Hi everyone, Richard Wade here.
“The silent majority” was a phrase first made popular by Richard Nixon in 1969 in part from his wishful thinking that a majority of Americans silently approved of his disastrous conduct of the Vietnam War. By applying this phrase to atheism I’m not saying that a majority of Americans are secretly atheists, I’m saying that I think the majority of atheists in the U.S. and in the world are silent, unseen, unknown and not typified by any of the various camps, communities, types or styles discussed in Hemant’s recent post, “The Two Atheist Communities.”
I think most atheists are in a sense unknown even to themselves. They never spend any time arguing with theists. They don’t belong to secular student groups. They never read atheist blogs or atheist books. They have never heard of Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris, nor have they ever heard of James Dobson or Dinesh D’Souza. Most atheists are busy enough just going along with their daily lives. Their lack of belief is an unimportant thing settled long ago in their minds without much conflict or discomfort. Atheism is not something they ever think about.
They don’t boil with passion for peace or war just under the surface in what they consider a hostile theist society; they’re mostly concerned with making a living and enjoying their free time. They’re mechanics, nurses, bus drivers, technicians, stewardesses, waiters and homemakers. They play with their kids, go fishing, go to baseball games, watch TV, make love and worry about the price of gas. Even though they fit the definition of atheist, they probably have never thought about applying that label to themselves. They’re not friendly atheists, militant atheists, angry atheists, activist atheists, passive atheists, appeasing atheists, aggressive atheists, neophyte atheists or old-timer atheists. They would find such people as peculiar as they find the sidewalk preacher screaming on his soapbox. They’re just ordinary folk whose minds, if you could read them, would not reveal a belief in gods.
Do these quiet, blithe atheists really exist? Hard to prove. The vocal ones are hard to count as well but the numbers of blog hits, comments on posts, book sales, organization membership and convention attendance give at least some indication of the numbers of active ones out there. The U.S. census and other surveys give a wide range of estimates for the number of atheists or at least those not affiliated with religious organizations and the Pew Survey shows that there is quite a bit of confusion over the definition of “atheist.” But certainly even the smallest estimates for people “unaffiliated” with religions in the U.S and in the world are a lot more than the numbers of people who visit blogs like these, buy Christopher Hitchens’ books or send checks to the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
Atheism is as old as theism but it is new as a burgeoning social movement that encompasses large numbers of people. As such it is still trying to find its voice, decide what it wants to accomplish and what methods it will employ. It is pulled in different directions from factions within and it bumps into different obstacles from without. Whatever it ends up doing will be done by the minority. The silent majority of atheists will not be much affected because they don’t consider themselves a distinct group within the larger society.
I’m not saying that what active atheists do is unimportant. Of course it is. I’m saying that we should not think we are important to more people than we really are.
Whatever we the vocal ones say, whichever way we the active ones go and whatever methods we the soft spoken or outspoken ones employ, we should remember that we will never be able to claim that we represent the majority of people who don’t believe in gods. They don’t consider us their leaders or their representatives. A few more each year will “get involved” in some kind of activity or activism, but most are not even aware of our efforts and if they are they don’t really care. They’re too busy living their lives free of all this stuff on which we spend so much time and breath. Good for them; I’m happy for them. In a way they’re a thousand years ahead of us.