June 28, 2007

Empowering Nonbelievers: The Atheist Revival

I have been somewhat critical of the phrase "new atheism," noting that I find little new about it. I suppose I dislike the term primarily because I feel that it diminishes the contributions of those speaking out against the absurdities of religious belief long before Dawkins and Harris emerged on the scene to become lighting rods for the media. But regardless of what you or I choose to call it, it is clear that we are witnessing a reinvigorated atheist movement. One of the best things about this movement is the manner in which it serves to empower nonbelievers.

Let me be clear that I happily count myself among the admirers of both Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, as well as countless others speaking out and writing about the problems with religion and the benefits of a reality-based worldview. I have no quarrel with anyone who chooses to use the "new atheism" label even though I find it unsatisfactory. What Dawkins, Harris, Dennett, Hitchens, and others are doing is providing a much needed boost to the contemporary atheist movement, and I am grateful for their contributions. They have helped to bring about an level of media attention which has been unprecedented during my adult life.

We may never know with any precision exactly how many nonbelievers currently live in America. And yet, we can be fairly confident that they occupy every city, every rural community, and indeed every walk of life. Many are used to feeling like outsiders, almost as if they are immigrants to an unfamiliar country. We know that many keep quiet about their lack of religious belief for a variety of reasons including concerns about personal safety, potential loss of support, and an understandable desire to fit in.

I submit that the single greatest benefit of our current atheist revival is the empowerment it offers to such nonbelievers. The teenager who doesn't understand why she cannot seem to find religious pronouncements credible suddenly has something with which to identify. She can relate to what these atheists are saying. The middle-aged adult who has always felt alienated in his community suddenly encounters others expressing similar views in books, blogs, and meetup groups. His alienation fades as he begins to cautiously embrace atheism. Students may be able to participate in secular groups; parents may find a growing number of resources to offer guidance in reality-based parenting.

Having an identity is an important source of empowerment. By knowing what to call myself, I have taken the first step toward molding an identity which can bring me strength. I am an atheist. I have something in common with millions of other people in that I do not believe in the gods to which the majority of my neighbors submit. I can read a book about atheism and learn how to better articulate my views. I can meet with other nonbelievers and finally experience the joy of being myself. I can visit atheist blogs, Internet forums, and websites to interact with a global community of nonbelievers, learn more about atheism and secular humanism, obtain support, and translate my passions into activism.

As feelings of empowerment grow in individual members of a group, more and more will begin to speak out. Groups of like-minded individuals will form, organized around a combination of common goals and a desire for camaraderie. Increases in the numbers of individuals openly discussing their views and the availability of groups will encourage more individuals to come forward. Spokespeople will emerge, organizations will form, political power will increase.

Of course, none of this is prophetic because it is already happening. Today I am not just an atheist; I am an empowered atheist. The questions before us now are how to empower more nonbelievers and where to go next. Where does this atheist revival lead us, and how to we keep it on track?

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