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The War of Ideas: Atheism As a Mass Movement

In recent years atheism has come to seem more and more like a mass movement. The reasons for this are complex and, frankly, muddled. I think that most of the actual, interesting changes have come from unbelievers who would otherwise be isolated using the Internet to organize themselves, but most of the media hype has come out of a half-dozen new books which, while nice to have, aren’t really anything new. Perhaps more than anything, it’s the fact that atheists have shifted to talking about movement strategy, in magazines and Internet chatter, often without even pausing to reflect on what such talk means.

When I mentally step back to reflect on such talk, it strikes me as rather strange. In his online “Atheist Manifesto,” Sam Harris memorably pointed out that we never identify people in terms of their rejection of alchemy or astrology.[1] A movement of such people seems even harder to conceive of. I’ve come to cringe at attempts to give advice to all atheists everywhere, given under the assumption that all atheists will have the same goals. Would anyone expect all nonastrologers to have the same goals? Perhaps more vividly: do we really have that much reason to expect followers of Karl Marx and followers of Ayn Rand to act in concert?

One way to dispel this strangeness would be to encourage media outlets to refer to people like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris as “religion critics” rather than as “atheists,” just as they refer to nonbelieving actors and authors as “actors” and “authors.” It would go a long way to avoid the impression that they speak for all atheists. This is not to say that they’re bad spokespersons per se, but rather that no atheist speaks for all atheists.

Such a relabeling could allow us to avoid the countless odd statements about atheism coming not only from outside observers but also from atheists themselves. Some atheists, for example, have picked up on the common line that atheism lacks positive elements and they argue that we need to present a more positive form of atheism. When I first heard this suggestion, I had a little trouble figuring what was meant. Atheism has traditionally been defined as a negative thesis that a certain sort of claim about the world is false, or at least that we have insufficient reason to believe such a claim. To talk of the positive aspects of atheism would seem to add on a lot to the old concept. Confusion would be guaranteed to stalk an attempt at a change of definition, playing into the hands of those religious apologists who attack atheism–not by arguing that there is, in fact, a god–but by attacking unrelated ideas that happen to have been held by famous atheists.

One “positive atheism”[2] advocate, Hemant Mehta, had an even more-confusing response when challenged on his views: he said, “I would argue that atheism alone won’t do it for most people, but we need to explain the positive aspects of not believing in God/superstition.”[3] It immediately reminded me of Jon Stewart’s famous line, “It’s not that what you do is bad, it’s that you’re harming America.” Mehta’s position, could be similarly summed up as “It’s not that your beliefs are bad, it’s that you’d be better off without them.” When used jokingly, as Stewart did, such statements are wonderful, but said in earnest they can only appear insincere.

On the other hand, none of this changes the fact that atheists today are organizing in remarkably large numbers. Given the above, can any reason be given for doing this? The first and most obvious reason is numbers: atheists are in a definite minority in the United States, with even the most generous estimates putting the total proportion of atheists and agnostics at less than a quarter of the population. Many estimates have been even lower, as low as one percent. Under such circumstances, banding together is likely to prove invaluable in getting our voices heard. The wild fluctuations in estimates also suggest reluctance on the part of many people to be open about their lack of religious belief, and atheist organizations have a role to play in convincing people to come out of the closet.

Beyond merely being heard, a well-organized minority group will also have a better chance of getting its political wants satisfied. However, I worry about giving too much weight to politics, because some nonreligious people in politics seem ready to sacrifice discussion of ideas in the name of political goals. A great many of Richard Dawkins critics, for example, condemn him not on the grounds that the things he says are wrong but on the grounds that people do not want to hear them, and doing so therefore hurts the fight against creationism. This claim seems to be major part of the quest by journalist Chris Mooney and communications professor Matt Nisbet to convince scientists that promoting good science requires good “framing.” In one of their major articles on the subject, published in The Washington Post, Mooney and Nisbet argued that Dawkins defense of atheism is harmful because “The public cannot be expected to differentiate between his advocacy of evolution and his atheism.” The assertion is made with great confidence even as the writers, by their own account, “Leave aside … the validity of Dawkins’s arguments against religion.”[4]

Such concessions to politics are foolish. In the short term, they are unnecessary because the political position of atheists is actually pretty good. To think: we won the right to hold public office in 1789, and without really even asking for it! Judges have deemed it unconstitutional to teach creationism in public schools, a remarkable gift to anticreationists with no parallel for, say, Holocaust denial or medical quackery. In the long term, the only threat to these achievements is ultimately based on bad ideas, such as rigid adherence to ancient mythology and religious doctrine that teaches that atheists are “suppressors of the truth” who are destined for Hell. An absence of frank discussion is the perfect breeding ground for bad ideas, something we’d best not cultivate. We should see our efforts first and foremost as a war of ideas, not a war of short-term political victories.

Though small numbers are probably the main reason for atheists to band together, this is not quite the only reason. While atheism may not come with built-in positive values, there are positive values that a great many atheists, especially those who are more-active, share. For this reason, many atheists have taken to calling themselves “secular humanists.” Yet what is secular humanism? Many more detailed attempts to lay out humanist principles come off as disconcertingly vague, objectionable only because they devote so many words to saying things which, it would seem, no one of any religious persuasion could object to. Very likely, this is because leaders of humanist organizations have an understandable fear of rigid dogmatism, but they fall into the opposite trap.

For this reason, I was for a very long time skeptical of the term “humanism.” However, much more concise definitions have since been put forth. At a talk I attended in April, Duncan Crary of the Institute for Humanist Studies recommended the definition in terms of “reason, science, and compassion,” which is not only concise but easy to find reflected in the writings of today’s best-known atheists. Sam Harris subtitled his first book Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, and actually said more in it about reason than about atheism. Richard Dawkins waxes poetic about the beauties of science.

Still, the charge that nobody disputes these values continues to lurk. I would argue they are worth emphasizing, not because there is a large number of people who have no respect for them, but because there is a large number of people who will let them fall by the wayside when these values conflict with their religious beliefs. According to a 2006 Time magazine poll, nearly two-thirds of Americans say they would be willing to ignore scientific findings that contradict their religious beliefs–a statistic that goes a long way in explaining American willingness to embrace creationism.[5] Or, look at committed Evangelicals who profess that we must not use our corrupted human moral sense to evaluate what the Bible says about the killing and eternal damnation of unbelievers.

Without making any assumption that all atheists would sign onto a “reason, science, and compassion” platform, such a platform, combined with a conviction that it need never make way for religious dogma, would be an excellent basis for rallying the vast majority of those who feel the need to be vocal about their disbelief. This would provide a ready answer to complaints about the lack of anything positive coming from atheists, an answer to the question of “why be so hostile to religion?” and direction to the secular movement that many so strongly feel the need for.


[1] Sam Harris, “An Atheist Manifesto,” 7 December 2005. www.truthdig.com/dig/item/200512_an_atheist_manifesto/. Accessed: 25 September 2007

[2] “Positive Atheism” is the name of a book and a philosophy developed by the Indian thinker Gora, who was an associate of Gandhi. Madalyn Murray O’Hair’s organization was originally the Society of Separatists, until she was influenced by Gora to use the name American Atheists. This also inspired the website , which contains the work of Gora. This article uses the phrase “positive atheism” in the much-loser sense (as compared to Gora) that it has taken on in recent years.

[3] Hemant Mehta, comment in “Atheist Tactics Debate.” 29 June 2007. friendlyatheist.com/2007/06/29/atheist-tactics-debate/#comment-50004. Accessed: 25 September 2007. Mehta’s comment was made in the run up to a discussion between us hosted by Reginald Finley, currently available through Finley’s Libsyn page: .

[4] Matthew C. Nisbet and Chris Mooney. “Thanks for the Facts. Now Sell Them.” Washington Post, 15 April 2007. Available online: www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/04/13/AR2007041302064_pf.html. Accessed 25 September 2007.

[5] David Masci. “How the Public Resolves Conflicts Between Faith and Science.” 27 August 2007. pewresearch.org/pubs/578/when-science-and-faith-compete-faith-usually-wins. Accessed 25 September 2007.

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