The Lay of the Land

I’ve been writing about atheism since 2001 (yes, really!). Since moving to Patheos is a pretty big milestone, now seems like a good time to pause and look back on how far atheism in America has come in that time.

When I first started writing, or even as recently as when I wrote “Unapologetic” in 2005, there was scarcely any atheist movement to speak of. There were groups like American Atheists and the Freedom from Religion Foundation, but they were smaller, obscure, and mostly siloed off from each other, fighting their own battles. The few brave, lonely activists who spoke out often faced appalling persecution and harassment from the believing majority.

Now, just eight short years later, it’s startling how much things have changed. The number of secular Americans has skyrocketed, especially among younger generations, reaching levels that I doubt anyone would have dreamed of attaining a decade ago. Our organizations have formed a broad coalition with national reach and influence, able to persuade elected officials to take us seriously or to stand behind activists who face harassment in their communities. Atheist books are smash bestsellers; secular student clubs are sprouting in hundreds of colleges and high schools; and atheist conferences and conventions are now taking place almost every weekend in every area of the country.

With this success has inevitably come conflict, as a growing movement seeks to define itself and its purpose. The first great battle to roil the secular community was New Atheism vs. accommodationism: should we sharply criticize others’ religious beliefs, even if they take offense, or should we downplay ferocity in favor of cooperation and diplomacy? This debate raged for the first few years I was writing this blog, and while it hasn’t exactly been settled, I think it’s subsided.

But in the last year or two, there’s been a new and much uglier debate, centered around diversity, feminism and the place of women in the secular community. It’s no secret that atheists are dominated by white men, and an increasing number of people have noticed this problem and have been asking how we can broaden our appeal. But apart from the legitimate debates over how best to achieve this aim, the conversation has roused an ugly viper of prejudice: a faction of retrograde atheists who are violently opposed to any deliberate effort to reach out to women and other underrepresented groups.

I don’t think the anti-feminists have any real power to shape the direction of the atheist movement, but what they do have is a willingness to engage in intense campaigns of vicious, misogynist harassment against people who do. Several prominent atheist women, all intelligent writers or dedicated activists, who’ve spoken out on the subject have received a flood of harassing messages and threats, and some of them have either withdrawn from activism or have contemplated withdrawing rather than deal with this onslaught and the inevitable toll it takes on one’s mental health.

Now, I certainly don’t believe that this is a problem unique to atheism (as evidenced by the many other communities that are grappling with it). I tend to agree with Richard Carrier’s hypothesis that these obsessed haters and bigots exist at low but nonzero concentration in any group of people. When the atheist community was small, there was only a handful of them, but as the community has grown, their numbers grow in proportion, until a point is reached where they can link up and form subcommunities where they egg each other on.

To be clear, I don’t think the atheist community will ever march in lockstep, nor would that be desirable even if it were possible. We’re too independently minded and disputatious for that. There will always be dispute about the focus and priorities of the movement, which is fine. But since we’re a community of rationalists and humanists, we ought to at least be able to agree that this behavior is unconscionable and shouldn’t be excused or defended. And I think we’re making progress: we’ve advanced diversity by leaps and bounds; we’ve brought anti-harassment policies to all the major conventions; and we’re talking about social justice issues as never before. But to truly rid ourselves of the haters, we have to bring about a deeper cultural change. This is a longer and harder slog, but if the secular movement is going to continue to grow and to build on the progress we’ve made, it’s an essential step and a challenge we can’t shirk.

Image credit: Deep Rifts, via Wikimedia Commons

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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.


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