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. Though 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 the media) 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.