August 3, 2007

What's Next For Atheism?

The first step of the atheist revival has been a full-scale assault on religious belief. Books by Harris, Dawkins, and Hitchens have reminded modern atheists of classic arguments against theism, framing them in a contemporary context. Increasing numbers of atheists are utilizing the Internet to criticize religious belief, discuss atheism and secular humanism, and connect with other freethinkers. Others are coming together offline via meetup groups and secular organizations. Now some at the forefront of the atheist revival are starting to ask an important question: what's next for atheism?

Bolstered by everything from a faith-based American presidency to the explosive growth of the atheist blogosphere, 2007 really has been the year of the atheist. Fueled primarily by recent atheist books on the bestseller list, the American media is paying more attention to atheism than they have at any point during my lifetime.

With the spotlight on atheism, it is no surprise that new atheist blogs, online forums, and websites are appearing daily. Regardless of how isolated we atheists may feel in our communities, we have discovered a dynamic Internet community in which to participate.

The first step in the atheist revival has been a critique of religious belief. The books by Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens and others have understandably focused on this critique. Given the taboo against criticizing religion, I am not sure the beginning of an atheist movement could have been anything else. While necessary, this assault on religious belief is far from sufficient. What comes next?

I believe that our next task should be one of providing a meaningful alternative to religion. Specifically, we need to popularize secular humanism. Behavior change is nearly always easier when one can be provided with an alternative. For example, if a woman is to overcome her drinking problem, part of the solution is going to help her find something to do instead of joining her friends in the bars each night.

Criticism of religion, without the provision of some alternative way for meeting the needs met by religion, is unlikely to do anything except lead to further social division along the lines of belief. Offering a meaningful alternative to religion will go a long way toward making atheism more respectable.

Of course, there are many possible next steps for us to contemplate. Hemant at The Friendly Atheist says that atheists are beginning to ask whether the next step should involve "creating new atheists or getting those who are already atheists to speak out as such?" Although I believe that this is a false dichotomy because these goals are not mutually exclusive, Hemant says that the consensus position appears to be "on getting current atheists to come out of the closet."
It’s a worthwhile and realistic goal to increase atheist visibility, and subsequently, respectability. The numbers game is the biggest barrier to a large scale change in the way atheists are perceived in this country. And that can change when more people come out and say they’re not religious. They can’t do it anonymously, either. They have to first open up to people they trust, followed by other friends and family members, and go from there.
Hemant's advocacy for this recommendation is nothing new, and I agree with it in principle. The problem, as I have pointed out repeatedly, is that giving up anonymity is simply not safe for many American atheists. Perhaps this is a worthwhile goal for some to work toward while others strive to popularize secular belief systems such as secular humanism.

I suppose what I am saying is that we should focus our energies on actualizing many next steps instead of getting stuck on finding the one ideal next step. What do you think? What should be next for atheism?

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