What Should the Focus Be?

With the atheist books hitting bestsellers lists and national secular organizations growing in membership, what should we be focusing on: Creating new atheists or getting those who are already atheists to speak out as such?

A recent article in the (Canadian) National Post used the backdrop of the Center for Inquiry – Ontario to discuss the atheist movement as a whole.

One idea kept repeating itself in the piece: The focus should be on getting current atheists to come out of the closet. When that happens, it helps others do the same. And it’s a comforting thought for other atheists to know they’re not alone. (Emphasis below mine.)

In describing the collective impact of the new atheists, Mr. [Richard] Dawkins recently told CBC Radio, “I’m not that optimistic that I am shaking people’s faith … What I think I, and Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens are doing is making it easier for those who are already skeptical to come out and admit the fact.

Ms. [Annie Laurie] Gaylor, who said her group [the Freedom From Religion Foundation] has grown from 7,000 to more than 10,000 since the fall, is not sure that the recent rash of books is winning converts to atheism, but she is certain it is emboldening those in the closet.

When Herb Silverman became a professor of mathematics at the College of Charleston in South Carolina in 1976, people would say to him: “You’re the only atheist I know,” and he would respond: ” No I’m not. You know hundreds of atheists, I’m just the only one who acknowledges they’re an atheist.”

Eight years later, with the support of the American Civil Liberties Union, the religious test was struck down and removed from the state’s constitution.

He hopes Hitchens, Dawkins and Harris and others will make atheism more respectable: “What I would really like is for atheists to come out of the closet because we are so demonized in our culture.”

“I was quite content discussing religion only when I was asked about it, but when our son was ousted from the Boy Scouts of America in 1991 for being from an atheist family, it made me so angry I began to speak out about the injustice,” says Margaret Downey, who now runs a group called Atheist Alliance International out of West Chester, Penn. “It’s very scary to be the lone atheist out there — I’ve experienced that myself. When you announce that you’re an atheist, it’s very comforting to know your neighbour or co-worker is an atheist, too.”

In my experience, it’s rare that a single book/blog/article will shake someone’s faith. If a person didn’t become an atheist by just thinking about religion logically (and in solitude), it usually happened because he talked it out with a friend who was already non-religious.

It’s a worthwhile and realistic goal to increase atheist visibility, and subsequently, respectability. The numbers game is the biggest barrier to a large scale change in the way atheists are perceived in this country. And that can change when more people come out and say they’re not religious. They can’t do it anonymously, either. They have to first open up to people they trust, followed by other friends and family members, and go from there.


[tags]atheist, atheism, National Post, Center for Inquiry, Ontario, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Annie Laurie Gaylor, Freedom From Religion Foundation, Herb Silverman, American Civil Liberties Union, Boy Scouts of America, Margaret Downey, Atheist Alliance International[/tags]

  • Maria

    I think it’s a good point. Those who feel “in the closet” should feel more emboldened to come out. If it becomes more socially acceptable to be non-religious, numbers won’t matter as much. Also though, non-religious doesn’t always necessarily mean atheist-although many people who don’t know better (especially in the bible belt!) think it does!

  • http://lfab-uvm.blogspot.com/ C. L. Hanson

    I don’t think I was ever in the closet about being an atheist. On the other hand, it doesn’t come up in ordinary small talk (the way mentioning church activities does), so it’s not clear that people other than my family and close friends knew I was an atheist… until that magical day when I discovered the Internet, which has given me loads of opportunity to talk about belief, non-belief, and tons of other random subjects over the past few years. :D

    Even if the new visibility of atheism is lauded for encouraging more closet atheists out of the closet, I wouldn’t discount the effect it is likely having on getting people to rethink their faith. True, one book or blog is probably not going to shake someone’s faith. Yet when atheism is seen as common and ordinary, people are more likely to give it serious consideration when doubts or questions arise about their faith.

  • Patti Miller

    One book or blog might not shake someone’s faith….but raising the possibility of freedom from the shackles of religion just might.

    Many people would call themselves atheists or agnostics if they felt that they would be taken seriously and at least somewhat respected. The new rash of books makes that all look possible.

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  • Denis

    From a Canadian perspective, I don’t see a reason for an atheist to ever be “in the closet”. Until about 7 years ago I was as an agnostic / practical-atheist and was never worried or concerned about having my lack of faith derided or even questioned – it was simply never an issue.

    In fact, I’ve always assumed that unbelief was the default position up here. It seems to be the minority of people in any environment I am involved in who display any firm religious belief.

    If there is a change happening, maybe there is the starting of a movement to be come more “evangelical” about unbelief, but I’m not aware of any really strong evidence of this. Maybe it is just part of the Canadian culture but we just don’t seem to talk about it all that much from either perspective (faith or unbelief).

  • http://www.myspace.com/timandjeffrey Tim D.

    I agree that the focus shouldn’t be on changing other people’s beliefs. For one, it’s not a realistic goal to try to change everyone’s beliefs to suit one’s own–some people will always have different beliefs, and that’s what’s (supposed to be) great about America, is that people are allowed to choose their own way of life. As long as their beliefs are not brandished around as a detriment to the advancement of society, then I don’t see a problem with such diversity.

    Interestingly, the approach that many people take to “spreading” (for lack of a better word) atheism is much like the Bible tells Christians to spread their faith: through “testimony.” Not by forcing other people to feel the same way, but rather by explaining in a logical and presentable fashion how this belief system (or non-belief system, to coin a phrase) has changed one’s own life. I just wish more Christians would follow this example; I find it to be one of the actual tried-and-true methods found in the Bible. I’m much more receptive to a person who doesn’t enter a conversation on the “Used Car Salesmen” platform–which is to say, they aren’t content with leaving until they’ve made a sale.

  • http://off-the-map.org/atheist/ Siamang

    My main message would be this: “It’s okay not to believe.”

    That’s it. The rest will work itself. The point is to lose stigma. As it loses the stigma, it becomes more of an option and less an “unthinkable” proposition for people.

    I don’t need to convert anyone’s beliefs… I just need them to treat me like they treat anyone else.

  • Maria

    I agree that the focus shouldn’t be on changing other people’s beliefs. For one, it’s not a realistic goal to try to change everyone’s beliefs to suit one’s own–some people will always have different beliefs, and that’s what’s (supposed to be) great about America, is that people are allowed to choose their own way of life. As long as their beliefs are not brandished around as a detriment to the advancement of society, then I don’t see a problem with such diversity.

    Interestingly, the approach that many people take to “spreading” (for lack of a better word) atheism is much like the Bible tells Christians to spread their faith: through “testimony.” Not by forcing other people to feel the same way, but rather by explaining in a logical and presentable fashion how this belief system (or non-belief system, to coin a phrase) has changed one’s own life. I just wish more Christians would follow this example; I find it to be one of the actual tried-and-true methods found in the Bible. I’m much more receptive to a person who doesn’t enter a conversation on the “Used Car Salesmen” platform–which is to say, they aren’t content with leaving until they’ve made a sale.

    I agree, good points, you make, especially about the Xtians

    My main message would be this: “It’s okay not to believe.”

    That’s it. The rest will work itself. The point is to lose stigma. As it loses the stigma, it becomes more of an option and less an “unthinkable” proposition for people.

    I don’t need to convert anyone’s beliefs… I just need them to treat me like they treat anyone else.

    That’s a really good way of looking at.

  • Amy

    From a North Carolina perspective, I would be much more willing to ‘come out’ if I didn’t feel like it would put my job in jeopardy. I have a family to support and they have to come first.

    I hope soon to work for an employer who is not so in(Catholic)tolerant.

  • http://davidernst.net/blog David

    Great issue to bring up, Hemant. I’ve been struggling with this myself. Like Tim D, I celebrate diversity, including letting the religious hold their views however wrong I think they are. The idea that we’ll convert everyone to a particular religion is near impossible and arguably not desirable. The idea that we could live in a society where people like Amy wouldn’t have to worry about their jobs or other ostracization because of their atheism is attainable and definitely desirable.

    There’s one other step that I’d really like to see, that I haven’t figured out for myself yet, but I’m working on: I want a good way to express my “faith” openly and with pride, but in a way that does not come across as an attack on other religions. I see people with crosses, stars of David, ?ij?bs, etc., all the time. And, although it’s safe to assume that the bearers of these icons think that the bearers of the others are heretics, the icons mean something besides “other people are wrong”. Most atheist iconography (eg Darwin “fish”) seems to directly mock other people’s faith. While mocking religions can be fun and healthy for us atheists, I’d like more ways to celebrate our guiding beliefs free of mockery and belittlement… Sadly, I’m not seeing anything like this from the “New Atheists”, but I admit that I’ve not read anywhere near all of the books that have come out in the past couple years. If people know of things like this, I’d appreciate leads.

  • http://enonomi.blogspot.com/ EnoNomi

    David brings up the point that first came to my mind. When I was an Xtian I would wear a cross and had a fish on my car (with a “Straight but not Narrow bumper sticker next to it, so I wasn’t totally lost). Now, there is no symbol to represent atheism like a rainbow or pink triangle. I suppose the closest thing would be to have a Darwin or FSM on the back of my car, but I’d love to find something akin to wearing a cross that isn’t confrontational but simply states “this is who I am”.

  • Denis

    For the atheists looking for a non confrontational symbol, the Arlington Cemetery does acknowledge an authorized faith emblem for atheists. I’m not sure the history behind it, but it looks like it might be what you’re after.

  • Richard Wade

    David and EnoNomi,
    I’ve been thinking about your comments off and on all day. I can understand your wishing you could assert yourself and express your viewpoint as freely as Christians and other religious people do with their crosses and other symbols around their necks, and your desire to be more declarative of the many things that you are, including your atheism. Wanting that to be affirmative rather than mocking others is also very laudable.

    My first reaction is to offer a gentle word of caution. Human beings have a powerful tendency toward superstition. Since we lived on the African savannas we have found interesting objects and have become fond of them, attached to them, and finally convinced that they posess special powers. That curled boar’s tusk the hominid wore around his neck. Did it just look cool, or did it somehow help him catch that antelope? Better keep it just in case. Again and again our tendency to link objects with events has grown into elaborate superstitions and religions replete with magical objects.

    When people free themselves from religious beliefs they sometimes miss the things that went with their religion, like the reassuring familiarity of rituals, the special clothes, the companionship of fellow believers and the emblems of belonging to something bigger than themselves. Being able to wear a symbol of belonging to a cohesive group carries a power and a confidence that can be sorely missed when we divest ourselves of the foundation beliefs.

    The problem lies in that we can become fond of these emblems, attached to them, and very subtly start to attribute special qualities to them as our ancestors did with the boar’s tusk. Such attachment to things brings on problems because they get lost or stolen, they break, they let us down when their special qualities don’t work, or when the group that they symbolize is revealed to be made up of people, who because they’re human can let us down too.

    Please don’t take offense as if I’m suggesting that you’re superstitious and silly. I’m not. Express yourselves with confidence and gusto, but be mindful of any attaching little bits of magical thinking to the emblem in the way we all are very capable of doing.

    The wearing of an emblem that eventually becomes recognized by the public as saying “I’m an atheist” may interfere in your meeting and befriending people who shy away from such a connotation. Not getting to know you first, they won’t have the chance to discover that you don’t fit the negative stereotypes they may harbor about atheists. Of course it could also help you find others of a similar mindset, and so could also help you find friends. It’s probably a trade-off as so much in life is, but you should be aware of how it works both positively and negatively in your life.

    One other caution is simply that there are many places in this “tolerant” country where it is definitely not safe to express atheist views. You can get yourself some very unwelcome attention.

  • Polly

    For the atheists looking for a non confrontational symbol, the Arlington Cemetery does acknowledge an authorized faith emblem for atheists. I’m not sure the history behind it, but it looks like it might be what you’re after.

    My first impression of that symbol was, “I’m an atheist, I don’t work for NASA!” Seriously, if I saw that on someone’s car (or grave) I would assume they were an astronaut.

  • http://michaelkrahn.com/blog/ Michael Krahn

    I commented on this same article and posted an article on Dawkins at Digital Journal that you might be interested in. The article can be found at:

    http://www.digitaljournal.com/article/210063/The_Dawkins_Defeat

    FYI – If you haven’t heard of Digital Journal… I was accepted as a writer there a few days ago and if your writing is good, you can get paid for submitting articles.

  • http://davidernst.net/blog David

    Yeah, that symbol was chosen by the American Atheists in 1963. My first reaction was similar to Polly’s, but more like “I’m an atheist, not a nuclear physicist.” Not that I have anything against nuclear physicists, mind you… ;) Still, I’m not going to rush out and buy a T-shirt with that on it, not even if I’m planning a visit to Arlington.

  • Karen

    I like the Humanist emblem there (32) much better than the atheist one, which looks vaguely radioactive, scary and off-putting.

    Interesting just to look over that site and see how many “official” religious groups there are, even just those recognized by Arlington, isn’t it?

  • http://atheistbastard.blogspot.com/ astutebee

    Building new settler units or converting unhappy citizens into content citizens, you say. Been playing Sid Meier’s Civilization lately?

    Anyway, I vote we go for the Alpha Centauri ending.


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