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There were two categories of teenagers in the 1950s: those who could name one book by an atheist and those who could not. I joined the small first category in 1958, at sixteen, after fortuitously discovering Bertrand Russell’s “Why I am Not a Christian.” That single book was the complete atheist wing of my local public library.
I didn’t know anyone else without a God belief. More accurately, I didn’t know anyone who acknowledged such nonbelief. I felt better about myself after learning that Russell was more than just not a Christian. He was as many “nots” as I was, and brave enough to say so. Bertrand Russell transformed the lives of many in my generation. For the first time we heard articulate arguments that confirmed and gave voice to our own skepticism and doubts. Even some true believers were led on a thoughtful journey toward altered religious states.
Today there are countless “nonspiritual” heirs to Bertrand Russell. Many teens who consider themselves religious fundamentalists have heard about or even read best-selling books like “The God Delusion,” “God is Not Great,” “The End of Faith,” “Breaking the Spell,” and “The Demon-Haunted World.” Conservative religionists might believe that Satan inspired these and other such authors, but godless views are gaining traction in our culture. (Note to fundamentalists: Is Satan winning?) I agree that God is both a delusion and not great, and that it would be nice if we could bring an end to faith by breaking the spell of a demon-haunted world. But in-your-face books aren’t always the most effective ways to change minds or activate atheists.
There aren’t many atheist evangelists to take on that challenge. In fact, most of them rarely discuss their atheism because it’s not a big issue in their lives. I had long been an apathetic atheist, and turned into an accidental activist atheist only when I saw how the religious right had become politically influential and was impacting my life. I still fear for our country when politicians base decisions more on theocratic than on secular values.
Religions have long known how to organize communities. For a long time, atheists were so proud of their independent thinking that the idea of bringing atheists together seemed like trying to herd cats. It’s much easier to herd religious sheep, as in “The Lord is my Shepherd.” But the times they are a changing. Atheists have seen the light, so to speak, and now lots of atheist and humanist communities exist locally and nationally. For instance, the Secular Coalition for America counts eleven national nontheistic organizations as members.
Besides many books that make persuasive cases against god belief, there are numerous books with tangential themes. They include why and how secular Americans should organize, how to live good lives without any gods, a history of living without gods, how to raise children without gods, and even how to have better sex without gods. See, for instance: “Good Without God,” “Nonbeliever Nation,” “Attack of the Theocrats,” “Freethinkers,” “Parenting Beyond Belief,” and “Sex & God.” These and dozens more are written by scientists, philosophers, educators, doctors, lawyers, and excellent expositors. All of them talk about living a good life without the need for any gods.
There are also scores of atheist blogs in flavors from plain vanilla to hot pepper. Here is a site by an individual who lists his top thirty blogs. My favorite is Hemant Mehta’s The Friendly Atheist. Hemant once sold his soul on eBay. His new book, “The Young Atheist’s Survival Guide,” is written for secular high school and college students.
There’s another important movement within atheism: support groups. Smart Recovery, a self-help program for substance abuse and addiction, differs from Alcoholics Anonymous and similar programs that expect participants to rely on God or a higher power for a cure. The Clergy Project is a confidential online community for active and former clergy who no longer hold supernatural beliefs. Its participants discuss the difficulty of being an unbelieving leader of a religious community, and offer support for each other as they move beyond faith.
Recovering From Religion is for people dealing with the negative impact religion once played in their lives. Their Hotline Project offers national, regional, and local resources—a secular support network people can phone in times of need. The Hotline makes clear that its purpose is to offer support, comfort and assistance to callers, but not to debate them about religion.
All these advances in secularism have come with pushback and misinformation from the religious right. For instance, William Lane Craig, perhaps the best-known Christian apologist in the country, said recently about the Hotline Project, “Either this group is completely ignorant of arguments for and against God’s existence or they’re ignorant of the best theistic scholarship.” Criticizing an organization for not doing what it explicitly says it will not do sounds to me like an act of desperation. He must know that people don’t generally call a support hotline to have an intellectually rigorous discussion. There are plenty of resources for those who wish to debate God’s existence. Many, including me, have had such debates with Craig. I describe in this book my debate with Craig and with other religious leaders.
Long story short, atheists are here to stay and, in fact, we’re growing. It’s a very different world from my teen years in the 1950s. The Internet has probably been the single most important factor in empowering young people with inquiring minds to learn about the many choices for religious belief or non-belief. Those who doubt religious claims no longer need to search randomly in a library or rely exclusively on information from within their small local communities.
The figurative genie is out of the bottle, and it’s out for good. No matter how hard religious and social conservatives strain to put the genie back in the bottle, they will not succeed in their attempts to pray the atheist away.
Herb Silverman is founder and President Emeritus of the Secular Coalition for America, author of “Candidate Without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt,” and Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at the College of Charleston.