Twilight Of Atheism? Not Quite
According to an article published in a recent issue of Christianity Today, atheism is slowly declining. That is certainly news to me and the atheists and secularists I have come to know over the last few years. It would also come as a big surprise to the editors of Free Inquiry, the official journal of the Council For Secular Humanism. A new study done by the University of Chicago's Opinion Research Center put the figure of Americans who claim no religious affiliation at a surprising 16 percent, which is quite a difference from various polls that put the figure of non-believers at lower percentages.
Alister McGrath, author of "Twilight of Atheism," would like to have a majority of Christians believe that atheism or secular humanism is in decline, as is clearly evident by his rather naive statement: "To wit: Atheism is in trouble. Its future seems increasingly to lie in the private beliefs of individuals rather than in the great public domain it once regarded as its natural habitat." The individuals who make up the 16% of religious non-believers, myself included, strongly disagree, but maybe he can help us out with something. If atheism is in such "trouble," can he explain why online atheist forums show signs of flourishing instead of declining? Forums for atheists, agnostics, secularists and freethinkers are available not only on America Online and other internet service providers but also are offered for members at Belief.net and About.com, to name just two. Sure doesn't indicate a decline in atheism to me.
McGrath also refers to Stalin and Madalyn Murray O'Hair as the most negative representatives of atheism while he deliberately omits the more positive ones. Josef Stalin simply replaced the religious dogma of conservative Christianity with the political dogma of Communism, and slaughtered large numbers of people who didn't conform to the new political ideology. Or, to be more accurate, his particular ideology. Not unlike religious fanatics such as Torquemada in Spain and "Bloody Mary" Tudor in England, when you put all of them under the microscope of comparison. As for O'Hair, her only "crime" was having strong opinions against religion and was a little abrasive in making them known. That was hardly a justification for the violent deaths she and one of her sons suffered at the hands of mysterious – and no doubt religious – murderers.
Contrary to what McGrath has written about the lack of social cohesion as he perceives it, atheists and secular humanists are not without a sense of community either. Religious hard-liners obviously have trouble thinking outside the box when it comes to establishing community, or to be more specific, thinking outside the church. There are quite a few organizations that give its members a feeling of belonging to a group of like-minded people who share their ideas and values. The Freedom From Religion Foundation and the Council For Secular Humanism are two such groups, both of which are attracting a growing number of members. The Council For Secular Humanism has a Center For Inquiry in three American cities, and a Center in Nepal, Nigeria, Peru, Poland and Russia. There are a number of freethinkers groups who have chapters in cities across the country, and people who can't get to these locations due to either lack of sufficient funds or transportation can easily go online to connect, if they have access to a computer and an internet service provider. Since the cost of computers and online services has gone down considerably over the past decade, more are choosing this option over that of spending money on land, sea and air travel. So the folks who have no religious beliefs can get the same feeling of "belonging to a common group, of shared common values, and of knowing each other" that they can get in a church. And all without having to listen to a long and often tedious sermon to accomplish it.
Now let's turn our attention to another area that McGrath raises. Specifically, the lack of "charismatic leadership" that he has obviously decided atheists and secularists must have in order to prevail, and without which we will eventually fail. What makes him and other Christians believe that we must have one leader to bring us all together? Who made the rule that a spiritual philosophy cannot have many prominent spokespersons to promote the benefits and values of reason over dogma? Again, it would appear that only the religious hard-liners have created this "rule," which atheists and secular humanists have no intention of observing. Since we are perfectly capable of deciding for ourselves who to read or listen to, there is no need to rely on just one or a select few to provide ideas that we can agree on. I would probably have disagreed with O'Hair, but I strongly agree with three now-deceased giants of reason, which in my view are Thomas Paine, Robert Green Ingersoll and Bertrand Russell. I also agree with Paul Kurtz, Editor in Chief of Free Inquiry, and the other contributing editors and writers, who are very much alive. All of whom make excellent leaders, in my book, and who aren't required to go on speaking tours in order to "draw large numbers of people."
It isn't the first time that I have read articles either reporting or predicting atheism's eventual demise, either in printed journals or online forums. But I have to wonder why they make such a point of denouncing atheism and secular humanism to begin with. After all, if they are as secure in their faith as they would have us believe, why would the voices of religious non-believers matter in the least? Unless you consider the hidden reason; the fact that there may be more doubters of religion in their camp than hard-line Christians would care to admit. Free Inquiry also reported that between 1993 and 2002, the Protestant proportion of the American population, which until recently had maintained a majority, had dropped from 63 to 52 percent, and that analysts expect the figure will drop to below 50 percent by 2005. No doubt this makes some Protestant and Catholic and other mainstream religious leaders a bit disturbed, and possibly very concerned, that their cherished dream of a "Christian nation" may never come to pass. For citizens who value secular liberty over religious slavery, the failure of that dream is a very good thing indeed.