The Quiet Revolution

The Quiet Revolution March 22, 2006

In a previous post in the Garden, “An Inspiring Story“, I discussed two ways in which atheism might make inroads into society:

It is not inconceivable that atheists are nearing a critical mass, one which when reached will inspire us to organize en masse. If such a thing were to happen, I have no doubt that we could become a tremendous force for societal change for the better. But even if not, there is another possibility: we may gain acceptance and influence one piece at a time, without there ever being a single defining moment – a quiet revolution, so to speak. Either scenario is a positive one, but of course, they both depend on every atheist taking every opportunity to speak out and to act.

The first of those two possibilities, I must admit, was wishful thinking on my part. While I still maintain that such an event is conceivable, and would dearly love to see such a day, I do not expect it to actually happen. It seems very unlikely that there will be a single event that will galvanize the freethought movement. However, the second scenario is far more plausible, and in fact, a slew of recent news stories provide reason to believe that it is already happening.

First, consider this story from last summer, about an explicitly non-religious summer camp for atheist and agnostic families, called Camp Quest (see also this ABC News story):

Providing a haven for the children of nonbelievers is what Camp Quest is all about. As the camp’s official T-shirt announces, it’s a place that’s “beyond belief.” More precisely, it claims to be the first summer sleep-away camp in the country for atheist, agnostic and secular humanist children.

As the article points out, many atheist and agnostic children experience discrimination, bigotry and religious harassment in public schools, especially if they come from the Bible Belt regions of the country. Camp Quest not only provides respite from that, but in addition to the usual summer camp activities, teaches its young visitors about science and critical thinking, for which it should be doubly commended. But what I found most wonderful and inspiring about this story is that there is sufficient interest for such a place to exist! Not only that, it is now opening branches in five other states, as its website points out. Small though it may yet be, Camp Quest is a greatly encouraging sign that freethinkers are becoming organized and teaching their children the value of rational thought.

A similar story comes from the February 2006 San Diego Union-Tribune, discussing the existence of a high school atheists and agnostics club at California’s Escondido High. (Similar clubs have been founded in Michigan, among other places.) Again, though these clubs are still small in number, their very existence is a hopeful sign, indicating that young nonbelievers – and there are many of them – have begun to take organizing into their own hands. As would be expected, these clubs have likewise met with harassment and censorship, not just from fellow students but even, in some cases, from school officials. But individual nonbelievers would be just as subject to such tactics, whereas organization gives them a much more prominent venue to speak out against discrimination, to defend each other, and to make atheism visible, which is the only way discrimination against atheists can ever be ended. I find myself very optimistic when considering what effect these young freethinkers may have later in life.

Some freethinkers are already battling to defend atheism’s image in public and to evangelize on its behalf. A recent article from the February San Francisco Chronicle introduces readers to Lori Lipman Brown, lobbyist for the newly formed Secular Coalition for America – an umbrella organization that unites several major freethought groups to promote church-state separation and fight for nonbelievers’ social rights. Again, the SCA is still small, but it is encouraging as a first step toward atheist unity, and it can only grow in size and influence as more atheists become aware of its existence and express interest in organization.

After all, the nonreligious are the fastest-growing “religious” group in America, a fact that has been pointed out by, among others, Julia Sweeney. The former “Saturday Night Live” cast member is currently reprising her one-woman show, “Letting Go of God“, which talks about her own journey to nonbelief and the many battles and disasters that have been wrought by humans belonging to different religious beliefs. One excerpt I found especially poignant was Sweeney’s account of meeting a woman at a Catholic mass who told her – in a whisper – that she was in agreement, despite her continued church attendance. It is precisely these people – the ones who are still outwardly religious, who have not yet found the courage to openly declare their nonbelief – that we need to reach, to let them know that atheism is a viable option and that they should not be ashamed to admit who they are. Every step toward atheists organizing and, more importantly, speaking out, is a part of this process.

Finally, consider this recent article, “Atheists put their faith in ethical behavior“. I could not have phrased it any better than this excerpt:

The overwhelming majority of U.S. citizens profess some religious faith, although far fewer attend worship services on a regular basis. The public square has become increasingly dominated by religious (specifically, Christian) rhetoric, from the “values voters” of the 2004 presidential election to hot-button cultural issues that carry a religious edge — abortion, gay rights, stem-cell research, intelligent design, the right to die.

And yet at the same time a compelling undercurrent is at work. A study done by the Graduate Center of the City University of New York found that the percentage of the population that describes itself as “nonreligious” more than doubled from 1990 to 2001, from 14.3 million to 29.4 million people. The only other group to show growth was Muslims.

…But what, exactly, do atheists believe in, if not in God?

In a nutshell, atheists believe in reason alone, in those things that can be arrived at through intellect and the scientific method. Concrete evidence for God, they argue, simply doesn’t exist. They don’t cotton to leaps of faith or anything that involves a supernatural being reaching into human lives. They believe you can live a happy, respectable life based on human ethics that were derived not from God handing down a tablet but from a code of rules that emerged naturally through an evolutionary process in which humans learned how to live together successfully.

Although I do not quite agree with the article’s characterization of atheists as people who “forthrightly affirm that there is no God” (it would be more accurate to say that atheists consider God’s existence unproven), that last paragraph sums it up excellently. (As an extra point of praise, it quotes Dan Barker of the Freedom from Religion Foundation!) As atheists, we guide our lives by reason, conscience and the common good, not by dogma or superstition. These are positive values, and we should not be afraid to say so and to stand up for them.

Granted, we have a long way to go. Although articles such as these are a few welcome gleams of light, in general media and politicians on the national stage pay extreme deference to even the most uninformed and regressive religious beliefs, while steadfastly ignoring even the most eloquent defenders of atheism. However, beneath their notice, the message of freethought is spreading. Largely unnoticed by the bombastic defenders of organized religion, the ground is beginning to shift under their feet, and by the time they realize what is happening, the tide may already have turned in our favor. Although our times seem dark, and the religious enemies of liberty press ever more closely around the small and precious light we have kindled, there is hope; the counterrevolution is quietly building momentum. When it reaches full strength, it may well sweep the heirs of the Dark Ages away entirely and usher in a new era of bright light and reason.

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