point in history where society redefines their idea of religion, similarly to the adoption of Buddhism in China early on. Today, getting even atheists to define what they actually mean by “god” or “religion” etc is next to impossible.

    Not surprising we’ve outgrown our 2,000 year old myths, but it’s interesting what will replace them. Some people think a rational approach alone is enough, without any kind of organized rituals and so forth, but I doubt that.

  • Ant

    Today, getting even atheists to define what they actually mean by “god” or “religion” etc is next to impossible.

    Is that really surprising? When each faith has its own definition of “god” how can an atheist who believes in none of them say what they mean by “god” — other than some kind of quantum superposition of others’ multifarious definitions?

    Really, it’s not for an atheist to define exactly what they mean by “god”. All we can say is that we have seen no evidence for any “god,” however that is defined by those who believe in him/her/it.

    We can identify some common elements of these definitions, that [a] “god” is some kind of supernatural agent that intercedes in the world for the benefit of mankind, or at least of those who believe in him/her/it, and often has some expectations of how believers should behave. And, thus, religion is a worldview founded on such a belief and proscribed behaviours.

    Arguably, there are atheistic religions, but those might better be regarded as philosophies, as Confuscianis, Daoism, Mohism and some kinds of Buddhism are.

  • Uzza

    Like we said, it’s all terminology. You just gave “god” four attributes: benevolent, interventionist, supernatural being—esentially the Abramic one—and “religions” whose “gods” have a different set of properties you redefined away as “philosophies”, which one could follow without being “religious”; Christians say they are “not religious but have personal relationship”; both groups say they are “not religious, but “spiritual””,whatever that means. And so on.

    Bottom line, “religious non-afiliationism” is breaking out all over, not so much “Atheism”. Traditional religions have given themselves a bad name by clinging to old tribal notions,and time is past due for a new paradigm to emerge, and we have to figure out what to call it.

    We’ll also have to figure out how to provide the social/ritual aspects that keep these “non-religious” clinging to the “religions” whose “gods” they don’t believe in.