Barking dogs chase passing cars that they never come close to touching, and I doubt they consider the ramifications of actually catching a vehicle. Cars, of course, ignore the dogs. Many atheists have long been barking at how our mainstream culture seems wrapped in religion, and most religious people have simply ignored the atheists. However, it appears that atheists are getting closer to “catching” the mainstream culture, and should consider strategies and ramifications.
Here I use the word “atheist” in a big-tent sort of way to include agnostics, humanists, secular humanists, freethinkers, nontheists, anti-theists, skeptics, rationalists, naturalists, materialists, ignostics, apatheists, and more. If you don’t know what each of these words means, don’t worry. Even those who identify with such labels often disagree on their definitions. Parsing words might be a characteristic of folks engaged in the secular movement. My inclusive term “functional atheist” embodies those who live as if there are no personal, judging gods.
The Secular Coalition for America (of which I’m founder and president emeritus) includes 11 national, nontheistic member organizations. The members cooperate on the 95 percent they have in common instead of arguing about labels. We all agree there should be a wall between religion and government; that we should increase the visibility of, and respect for, nontheistic viewpoints; that we should encourage and help pave the way for atheists to come out of the closet; and that atheists deserve a place at the table of public opinion. How best to achieve our goals is not so clear.
Atheists have long been known primarily for criticizing religion and protesting the intrusion of religion into government. Such actions are often called for, especially when conservative religionists set a political agenda that affects those who don’t share their religious beliefs. We must confront and respond, and let the undecided judge who is more honest, reasonable, tolerant, and fair. Recent books by many atheist authors have created media interest in atheism, if not its full acceptance.
Nontheistic groups have formed welcoming communities, with a variety of activities for individuals and families. Some groups are primarily interested in lectures and book clubs, some in socializing, some in good works, some in protesting, some in political action, and some in all of the above. There are also many virtual atheist groups, who enjoy discussions even though they never meet. I believe in a big tent where people follow their passion while respecting and supporting those whose emphasis might be different.
More recent, and rather controversial among atheists, are so-called atheist churches. Some who have abandoned the faith of their youth miss religious ritual and seek to replace it with the awe-inspiring wonders of science and reality (despite what Oprah said about atheists). They find ways to address spiritual, emotional, intellectual, or community needs without involving the usual supernatural beliefs. Such weekly “church” or congregational meetings may not be for me, but I appreciate and welcome these active fellow travellers.
For many years, I’ve been encouraging atheists and humanists to organize and cooperate in order to change the culture. However, the movement has become larger than formal organizations alone, perhaps because of the increasing number of “nones,” those who don’t identify with any religion. According to a recent Pew Survey, this demographic has risen to 20 percent, and even higher among millenials.
They will probably not be joining atheist or humanist organizations in large numbers, and I’m fine with that. Even though I’m very interested in religion, part of me wishes I didn’t have to be. I’ve gone from religious believer to apathetic atheist and finally to activist atheist because of my concern that a well-organized religious right wants to move our country closer to theocratic rule.
Most “nones,” as well as atheists, don’t much care whether people have God beliefs. They just don’t like to be around those who talk endlessly about religion, and they resist being governed by other people’s religious beliefs. Unlike the religious right, “nones” are generally accepting of full and equal rights for atheists, gays, women, and other marginalized groups. If young people continue to be more interested in how we treat others and what we do to make the world a better place, rather than equating morality with religion, then we will finally realize an America that values freedom of and freedom from religion.
Since we are evolving into a country where deeds are more important than creeds, I think atheists will one day be part of a respected mainstream in America, along with progressive religious allies. If that happens, I will be glad to see the Secular Coalition and its nontheistic partners go out of business and call it “mission accomplished.”
Image courtesy of Atheist Bus Canada.