Laurie Goodstein of The New York Times reports that American atheists are ready to go public with their message, reflecting an assertiveness resembling that of the so-called New Atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. They are ready to come out of the closet.
Her article focuses on Charleston, SC, where the group known as “Secular Humanists of the Low Country” represents this newly assertive atheism. The group once expected opposition to its very existence. Now, they are looking for a larger meeting place.
More than ever, America’s atheists are linking up and speaking out — even here in South Carolina, home to Bob Jones University, blue laws and a legislature that last year unanimously approved a Christian license plate embossed with a cross, a stained glass window and the words “I Believe” (a move blocked by a judge and now headed for trial).
They are connecting on the Internet, holding meet-ups in bars, advertising on billboards and buses, volunteering at food pantries and picking up roadside trash, earning atheist groups recognition on adopt-a-highway signs.
Though still a tiny minority, the number of atheists is growing. An ever larger number of Americans identify as agnostics or religiously unaffiliated. Books written by the “New Atheists” like Dawkins and Hitchens, along with Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett, have reached the best-seller lists. These figures serve as models for the newly-assertive atheism. As Goodstein explains, they have transformed atheism from an argument to a cause, “like environmentalism or muscular dystrophy.”
Goodstein also reports that ten organizations identified with non-belief have united to form the Secular Coalition for America. Fred Silverman, the organization’s president, told the Times that the group’s approach is not to carry banners or engage in protest. “The most important thing is coming out of the closet,” he said.
As Goodstein observes, atheists have seized upon the gay rights movement as the model for their public engagement. “Coming out of the closet” is a means of projecting their existence into the public view.
The homosexual rights movement has been stunningly successful in promoting their own agenda. These atheists want to emulate the gay rights movement and follow their path to public recognition.
Evidently, they face some significant challenges ahead. “Despite changing attitudes, polls continue to show that atheists are ranked lower than any other minority or religious group when Americans are asked whether they would vote for or approve of their child marrying a member of that group,” reports Goodstein.
Nevertheless, at least some signs are looking up for the unbelievers. The Secular Student Alliance now has 146 chapters on America’s college and university campuses — up from just 42 in 2003. President Barack Obama has gone out of his way to recognize unbelievers in his public comments — even in his inaugural address.
The emergence of a more visible presence for atheists — even in a deeply conservative state like South Carolina — does signal a change on America’s religious landscape. Their stated plan to follow the example of the gay rights movement is a shrewd move. Time will reveal if the strategy leads to an increased public influence for atheists and agnostics.
This new assertiveness among some atheists also means that Christians are now more likely to meet neighbors, co-workers, and fellow students who identify themselves as atheists. Our task is to be ready to share and defend the Gospel with all persons, including those who identify themselves as atheists or agnostics.
The last thing we want is to push them back into the closet.
My book, Atheism Remix: A Christian Confronts the New Atheism [Crossway] is designed to help Christians understand and answer the New Atheism.