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

About Adam Lee

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

  • Ian Reid

    When I was a young man, a few decades back, and an atheist, I felt alone and isolated in my disbelief. This in an era way before the internet impinged on the popular consciousness. There were a few books and a few authors, Professor Dawkins comes to mind, but that was it. Now it has all changed. People and organisations are fighting the good fight. Religion is being confronted and challenged. Victories won.

    For all the problems we face, there has been a sea-change. We live in a better world. So, big thanks to you and others like you who do fight the good fight. Now I am looking forward to a few more decades of improvement in our lot (I am sure).

  • dorcheat

    Thanks for the nice stroll down the old memory lane. I like to think the rise of this movement started with the original Internet Infidels (infidels.org) back in about 1995. They always had a quite lively discussion forum. Some five years ago or so, the discussion forum split off from the original Internet Infidels into the Freethought and Rationalism Discussion Board (freeratio.org).

  • Scotlyn

    Adam, I’m delighted about your move to Patheos… a very nice commenting format…

  • Neil Carter

    I’m personally so perplexed and grieved at the nastiness of online behavior within the “atheosphere” that I wonder if we’re getting trolled to some degree. I don’t mean that we don’t have our share of misogynists (etc) nor do I mean some of our high profile people don’t need to have some sensitivity training. But I’m suspicious that the worst of the vitriol and insults hurled at our female writers/speakers isn’t even coming from legitimate sources. I think we’re getting trolled by saboteurs. Has that been explored?

  • Karen

    As distressing as the atheist infighting is, I see it as a sad but perhaps inevitable sign of our growth as a movement. When I deconverted a decade or so ago ( it was a long process) the idea that nonbelief would become almost mainstream, or at least considered by society at large, was almost inconceivable. It felt like a tiny band of misfits rational enough to reject religion but far too small and isolated to even be acknowledged. I think 2012 was a watershed for us in terms of surveys showing such startling growth in the movement that we had to be recognized. I lost count of all the media stories about atheists last year, when early on it was rare to see atheism mentioned, and when it was it was always religious people knocking us down.
    I started questioning religion after 9/11 as did many others. I can’t help but wonder whether that hideous act, motivated by religious fanaticism, willbe looked back on someday as a direct link to the growing secularism in the US?

  • AC

    Minorities and women are certainly welcome, and I’m not opposed to outreach to those groups, but why exactly is incidental dominance by white males a problem?

  • Jack

    You’re right on target, Karen. Author and blogger Greta Christina has made the same point, comparing the effect of 9/11 on the atheist movement to that of Stonewall on the LGBT movement. It was the primary motivation behind Sam Harris’ The End of Faith, and Dawkins’ The God Delusion. We can never know how many deconversions it precipitated, but I suspect the number is significant.

  • Adam Lee

    …but why exactly is incidental dominance by white males a problem?

    Sure, I can speak to this. Two reasons:

    (1) Because atheism and skepticism are good for everyone. If our message isn’t reaching women or non-white people as effectively as it should, then those people are missing out on the benefits of a rational life and are more likely to be taken advantage of by pseudoscience and superstition. If that’s the case, we should see if there’s anything we can do to correct that unfortunate situation.

    (2) Because diversity is good for atheism and skepticism. If the secular community remains a white men’s club, then we can expect to become increasingly marginalized and irrelevant as Western society becomes more diverse and white men make up an increasingly smaller proportion of the population. (Just ask the Republican party; they can tell you how well the white-men-only strategy worked for them in the last election.) Plus, as non-Western countries become wealthier and more influential, it’s also more and more important that we nurture skepticism and rationality there as well. If our message isn’t reaching these demographics, then we’re missing out on a huge number of potential allies.

  • JRG

    As a female atheist, two thoughts: 1. I think women are less likely to self-identify as atheists because we are STILL conditioned to be pleasing (above all else!) and atheism is hugely stigmatized. 2. If atheists are interested in increasing the number of secular women who identify as atheist, the best course of action is to strongly reject the conservative assertions that seek to minimize male sexual predation, that participate in shaming women who express sexuality, and that diminish women’s legal status. Atheism stands in the unique position of addressing political and social issues from the frame of reference of logic and compassion, NOT doctrine and tradition. Defending a woman’s right to make choices for her body, to engage in healthy sexual behavior without being attacked and to receive legal equality with men — and connecting each of these stances to atheism, will go a long way to expanding the base, and improving the image of atheists in general.

  • http://club.berkovich-zametki.com/?p=1708 Rex A. Pierce

    The historic taint of white evolutionary racism within the white atheist community no doubt has been a factor which has hindered the adoption of atheism in the Western World among racial minorities. Leading creation science organizations such as Creation Ministries International , Answers in Genesis and the Institute for Creation Research commonly point out the evolutionary racism that has existed within the evolutionary community.

  • Adam Lee

    Leading creation science organizations such as Creation Ministries International , Answers in Genesis and the Institute for Creation Research commonly point out the evolutionary racism that has existed within the evolutionary community.

    Would this be the Institute for Creation Research whose founder was pushing the explicitly racist “curse of Ham” hypothesis as recently as 1991?

  • ctcss

    @Karen

    “I started questioning religion after 9/11 as did many others.”

    That’s interesting. As someone who is deeply religious, I would have to say that 9/11 never prompted me to question religion at all. But that may have been because I never associated fanatical thought with religiosity, simply because the sense of religion that I was raised with was one where careful thinking was encouraged, not blind, unthinking devotion to a person. In fact, it would have been impossible for me to conduct my religious practice without carefully reasoning through things based on guiding principles. And foundational to those guiding principles was the concept of God that is all-loving, so the idea that God would ever want any of God’s children to wage war on, or to harm, any other of God’s children would have made no sense to me. And since God is the only God, only God’s children would exist, thus warring against other people would make no sense. It would be like killing the members of one’s own family.

    The point I am trying to make here is that I think the concept of God that one is taught (in my my case one that is all-loving), and the manner of religious practice that one is taught (in my case one that encouraged careful thinking rather than blind devotion) would probably make a huge difference in whether or not one’s religious practice could ever start out, or turn into, something toxic and cruel. Thus 9/11, to me, was not about religion per se, but about how one approaches religion, just as the approach (i.e guiding principles) one takes towards the practice of business, politics, sports, finance, law-enforcement, law, etc. help determine whether the practice of those areas of human life are beneficial or toxic to others.

    An interesting, non-religious book that touches on this area is Christopher Browning’s “Ordinary Men”. In it, he examines how regular German policeman were co-opted by the Third Reich to help carry out the atrocities of WWII, in essence engaging in criminal activities that they would have devoted themselves to fighting against, had the situation been a normal one instead of the nightmare that Hitler had imposed on his people.

    Just some thoughts.

  • David Hart

    Adam Lee :

    Would this be the Institute for Creation Research whose founder was pushing the explicitly racist “curse of Ham” hypothesis as recently as 1991?

    I love the fact that creationism has a curse of Ham. You couldn’t make this up.

  • Loren Petrich

    I think that the rise of the “New Atheism” is a side effect of the rise of the Religious Right. For the last century, our society has tended to a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to religion. But the RR has been shamelessly violating that approach.

    Then there is the nearly total cowardice of the more liberal sorts of Christians in the face of the Religious Right. It’s almost like they enjoy being vilified as fakers and crypto-atheists by the Religious Right, something like the battered-partner syndrome.

    Our host had earlier posted on
    Why Is America’s Most Progressive Voting Block Often Overlooked? – http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism/2012/12/why-is-americas-most-progressive-voting-block-often-overlooked/

    Like when Alan Keyes waved the Bible at Barack Obama in a 2004 race. Obama wrote about it:
    “What could I say? That a literal reading of the Bible was folly?””

    That’s what he’d have to say, I think.

  • Karen

    Interesting, Jack, I had not seen that comparison from Greta Christina but it may well be apt, indeed. I think the questioning brought about by 9/11 sort of dovetailed with the rise of social interaction online. So I had a place to go looking for others who might be questioning too, and my discussions with many of them in the early 2000′s led to my rejection of a religion I’d followed for 30 years.

  • Reverend Robbie

    @ctcss, the notion of an omnibenevolent God is the very one that many of us questioned after 9/11. The problem of suffering, both human-induced and natural, has never been adequately addressed by apologists, despite their claim that they put it to bed long ago. The omnibenevolent God is not reflected in reality without a tremendous amount of unsupported post hoc rationalization. Those of us who feel (I think rightly so) that there simply has never been a satisfactory response to this are the ones who found 9/11 to be a real nail in the coffin for the concept of a loving God within our lifetimes. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. How do you feel about an omnibenevolent God allowing suffering? Do you think there is a good answer for it?

  • http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com Ani J. Sharmin

    Thanks for the look back, Adam. I deconverted slowly, over many years, but I started considering myself an atheist sometime at the end of 2008/beginning of 2009. (I remember reading atheist books for the first time during that winter recess from school.) It’s nice to see a little summary of where we were/how far we have come/how far we have to go from someone who was involved in writing about atheism from before I became aware of it.

    Re: More people becoming atheists

    I think what finally caused me to call myself an atheist, to realize I really didn’t believe in god anymore, was realizing that my view of god kept changing as I changed my mind about things, making it likely that I was creating my god. What caused me to want to say something about it was the little things all adding up, the arguments made and positions taken based on religious belief that affect people’s lives. It got to a point that I got tired of people being able to use their religion to excuse bad actions and also got tired of people who were fighting against those bad actions not pointing out the role religion played. (I think this is similar to what Loren wrote above about the Religious Right.)

    Re: 9/11 causing people to doubt religion

    As I said, my religious views changed over many years, so I don’t think 9/11 had a big impact on my religious beliefs, though I understand why it did for others. For me, it was a source of sadness and fear, and—perhaps because of how old I was—a realization that these kind of attacks can happen close to home. (I already disagreed with Islam for other reasons.) It was also a point where I started to become more aware (and take more notice) of the way in which people pointed to the bad things done by other religions while ignoring bad things done by their own (not that I didn’t know this already, but it became even more noticeable to me as 9/11 became a catalyst for all sorts of arguments—some correct and some not—about why Islam is worse than Christianity and started being used a way for members of other religions to avoid answering questions about their own actions). Tied in with all this was that I was part of a Muslim family who disagreed with Islam but felt stuck between Muslims who would discriminate against me on the one hand and people who would discriminate against my family for being Muslim on the other hand.

    I should add that sites like this one have helped me face up to that situation and feel motivated to write about these issues, even if I find myself alone or in small company.

  • http://www.seditiosus.blogspot.com Schaden Freud

    I’m interested to hear from people saying that as recently as 2001 or 2005, atheism wasn’t a visible part of their society. I find this interesting because it wasn’t my experience at all. In 2005 atheism was so common among my colleagues that you just assumed atheism unless you had evidence to the contrary, and religious folks were widely thought to be a bit weird. In 2001 I was still in high school, where religious folks were definitely seen as weird. It was actually something you kept to yourself for fear of ridicule.

    I’m not sure why my experience was so different. Partially I think it’s because I live in a very secular country where people are expected to keep their faith to themselves, and part of it may be my age.

  • GCT

    ctcss,

    But that may have been because I never associated fanatical thought with religiosity, simply because the sense of religion that I was raised with was one where careful thinking was encouraged, not blind, unthinking devotion to a person. In fact, it would have been impossible for me to conduct my religious practice without carefully reasoning through things based on guiding principles. And foundational to those guiding principles was the concept of God that is all-loving, so the idea that God would ever want any of God’s children to wage war on, or to harm, any other of God’s children would have made no sense to me.

    Careful thinking/reasoning: you’re doing it wrong.

  • ctcss

    @GCT

    “Careful thinking/reasoning: you’re doing it wrong.”

    That you and I disagree is duly noted. But even despite that, I think that both of us are sincerely interested in finding the truth about things. We simply disagree as to which direction the best pathway lies in. But since individuals are allowed their own choice in such matters, that is fine by me. Here’s hoping that your chosen journey is going well.

  • GCT

    ctcss,

    But even despite that, I think that both of us are sincerely interested in finding the truth about things.

    That is simply not true. You start with your conclusions and then try to “reason” back to them. This is not how reasonable thinking works, nor is it a sincere attempt at finding the truth. It’s not simply a case of a simple disagreement on “which direction the best pathway lies.” It’s two different methodologies on how to discern what is true about the world. My methodology is to use science. Your methodology is to simply assert X and assume it must be true.

  • David Haakenson

    I find it interesting that both Atheists and Christians in America look at the society they live in and see themselves as the underdog.

  • GCT

    I guess it is interesting, because once again we see atheists being the ones who are correct.


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