The Rise of the Godless

***Update***: The article is now available as a free PDF through the Secular Coalition for America.

A couple months ago, I was at a board meeting for the Secular Coalition for America. There was a reporter who sat in on a bit of our meeting, who asked us questions, spoke to group members individually, and spoke to some of our donors.

The reporter’s name is Paul Starobin and he writes for the National Journal, a magazine aimed at Washington insiders. This week, his story was published and featured as a cover story on “The Godless Rise As A Political Force“:


You can only read the full article on their site if you’re a subscriber. (Damn firewall!)

But I’m sure there are ways around that

The article is extremely positive in regards to the atheist movement:

But what exactly do the Godless want? How would America be different if their clout grew to reflect their numbers? These are questions the national political establishment can no longer dismiss in the perhaps reassuring but nevertheless wrongheaded belief that all Americans subscribe to the coin slogan “In God We Trust.”

As the Godless would have it, the answer is that the nation would be governed more by cool reason than by irrational faith. The end result would be a more peaceful and modern society, less willing to embark on violent conflicts of a religious character in far-off places like Iraq and more willing to fund medical science in promising areas like stem-cell research. Euthanasia would be generally permitted, under the signature idea that each person is his or her best decision maker; a pharmacist could not legally refuse, as a matter of religious faith, to fill a birth control prescription; schools could not teach the various forms of creationism, including intelligent design, under the banner of science; the Boy Scouts would lose all forms of federal support for teaching that a good Scout has a “duty to God.” (The Girl Scouts no longer insist on that particular duty.)

We’re growing in numbers, too. Just check out the percentage of voters who are claiming to have no religious affiliation:


I felt a bit strange when I saw the word “Godless” used all throughout the piece — the connotation is so negative — but I suppose if “atheist” isn’t enough to catch a reader’s eye, this word certainly will. Whatever. It’s a marketing word for the magazine, not a word most atheists use to describe themselves.

There are a few bits I found grossly inaccurate. After speaking to one atheist donor who is in favor of it, Starobin concludes “the Godless are emerging as an enthusiastic voice on behalf of scientific efforts to clone human beings.” I’m pretty sure many atheists would be against that (though not necessarily against trying to find the technology to do it).

Starobin also suggests that many atheists think a world free of religion would be a peaceful world indeed. Of course that’s not true. He also falls into the “Stalin was an atheist and he was evil!” fallacy:

Some activists are imbued with a sense of arrogance — the arrogance of the true believer, one is tempted to say — evident in their disdain for the religious as captives to superstitions that only a cretin could accept. Their polished debating points seldom reflect the awkward truth — awkward, that is, to their mind-set — that religion is not the only source of war and strife, that the worldview of a murderous atheist like Stalin can also be a wellspring of blood and tears.

The reporter is connecting the phrase “murderous atheist” to Stalin as if his beliefs about God were connected to his evil motives. They were not. Sam Harris has explained this point before:

People of faith often claim that the crimes of Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot were the inevitable product of unbelief. The problem with fascism and communism, however, is not that they are too critical of religion; the problem is that they are too much like religions… There is no society in human history that ever suffered because its people became too reasonable.

At least someone Googling the phrase “murderous atheist” will soon find this article. That’s better than many alternatives 🙂

Finally, Starobin seems to misunderstand our admiration for Charles Darwin — and he misunderstands evolution in general:

Such arrogance [of atheists] seems especially misplaced if one considers that many secularists get it wrong about their hero Charles Darwin… Darwin’s main point was not that Homo sapiens was a creature of cool reason but the last in a line of animal descent, and as such, a creature, in no small part, of instinct.

I didn’t realize atheists made the claim that our species’ ability to reason was necessarily a part of Darwin’s theory. Furthermore — and correct me if I’m wrong; I’m not a scientist — since when did Darwin say Homo sapiens were “the last in a line of animal descent”? Aren’t we still evolving? Aren’t we just another branch on the tree of life that is still growing and not some pinnacle of evolution?

Anyway, I thought the piece was very positive overall and I’m glad it’s out there.

Plenty of events familiar to readers of this site and others are mentioned in the article — national atheist groups’ names, atheist billboards, Religulous, military atheists, the Elizabeth Dole/Kay Hagan controversy, etc.

Starobin also features a friend of mine (and fellow board member of the Secular Student Alliance) Becky Robinson:

Becky Robinson stopped believing in God in her late teens. She did not become an activist in the movement until her early 20s, when she left Pittsburgh, where she had grown up, to attend school in the Dallas area. She found, to her dismay, that the religious climate “permeates everything” there — starting with being asked what church she attended whenever she met someone for the first time. “I am not one to hide how I think,” she said in a recent conversation. “Here I felt I had to be an atheist with a capital A.”

By going online, Robinson found like-minded nonbelievers in the Dallas area. In 2006, she organized a University of Texas (Arlington) chapter of the Secular Student Alliance, and several dozen students showed up at the first meeting. At the second meeting, a student in the nursing program complained that her microbiology professor was offering extra credit for Bible study. The group “put an end to that right away” by letting the head of the biology department know what was going on. That was “a defining moment,” Robinson said. “We knew we had to be there.”

Now Robinson is active in rallying her nontheist comrades to oust “creationists” from their elected posts on the Texas Board of Education. “We have a long battle ahead of us,” she added, referring to Texas’s “fellow heretics” and their struggle to be viewed as “normal, average, good people.”

How awesome is she?!

Several other atheists are featured and organizations are profiled.

If you get a chance, pick up a copy of the National Journal in your local bookstore.

You don’t have to pay, though, to watch a video featurette on NJ’s website called “Faces of the ‘Godless’ Movement.”

Tomorrow (Sunday) morning, Starobin will be a guest on C-SPAN at 9:30 a.m. (ET) to discuss this very article. If you remember to set your clocks forward tonight, you just might be able to catch him 🙂

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