The Atheists Stand Alone

Quick: What name comes to mind when I say the word “atheist”?
.
.
.
I’m guessing most of you think of Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris.

What name comes to mind when I say “Christian”?
.
.
.
Knowing the audience that reads this blog, maybe you thought of James Dobson, Jerry Falwell, or Pat Robertson.

There are (obviously) many differences between the groups of people, but let me mention one I never hear much about:

The most well-known atheists in our country today are individuals. They’re not attached to any one specific organization. They might support or advise groups, or attend their conferences, but they are not specifically associated with them.

The well-known Christians, on the other hand, go hand in hand with their organizations. Focus on the Family. The Moral Majority. The 700 Club. Even the famous pastors like Rick Warren and Joel Osteen are associated with their large churches (Saddleback and Lakewood, respectively).

You don’t hear about many Christians who are out there on their own. But the atheists always seem to stand alone, a lone voice in the crowd.

The problem with this is that 50 years from now, the individuals may well be gone. But the Christian organizations will still be around and they will be prospering. They have enough of an infrastructure that someone is ready to take over when the leader leaves. And people will still send money to the Christian organizations they’ve come to know so well though the work of the Christian leaders who were synonymous with the groups they led.

Will the secular organizations still be going strong 50 years from now?

We seem to be past the heyday (if I may use that word) of American Atheists, when it was the go-to organization for all things non-religious and had a vocal leader in Madalyn Murray O’Hair. Despite what you may think of her, American Atheists would not be where it is today without the donors who started giving money to the group thanks to her celebrity.

It’s certainly nice that there are now more secular groups than ever before, but none have the size or budget anywhere near that of the larger Christian groups. There are plenty of reasons for this, the least of which is the relative populations of Christians compared to atheists in this country. There are also plenty of stereotypes against non-religious people. I could go on… but I don’t think this point is in question.

Most secular groups also don’t have the well-known leaders. This might be the biggest problem in trying to sustain our groups in the future.

I know many of the heads of these groups–they’re great people and wonderful at their jobs. But they’re not household names.

The only secular groups I can think of where the organization is relatively large and its leader is well-known are the Center For Inquiry (headed by Paul Kurtz) and Americans United for Separation of Church and State (headed by Barry Lynn). But AU is not a non-religious group (and his official title is Reverend Barry Lynn), and I’ve rarely run across Christians who had heard of Paul Kurtz. Hell, many younger atheists I know haven’t either.

I’m not sure what the solution is to this problem. But we all need to be supporting the organizations we do have. It would also be nice if the media would call on more of our secular leaders when they needed a soundbyte or panelist.

Maybe with the “New Atheism” wave, this will happen more often.


[tags]atheist, atheism, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Madalyn Murray O’Hair, Christian, James Dobson, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Focus on the Family, Moral Majority, The 700 Club, Rick Warren, Joel Osteen, Saddleback, Lakewood, American Atheists, Center For Inquiry, Paul Kurtz, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Barry Lynn, New Atheism[/tags]

  • http://danharlow.com Dan Harlow

    I nominate you to be our leader – just don’t make me drink any Kool-Aid :)

  • http://blog.chrisbradleywriter.com Christopher Bradley

    While I’m all for organizations, I’m actually modestly against leaders. I think the last thing that most atheists want to do is recreate the cult of personalities that are the cornerstone of Christian organizations. I feel that we don’t need and would not be served with centralized organizations that recreate cults of personality.

  • http://atheistrevolution.blogspot.com/ vjack

    Don’t you think that part of what is going on is that people like Harris and Dawkins are trying to sell a product? They probably have agents, booking their appearances and have given thought to PR. I am not saying that freethought organizations couldn’t market themselves more effectively, but this doesn’t seem to be a priority.

  • Ty

    Apperantly you have missed the point of why Christianity will live on past the personalities (good & bad) (kool-aid & Holy Water), it’s becase there really is a living, loving, GOD.

  • Karen

    Apperantly you have missed the point of why Christianity will live on past the personalities (good & bad) (kool-aid & Holy Water), it’s becase there really is a living, loving, GOD.

    Oh, man! (slapping forehead) how could we have forgotten to think of that!! Duh …

    ;-)

  • Steelman

    Ty said: Apperantly you have missed the point of why Christianity will live on past the personalities (good & bad) (kool-aid & Holy Water), it’s becase there really is a living, loving, GOD.

    Maybe there are other reasons? Otherwise, we could say that Scientology lives on after the death of L. Ron Hubbard because the story of Xenu is true; or that Islam lives on post-Muhammad because he truly was the seal of the prophets. There are more examples.

    It would seem that organizations can live and grow through a cult of personality, even when that person is no longer present. Industrial corporations, with the right leadership, can certainly outlive their founders as well. As always, the efficacy of a method of lifestyle (for attainment of health, wealth, or well being, etc.) does not prove all of its truth claims, supernatural or otherwise. In other words, there could be a God or gods, but the continuing survival of all the various religious organizations in the world isn’t proof of that claim.

  • Karen

    I am not saying that freethought organizations couldn’t market themselves more effectively, but this doesn’t seem to be a priority.

    I agree that lack of visibility is a big problem, but I think the funds for a solid marketing budget are just not there in most the atheist-type groups.

    Hemant, you may have some insight on this question I’ve wondered about: Why are there so many (parallel or potentially “competing”) agnostic, humanist, freethought, atheist, etc. groups, most of which seem to have a common mission? Is it an historical phenomenon, or just the result of geography, or personality conflicts, or what?

    It would seem to me we’d have more clout and more money if there were some consolidation of budgets, personnel and effort.

  • http://inthenuts.blogspot.com King Aardvark

    For the parallel atheist-type groups, it’s probably due to the same thing that causes various religious denominations: we’re all human and all have different ideas. While we’re more sensible than them and recognize that all we have are opinions and preferred ways of doing things (not being the sole holders of the Truth like the various fundies), we would have difficulty getting along well enough. Imagine PZ and Dawkins trying to share leadership of an organization with a proud Neville Chamberlain atheist? Wouldn’t work.

    And while increasing the centralization would increase funds and visibility, it may hurt in other areas. Consider the differing tactics of Dawkins-types vs friendlier atheists. Both are useful. Dawkins brings freethought loudly and boldly into the public scene, whereas Hemant can use the interest in atheism generated by Dawkins to engage religious moderates in fruitful discussion. While both help to get the job done, putting them together could create a branding issue. How would a moderate trust Hemant if he knew he was bussom buddies with that hated blowhard Dawkins? Having seperate organizations allows them to be kept at arms length.

  • QrazyQat

    There’s a couple (at least) problems here. The big, most-visible Christian organizations thrive because they make tons of money for the hypocrites who control them (and in the USA there are big tax breaks for many of them). Also, these organizations exist not just to lobby, but to convert people. In my experience athesists are far less likely to go around pushing people into things, and this is something I’d hate to see change.

    You make atheism into a money-making, power-grabbing, hypocritical force like the big visible Christian organizations and they’ll last too, but at what cost? Far too high a cost for me.

  • Jim Henderson

    Hemant

    I saw someone voted for you to lead.

    People lead because they have a passion to bring change

    Then they devote their whole life to that cause

    They expect that people will disagree with them – no surprise there

    They learn from their enemies tactics and use them themself

    They don;t get sidetracked into the obvious arguments that are easy pickins

    I think you should lead whatever you love to do

    Don’t worry if people demonize or idolize you (both will happen)

  • Richard Wade

    We don’t have to play their game. We don’t have to build enormous organizations with their potential for corruption and inflexibility. Think of the effect a very small number of secular people have had resisting theist intrusions into government and public policy in the last few years. I belong to four organizations that do this. As long as we protect the First Amendment we have a powerful force. We can be, if you excuse the irony of the analogy, David to their Goliath. David didn’t play by Goliath’s rules, with heavy armor and sword. Just a well-aimed lawsuit here and there can keep our rights protected. A small increase in organizational size and clout would make a big difference, and then we could do more than just hold our own.

    To really begin to have a secular culture dominate the scene and replace theism will take a long time, but time is on our side. From 1990 to 2001 Christians dropped by 8.5% of the U.S. population, while non-religious/agnostics/atheists grew by 6.5%. I suspect those trends have accelerated in the last six years.

    Keep in mind during those same survey years the U.S Muslim population increased by 0.3%. In fifty years we may be dealing more with them than the Christians. (data source: Wikipedia, “Demographics of the U.S.”)

  • miller

    This reminds me of an article I read once. It is difficult to get organized around atheism, since in general, atheists have little in common. Things that atheists do usually support, such as separation of church and state, are all things that many theists, too, support. It would be very sad if atheists constituted the majority of people who support secularism.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    The only secular groups I can think of where the organization is relatively large and its leader is well-known are the Center For Inquiry (headed by Paul Kurtz) and Americans United for Separation of Church and State (headed by Barry Lynn).

    What about the Freedom from Religion Foundation? They’re explicitly atheist, they’re much larger than American Atheists (well on track to reaching 10,000 members now), they’ve won several major court victories against the faith-based initiative, and their leader is a prominent ex-minister! What else could you ask for? :)

  • http://friendlyatheist.com FriendlyAtheist

    Ebonmuse– FFRF is definitely a great organization. And while Dan Barker is a prominent ex-minister, I don’t know if he’s as well-known as Paul Kurtz is in the secular movement. Same with Annie Laurie Gaylor. Maybe the Supreme Court case will help that, though. They’d be a great group to take a leadership role among the leaders.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X