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]