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.