I’ve been wondering lately if atheism is a phase. No, I don’t mean wondering if atheism is a phase people go through on their way back into religion, but rather wondering if atheism can serve as a phase to something else. Let me explain.
If there was no such thing as religion, no one would call themselves an “atheist.” They would just, well, be. I have a colleague who doesn’t believe in a deity, but who would never even think of going to an atheist conference or a secular alliance meeting. Her lack of belief in God doesn’t mean anything to her – it just is. I’ve been told that in countries with large non-religious populations there generally aren’t atheist clubs or meetings because there’s no need for them. An atheist meeting, after all, is like meeting around a negative: people who don’t believe in Santa don’t have meetings, and people who don’t believe in leprechauns don’t have meetings.
So I guess my question is, is a strong identification as an “atheist” a phase? I have an acquaintance for whom it was. When he first identified as an atheist, it meant something to him, and he was very open and engaged about it. Today, well, he just…doesn’t believe in God. And that’s it. It doesn’t impact his life or how he sees himself any more than not believing in Santa does.
Now obviously, for some people, a strong identification as an atheist absolutely isn’t a phase: some people attend skeptic conventions all their lives. This leads to a question I get sometimes: If you don’t believe in God, why are you so interested in disproving him or in arguing with others about it? The implication, of course, is that if you have a strong identification as an atheist you must be secretly concerned that God does exist and you therefore fighting against theism and attending atheist meetings is a way to assure yourself that he really doesn’t. Is that what’s going on with people who strongly identify with atheists, as opposed to those who just, well, don’t believe? I don’t think so, and here’s why:
We have atheist groups and meetings in this country because the vast, vast majority of the population is theist. Because of this, (a) atheists sometimes face discrimination; (b) atheists who grew up in religious families often face difficult problems; and (c) atheists who live in conservative areas can feel out of place. Furthermore, for atheists who grew up in highly religious families their rejection of the beliefs they held growing up may permanently shape their identities and their psyche. An atheist meeting offers a group of people who understand the struggles you face with family or conservative colleagues (it can serve as a place where you can be yourself without fear of rejection) and it can also serve as a point of activism, both for promoting a positive image of atheism and for working against discrimination.
I would posit, then, that atheists who come from highly religious backgrounds and/or live in highly conservative areas are more likely to be drawn to atheist groups than those who did not grow up in very religious families and do not live in very conservative areas.
There’s another reason for atheist groups and conferences. There are atheists who see religion as a disease and see leaving fairy tales behind completely as the cure. They see religion as something that causes active harm, sort of a cancer, living on its host. They believe the world would be better off without religion, and they want to share that message. Atheist groups and conferences can serve for these individuals as a platform and brainstorming session for these sorts of ideas.
Now I want to clarify first that not all atheists see religion as a destructive cancer and second that the vast majority of those who do see it that it that way nevertheless don’t fit the “angry atheist” stereotype. I personally do think that religion does more harm than good and that it is inherently problematic, but at the same time I’m not sure that organizing to oppose religion does any real good. And like most atheists who see religion as inherently problematic, I can see it this way and still understand why people embrace religion and also have fulfilling friendships with religious individuals.
So, back to my original question: Is atheism a phase? I think for many people it is, or at least it will be. Many who are not religious will see no need to attend atheist meetings or read atheist literature, and that number will probably increase in the future if the percentage of non-religious Americans increases. Others, though, will always carry a strong identification with atheism. Perhaps it will be because they face grief from highly religious families or local communities and crave like-minded friends for a chance to let their hair down. Perhaps those who grew up in highly religious families will be permanently shaped by their walk away from belief leading their atheism to become an integral part of who they are. Still others will see so many problems with religion that they will want to do something about it, to spread their message of life beyond belief and work against the negative affects of religion with the message that there is another way.
As for myself, I don’t know. Will being an atheist be important to me in twenty years the way it is now, or will it be as irrelevant to me as my lack of belief in Santa? I really can’t say. Only time will tell.