decline in some indicators of religiosity and the increase in the number of religiously unaffiliated persons (aka, the "nones") in the United States continue, we could soon find ourselves entering the next phase of an interesting era with regard to atheism. The decline in religiosity has already started to mean that there are somewhat fewer religious households. One of the interesting (but hardly surprising) things about these trends is that they are especially pronounced among younger persons. That is, the decline in religious affiliation has been even more dramatic among the youth. This is cause for some optimism about the future.
In the next decade, it seems reasonable to anticipate that we will see many of these young people starting families and having children. If we assume that many of them will raise their children in secular households, we could soon witness the beginning of even more significant changes. Imagine the impact of more and more children being raised without religion. Not only would they be freed from a burden those of us who were raised in a religion had to carry (i.e., religious indoctrination), but the children who are still being raised religious will have a vastly different experience through interacting with them.
When I was in elementary school, we all thought that everyone was Christian. When it came to our classmates, we were mostly right to think this. Most of our classmates were being raised by Christian parents and instructed to have Christian beliefs. Most of us had been told that we were Christian from birth; we were not given any choice in the matter.
It was easy for us to demonize atheists because we had never met anyone we knew to be an atheist, and we had virtually no idea what atheism meant. We were told that atheists were evil and that they wanted to harm us. We believed this because we had no reason not to. It came from people we trusted, and we had no experiences that conflicted with it. It is already difficult to imagine children having similar experiences today. The rise of the Internet has made the sort of ignorance from which we suffered much less likely.
If we look into the near future and imagine that many children will have classmates who are not being raised in any sort of religion, it is easy to see how anti-atheist bigotry may soon be more difficult to maintain. These children will know others who have not been subjected to religious indoctrination. They will know that some parents are secular. It will be much harder for them to think that their religion is universal in any respect. And negative stereotypes about atheists will seem far less plausible to them.
As more children grow up in secular households, they will have a different experience. Some will surely have the luxury of learning about religion without being expected to blindly accept that any of it is true. And assuming that the parents who are determined to force their religion upon their children do not all pull them from public schools to do so, the presence of children from secular homes will provide those who are still receiving religious indoctrination with a different experience.
Collectively, it seems like these trends could soon begin to accelerate to a rate we have not seen before. More secular families raising children without religion means far more secular persons in the future. It also means that the hatred and bigotry many religious believers still aim at atheists could soon become far less viable, especially if we finally decide it is time to put our numbers to use.