How to make atheism matter

If I were in charge of American atheism–which I am not, but then again who is?–I would ask myself the … Continued

If I were in charge of American atheism–which I am not, but then again who is?–I would ask myself the following questions: Why does poll after poll indicate that we are one of the most disliked groups in the United States? Why are there so few self-professed atheists among 535 congresspersons and senators? Why have all three branches of the federal government turned their backs on the vaunted mid-century policy of church/state separation? Why has atheism—a once formidable intellectual tradition—become such a “little idea” as R. Joseph Hoffmann memorably put it in an important recent essay?

As head atheist in charge I would first get my priorities straight: The intellectual crisis of atheism is actually far less severe than the political crisis. Pop atheists have certainly made atheism a small idea. Hoffmann himself emerges from the erudite and thoughtful Secular Humanist circle. Alongside that school there exists some truly excellent scholarly research about nonbelief.

In scholarly journals–where far too many religion reporters fear to tread–a completely different understanding of atheism is emerging. Those like Hoffmann who think seriously about their subject matter are routinely debunking popular misconceptions about atheism. Once the media turns its attention to this scholarship, produced by both believers and nonbelievers, atheism becomes a big idea again.

The real priority for American atheism concerns its political future, its ability to shape policy agendas so as to represent the interests of its constituency. The key question, then, is: What do atheists want? If what they want is to abolish religion–a new atheist theme with deep roots in the radical Enlightenment, Deism and Marxism–then there is no political future. Atheism will simply remain a movement of overheated malcontents lamenting their great civic misfortune.

My guess, however, is that the majority of American nonbelievers are not bent on abolishing religion. Their (legitimate) gripe is only with the most power-mad and theocratically inclined forms of religion. If permitted to find their voice (and if ever approached by one living journalist) I think they would not express a desire for religion to disappear but aspire for a much more modest goal: freedom from religion.

Therein, I think, lies the future of American Atheism and to this end leadership might consider the following:


Of and From
: “The Constitution,” vice-presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman famously intoned in 2000, “guarantees freedom of religion not freedom from religion.” It is precisely this form of demagoguery and its associated policy implications that atheists must strenuously challenge.

Freedom of and freedom from religion are not mutually exclusive. A clever atheist leadership would spend its resources not on billboard advertisements devoted to making the point that your God is a doofus, but to demonstrating that these two freedoms can exist in symbiosis. The key word is freedom. Southern Baptists, after all, want no more to live under a Catholic establishment than Catholics wish to live under a Southern Baptist one.


Widen the Tent:
Why must the admission price to American atheism be total nonbelief in God and hatred of all religion? Can’t the movement, at the very least, split the difference?

Why can’t those who have doubts about God but remain affiliated in some way with a religion be included in the big tent? Conversely, why can’t those who have no religion (see below) but some type of spiritual or faith commitment enter the Movement as well? Why can’t skeptics and agnostics join the club? What about heretics and apostates? In short, democratic mobilization requires numbers. Atheism needs numbers, accurate numbers. . .


Know Your Numbers:
“Atheists have the biggest underground movement in America. They are everywhere.” Such were the words of the famed atheist firebrand Madalyn Murray O’Hair. Not surprisingly O’Hair would claim in 1969 that her advocacy served 74 million Americans!

O’Hair’s estimate is part of a long tradition of atheist self-aggrandizement. To this day extreme atheists in America estimate their numbers in the tens of millions. The error often stems from a misreading of various American Religious Identification Surveys. Those studies discovered growing numbers of “nones” or people who professed no religion.

Atheist ideologues routinely assume that the “nones” are atheists and hence conclude that they represent roughly 15 percent of the American population. The mistake is not only baffling, especially for a cohort that prizes itself on empirical precision, but disastrous to the strategic vision of American atheism.

After all, how effective would the political activism of Jewish Americans be if they started from the premise that there were 110 million Members of the Tribe shlepping about the country?


Reach Out and Touch (Moderate) Faith:
And while we are at it, why can’t atheists make common cause with religious moderates? In its first decade of operations new atheism has virtually assured its political irrelevance by acerbically shunning the very religious folks (think mainline Protestants, liberal Catholics, Reform Jews, etc) who are waging their own pitched battles with fundamentalists. “Even mild and moderate religion,” averred Richard Dawkins in the
The God Delusion
, “helps to provide the climate of faith in which extremism naturally flourishes.”

Evangelicals, it bears noting, achieved many of their greatest political triumphs by entering into what Francis Schaeffer called “co-belligerency” with Roman Catholics and Mormons on issues like abortion, gay marriage, religion in public schools, etc. In other words, leadership put aside seething theological animosities in order to achieve pragmatic political goals.

In so doing, the Christian right successfully managed to curtail both freedom from religion and freedom of religion for countless Americans. The time has come for a strategic atheist defense of both these virtues.

  • ThomasBaum

    Jacques Berlinerblau

    You wrote, “My guess, however, is that the majority of American nonbelievers are not bent on abolishing religion. Their (legitimate) gripe is only with the most power-mad and theocratically inclined forms of religion.”

    Who knows but maybe you might be surprised that many “believers” are right in tune with you on this considering that “freedom of religion” means just that, freedom to believe just what you want and not have other’s beliefs crammed down your throat.

    You also wrote, “Freedom of and freedom from religion are not mutually exclusive.”

    As far as I am concerned they are one and the same, one should not only be able to “legally” believe what they want but they should also be “legally” able to express this belief or as some people put it non-belief, however they should not be able to “legally” shove it down other’s throats.

  • Sara121

    “As far as I am concerned they are one and the same”

    Cheers to that For how can any group have full freedom of religion if it cannot also have confidence in its freedom from other religions?

  • Sara121

    “As far as I am concerned they are one and the same”

    Cheers to that For how can any group have full freedom of religion if it cannot also have confidence in its freedom from other religions?

  • Slyfox666

    As one of the non-believers, I support the constitution. Government shall make no law concerning the establishment of religion. The converse is also true: no religion should attempt to influence (overtly or covertly) the legislative or practices of government. The fact that Billy Graham (et al) lobbied Eisenhower to insert the words “under God” in the pledge of allegiance is reprehensible. It is even more reprehensible that the mislabeled “pro-life” movement has influenced state legislators (and the Fed Govt) to restrict/deny abortion on demand is another camel’s nose under the tent.

    I consider religion and homosexuality as things to be tolerated. The only caveate is believers/practicers should confine their evangelism/activities to a recognized gathering place, or their homes with consenting adults. I have a real problem when they start practicing it on the streets of town, or with my (or others) children.

  • hanocul6

    Atheism is inconsequential and irrelevant just as much as their religion of unbelief that they try to force on everyone else.

  • desertlady1

    Freedom from and freedom of religion are 2 sides of the same coin. you can’t have one without the other.

    And most atheists are concerned not with converting other people, but in ensuring the separation of church and state.

  • AmazeMe

    Mr. Berlinerblau,

    Thank you for a very thoughtful post. I’d like to add a suggestion to those you mention: Stop presenting atheism as a purely negative construction. We all know what atheists don’t believe, but how often do they try to explain what they do believe? Neither atheism nor theism is a standalone explanation of reality; both require some overall framework to make sense. Perhaps if atheists put a bit more effort into explaining their whole worldview (and a little less into ridiculing believers and beliefs), they might find more people receptive.

  • ron64740

    To get the real meaning of “Freedom from religion,” just add three words. All I really want is “Freedom from every one else’s religion.”

  • Areophile

    Dr. Berlinerblau

    I just read your article exhorting “new Atheism” to engage politically and to drop the rancor and combativeness that has thus far typified the movement.

    Hello, my name is Troy Boyle and I’m the President and founder of the National Atheist Party. In March 2011, I had just watched an interview with Richard Dawkins wherein he expressed frustration at the fact that atheists in the U.S. had never organized or exerted their political will. Seemingly content to remain closeted or to participate in the politics of parties that didn’t represent their interests, U.S. atheists until that time had no options. In fact, since the founding of the U.S., no party had ever represented atheists’ unique vision of a secular nation governed by tolerance and reason. Mark Smith and I picked up the gauntlet that Dawkins threw down and, as of March 11, 2011, the National Atheist Party was born.

    Our party is founded to oppose the religion-based and biased public policies of those who would like to see the U.S. government change from the secular government envisioned and enacted by the framers of the Constitution into a theocracy no different from the prevailing governments of the Middle East. We must not allow that to happen. America’s great strength is its diversity and secularity. The tolerance for all views, both theistic and non-theistic, while ensuring that government neither endorses nor prohibits either, is what makes America great. It is the very engine that drove the Industrial Revolution and the Information Revolution. It is the reason that the U.S. dominated the fields of Science, Medicine and Technology for decades. Under the current sweeping anti-intellectualist movement spearheaded by the fundamentalist elements of the Religious Right, that primacy is threatened. Progress cannot flourish in a nation shackled by religious dogma. The National Atheist Party (NAP) is not against anyone’s religion. We are not a group convened to combat religion. We are not an evangelic

  • Rosbif06

    “Atheism is a liitle idea..”..
    It isn’t an idea, it’s the lack of a belief in a god. Belief is a guess because it requires no evidence. What is referred to here as “pop atheists” are people who are fed up with the arrogance of religions who assume we must all adhere to or at least respect their guess in spite of all evidence to the contrary.
    Why does it need a political future? Not believing in god only needs a political future in a 3rd world theocracy such as Iran … or the US if your politics continue in the current direction. And would intelectulizing atheism help it politically? or will leading scientists, Oxford professors et al defending secularism (which includes all those “numbers” that need recruiting) be enough.
    The human race has some major challeges to face. It’s shame that one of the most privileged countries can’t put down it’s comfort toys and face reality with the rest of the modern world.

  • Rosbif06

    Doh! Atheism isn’t a religion. No one is forcing you to live in reality, we’re just asking that your fairy tales stay out of schools, government, hospitals etc … and where facts counter belief … facts win!
    I don’t want soldiers sent into battle because you think that’s what a god wants.
    I don’t want children suffering because you think praying is a medical practice. Science (doctors) can help. Let them.
    I don’t want you lying about science in classrooms becasuse you don’t understand it.
    Feel “chosen” if you like. Just don’t ask me to respect that.

  • photojack53

    I wish this article could be front page news in every newspaper across America! THAT would get people talking and thinking for a change about religiosity and its consequences in America and around the world. I fail to see how 21st century citizens of planet earth could NOT see the hypocrisy and total lack of plausibility from “those religious folks.” Mano Singham is a great spokesman for our rationality and the atheist cause. Google machineslikeus to find his fantastic writings on this critical subject. He ranks up there with the late Christopher Hitchens, Dr. Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne and others as true aficionados of atheism.

  • nkri401

    Slyfox666,

    I appreciate your tolerance for homosexuality – I’m wondering though do you have as much real problem with hetros making out on the street? Would you consider kissing in public no no for everyone?

  • persiflage

    ‘The real priority for American atheism concerns its political future, its ability to shape policy agendas so as to represent the interests of its constituency.’

    Congratulations on a well written article Jacques, but I think atheist-specific political agendas are something for the unknown future here in the USA. Atheism in the US is sitll viewed as an anomaly, embedded as it is in a vast matrix of religious belief. Much of this has to due with early education, and a very thorough indoctrination in religious beliefs and traditions on a broad scale. Not surprisingly, atheists tend to be better educated than their religious peers and have a broader exposure to a variety of religious belief systems.

    We’re at least a generation behind Europe with regard to de-mystifying religion in the public arena, and putting it on a par with other equally important personal attributes. Throughout other social democractic societies, religion hardly matters at all outside one’s immediate personal lifestyle.

    Openly atheist politicians would have to become a completely viable political alternative before we could say that progress is being made – and they would certainly have to declare their atheism because other poltiticians generally market their religious beliefs as a big part of their campaign platform……all we need do is look at the current election cycle.

    I think most atheists would agree that religion is a huge and unnecessary distraction as regards public service in a secular democracy – a monumental waste of time that achieves nothing constructive.

    I think we all know that there is a very significant imbalance societally between religious believers, and the relatively small number of non-believers that don’t even bother to engage other folks regarding their religious beliefs, practices, or traditions – other than in a blog environment such as we have here.

    While atheists generally tolerate the continuous presence of religion in every sector of daily life because of t

  • daniel12

    On the future of atheism.

    The future of atheism depends on how far atheists are willing to go to debunk the religious idea. If they mean to attack particular distinctions between religions and particular practices of such, and replace such with better methods to achieve positive results in society–for example having people engage in the scientific method over praying in church to achieve a particular desire such as a cure for cancer–then of course atheists are probably going to have great success.

    But if they mean by atheism a complete renunciation of some sort of fundamental good behind the universe–which is to say that the universe in their minds becomes just a process of Heraclitean change and that all human hopes are doomed in the end (human species extinction, end of the universe, etc.) they will have problems in society.

    Because at bottom, and at its purest, it can be said the religious impulse (discounting a supernatural origin for such and speaking biologically, materialistically) was an evolutionary development in which the most optimistic people propagated over the pessimists in the face of countless catastrophes. In other words, and to use a thought experiment, imagine a group of people in ancient times faced with catastrophe after catastrophe; according to the “reason” of many atheists today, there would be no reason really for the people in the group to believe things would get better let alone that at bottom the universe is fundamentally good.

    But we can imagine that precisely the people who did believe the universe to be fundamentally good, that there is always salvation just around the corner, would be the people most likely to persist and survive in the face of catastrophe. Atheism at its best is reason; atheism at worst is pessimism. Religion at best is perpetual hope, optimism; at worst it is a blind faith in one’s actions no matter how people point them out as incorrect.

    In this sense, and speaking biologically, we could have roughly two types of

  • nkri401

    If I was in charge, I’ll first ask who we all are…

    I’m certain this kind of list has been done by much better by much greater mind than mine; yet, I humbly start another list because without definition it all becomes semantics…

    My hope is that this definition may help you to understand other fellow’s point of view.

    Please add more or refine, if you wish.

    Don’t call me Atheist –

    Stamp collectors are called Philatelist – what do you call those who do not collect stamps? Exactly!!

    Logical Atheist –

    God is said to be omnipotent and omniscient and loving and therefore would not allow misery and injustice.
    There are misery and injustices ergo God does not exist.

    Rational Atheist –

    If sufficient evidence is presented, I will believe in God or Pink Unicorn or whatever. Why shouldn’t I?

    Strong Agnostic Atheist –

    There is no way, no how to know if God exists.

    Weak Agnostic Theist/Atheist –

    God may or may not exist but at times I am worried.

    Deistic Theist –

    The universe cannot be an infinite recursion; therefore there must have been a first cause which we will call God.

    Spiritual Theist –

    How could sunrise be so beautiful if God did not exist, it’s the church leaders that I don’t trust.

    Traveling Companion Theist –

    In this cold, confusing and unpredictable world, isn’t it nice to have this all powerful being that loves me and looks after little old me?

    Unitarian Theist –

    God strongly recommends us to all get along. All are welcome.

    God of Gaps (Intelligent Design) Theist –

    If God did not design us, how could we have two perfect eyes? Not one, not three but perfect two eyes? And you the smarty pants, show me who’s got this “intermediary” eyes that evilutionist talk about.

    Circular Theist –

    I know God exist because the Bible says so and of course I know Bible is right since God wrote it (through inspiration or whatever, telepathy may be).

    Law and Order also Crime and Punishment Theist –

    I have seen/felt God and God will send me to hell for the

  • nkri401

    daniel12,

    I follow most of your point – but why couldn’t it be a secular creed that will make the life better.

    Such as “golden rule”, “first do no harm”, “will you sell what your selling to your child”, etc.

    Not sure if religion lets life get better – the promise seems to be at next life.

  • nkri401

    persiflage,

    Indeed, it seems a supreme irony, if not cruel, in that the founding Fathers specifically exempt religious test yet as you say it would be easier for the camel to pass the eye of needle than an elected Atheist official.

  • nkri401

    Came up with one more –

    Constitutional Atheist –

    What part of the separation of the church and state do you not understand? No school prayer, no invocation at high school football, no nativity display at city hall.

  • chrisatthepost

    Atheism is ridiculous! Every great teacher, mystic, guru, rabbi or whatever term you want to use has experienced God and related that experience and taught others how to have it. Atheists prefer to ignore this vast body of human experience in favor of their own ideas. Let them, when ignorance is bliss why disturb itj?

  • WilyArmadilla

    “imagine a group of people in ancient times faced with catastrophe after catastrophe; according to the “reason” of many atheists today, there would be no reason really for the people in the group to believe things would get better let alone that at bottom the universe is fundamentally good.”

    First, this presupposes that the group has NO way to transmit personal experience or histories. Otherwise the voice of experience – that of the grandparents, parents, tribal historians, etc – would teach the ‘tribe’ that things DO get better, because they always HAVE gotten better. No fairy godfather needed. Just perseverance and tenacity. Or, if necessary, a move to a more congenial environment.

    Second, this presupposes that atheists are morose, hopeless Schleprock’s wandering about with a black cloud hanging over our heads, certain that nothing good exists and disaster is just round the corner. That only by believing in an ultimate ‘good’ power underlying the Universe can one be cheerful, happy, optimistic, generous, or hopeful. Sheesh. Your premise that only through magic can hope and optimism exist is so completely, *obviously* wrong that the rest of your argument is rendered suspect.

    Having said this, I would posit that most religions are NOT optimism-based, but FEAR-based. Religion is man’s attempt to feel as if he has some influence on the natural world. If he couldn’t influence God – temper his wrath, acrue his blessings, etc – then he’d be powerless in the face of storm and flood. With God, there’s at least a modicum of control – it’s just a matter of saying the right prayer, in the right way, with the proper amount of groveling. And if that’s not enough, (they think) God must be angrier than we thought. Pray harder. And when the storm or flood abates, this is then considered ‘proof’ that prayer works and a smug certainty that they are indeed very special to That Fundamental Good that Underlies the Universe.

    I could go on, but I won’t. My last comment will

  • fcs25

    Where atheist make their largest mistake is pushing the idea that the constitution contains within it’s parts a statement that calls for the separation of all government affairs and religion.It does not.There is not one statement concerning the so-called fallacy of separation of church and state.This myth has been promoted for decades by both atheists and liberal Democrats,it is a lie plain and simple.Why does it bother an atheist if a school lets its students pray at a ball game?Are you so sissy and wimpyfied that it really bothers you, or are you pretending for political clout and power.Live your nihilistic lives for a few decades then become worm food, and let others live theirs….Get over it and grow up for a change.

  • brwing

    I don’t want to shape anything
    I just want to be left alone to not practice that which i find illogical
    I am fine with others doing their thing as long as I am not forced to endure nor burned at the stake for not believing
    Let the masses have their pablum
    Just leave me alone
    It is like gays – I don’t care about their affliction until they force normalcy on the rest of us