July 17, 2020

A Different Kind of Atheist Outreach

puppy and kitten

As tempting as it may be for atheists to focus our efforts on facilitating de-conversion among religious believers, the costs of such efforts may exceed the benefits. Direct challenges of religious belief, while undeniably cathartic, may even solidify believers' resistance to reality. Perhaps it is time to consider devoting at least as much attention to a very different kind of atheist outreach, one that focuses on a vital but often neglected portion of our own community. If secular activism is to succeed, we need far more secular activists than we currently have. And while there are a number of obstacles to overcome in getting there, I think it might make sense to devote more effort to opening dialogue with the millions of apathetic atheists in our midst.

Few like to admit it, but we all know that the number of atheists passionately engaged in secular activism of any kind is minuscule compared to the overall number of atheists. We know that most atheists do not read atheist-oriented blogs, are not members of secular organizations, and do not regard themselves as being part of any sort of atheist movement. To top it off, post-election polls conducted in the United States often reveal that the religiously unaffiliated vote at a lower rate than evangelical fundamentalist Christians.

It is important to recognize that atheists who do all of these things are a tiny minority within a tiny minority. I wouldn't go so far as to claim that this is the only reason our accomplishments have been limited, but I suspect it has to be at least part of the explanation. At least in the short-term, it seems as though our success in accomplishing the goals most of us share (e.g., protecting separation of church and state, strengthening secular public education, etc.) might depend as much on de-converting our fellow atheists from apathy as on de-converting our religious neighbors from religion.

It is not necessary for every atheist to be involved in secular activism, but I think we need more than we currently have. It is also not necessary for every atheist who is involved in secular activism to be involved in the same ways or to the same degree. But again, I think it is clear that we need more atheists who are involved in at least some way.

What might outreach designed to encourage secular activism among atheists look like? What should we be doing more of (or less of) to reach the apathetic atheists and help them be a bit less apathetic? Here are a few things that have occurred to me so far:

  • Every atheist content creator has at least some apathetic atheists in their audience. Thus, we already are communicating with some of them.
  • Apathy is easier to overcome when one perceives one's efforts as effective or part of something valuable.
  • It is easier to motivate people to take action when the sort of action required is easy, cheap, quick, and low-risk (e.g., online petitions, contacting elected officials, etc.).
  • Raising awareness in general is valuable, but issue-specific education can be helpful in persuading people why they should care about a particular issue and what they can do about it.
  • Protecting anonymity is likely to be helpful for many apathetic atheists. We need to find more ways they can contribute without having to publicly identify themselves as atheists or secular activists.

Undoubtedly, there are many other considerations for how to turn more apathetic atheists into contributing secular activists. We need to make secular activism more welcoming and more relevant to more people. We need to expand the range of activities that fall under the umbrella of secular activism and recognize that even small actions are better than no actions. We need to recognize how destructive infighting can be in small diverse communities like ours and be better about not getting sucked into it. Most of all, I think we just need to add this kind of atheist outreach to our to-do lists and not forget about it.

An early version of this post appeared on Atheist Revolution in 2008. It was revised and expanded in 2020.