Empowering Nonbelievers: The Atheist Revival

the road ahead

I have been somewhat critical of the phrase "new atheism," noting that I find little new about it other than the increased media attention atheism is now receiving. I suppose I dislike the term primarily because I feel that it diminishes the contributions of those who were speaking out against the absurdities of religious belief long before Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris emerged on the scene to become lightning rods for the mainstream news media. But regardless of what you or I might choose to call it, it is clear that we started to witness a reinvigorated atheist movement in the mid-2000s. It was not just that atheism had become something about which people were talking; there seemed to be a real interest on the part of many atheists in secular activism. One of the best things to come out of this period was the manner in which it served to empower nonbelievers.

Let me be clear at the outset that I am not trying to diminish the work of Harris, Dawkins, and others who helped to propel new atheism into public awareness. I have considered myself to be among their fans for some time. They, as well as many others, contributed greatly by speaking out and writing about the problems with religion and the benefits of a reality-based worldview. What Dawkins, Harris, Dennett, Hitchens, and others did was to provide a much-needed boost to modern atheism and secular activism, and I am grateful for their contributions. They helped to bring about a level of media attention which has been unprecedented during my adult life. This helped to fuel an explosion of atheist blogs at the time, much like this one.

We may never know with any precision exactly how many nonbelievers live in the United States. Bigotry against atheists persists, and many atheists remain reluctant to openly identify themselves as atheists. And yet, we can be confident that atheists occupy every city, every rural community, and can be found in every walk of life. Many are used to feeling like outsiders, almost as if they are unwanted immigrants to an unfamiliar country. We know that many keep quiet about their lack of religious belief for a variety of good reasons including concerns about personal safety, potential loss of support, and an understandable desire to fit in.

The "atheist revival" that started in the mid-2000s helped to empower many atheists. The teenager who didn't understand why she cannot seem to find religious pronouncements credible suddenly had something with which to identify. She could relate to what atheist authors and bloggers were saying. The middle-aged man who had always felt alienated in his community encountered others expressing similar views in books, blogs, and meetup groups. His alienation faded as he connected with others and finally embraced atheism. College students formed secular groups on their campuses and used them to educate others and provide support to their secular peers. Secular parents found a growing number of resources to offer guidance in reality-based parenting.

I have certainly found that having an identity can be an important source of empowerment. By knowing what to call myself, I have taken an important step toward crafting an identity which can bring me strength. I am an atheist. I have something in common with millions of other people who do not believe in the gods to which far too many 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 experience the joys of being myself. I can visit atheist blogs, Internet forums, websites, and social media platforms to interact with a global community of nonbelievers, learn more about atheism and secular humanism, obtain support, and translate my passions into secular activism.

As feelings of empowerment grow in individual members of a group, more will 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 people to come forward. Spokespeople will emerge, organizations will form, political power will increase. Atheism will start to seem normal.

None of this involves any sort of prediction. It is already happening. It has been happening for over a decade, and we are starting to see some real benefits from it. Today, I am not just an atheist. I am an empowered atheist in a way I would not have believed was possible only 20 years ago. To be sure, our work is far from finished. We still have a long way to go in reducing bigotry against atheists, preserving the separation of church and state, improving the political influence of nonbelievers, and many other areas. As we look ahead, we must find creative ways of empowering more nonbelievers and continuing to normalize atheism. We must be able and willing to set aside our tribalism and work with those who share at least some of our goals.

Is the atheist revival over? I don't think so. Some aspects have probably peaked, but certain types of progress are very difficult to reverse. We have transitioned from a time when atheism was shrouded in mystery and obscured by misconceptions promoted by religious believers to one where most people have easy access to accurate information about atheism. That is tough to turn back. Other aspects have likely morphed into something new that would have been difficult to anticipate many years ago (e.g., the rise of social media). As for where the atheist revival might go next and other influences it might have, that is largely up to us. Dawkins, Harris, Dennett, Hitchens, and others helped to kick it off, but you own it now. The atheist revival is yours.

This post is loosely based on an early post that appeared on Atheist Revolution in 2007. Although some of the general ideas from that earlier post are reflected here, more than half of it was re-written.