Atheist Numbers vs. Evangelical Clout

26 Jun

I recently read an interesting book entitled, The Fall of the Evangelical Nation. The following passage appears fairly early in the book:

I want to debunk one of the most common misconceptions about the direction that spirituality is moving in the United States. Evangelicals are not the fastest-growing group in America. Neither are Pentecostals. Nonbelievers are the fastest-growing faith group in America in numbers and percentage. From 1990 to 2001, which was the last good count, they more than doubled, from 14 million to 29 million. Their proportion of the population grew from 8 percent to more than 14 percent. That means there are more than twice as many people who claim no religion as there are participating evangelicals….

Why hasn’t the growth of nonbelievers been given the mainstream media play that the false estimation of evangelical power has been given? Because there are no powerful groups that benefit by keeping in in the news…. Groups of atheists do not gather to protest or stage antiprayer rallies…. A hint about the large number of nonbelievers did capture the press’s attention recently when three new books hit the bestseller lists portraying religious belief as not only wrong but positively evil (pp. 52-53).

I know that none of this is news to you. We’re all familiar with Richard Dawkins’ Out Campaign, which encourages atheists to be outspoken about their faith-free state. Most of you are probably also familiar with vjack’s attempts to promote atheism and encourage the fostering of an atheist community. Many of you may also be aware of Andrew Clapper’s plans to build an atheist organization. And, of course, you are all familiar with the idea that organizing atheists is like herding cats, which is why the problem described by Wicker persists. Meanwhile, evangelicals, who are used to being led like sheep, are well-organized, vocal and disproportionately influential in American politics.

A wise man (or perhaps just a wise ass) has, on several occasions, written about the unseemly influence of evangelicals. The wise guy’s dog-loving friend also has written about the issue. Given the serious ramifications of the problem, and the Religious Right’s increasing militancy (how do you like the label, theocrats?), what do you think atheists should do? Should we build supportive communities and educational organizations? Should we form political action committees? What do you, my readers – all of whom are intelligent, articulate and bursting with ideas – think atheists should do to acquire a stronger voice in American politics?

— the chaplain


Posted by on June 26, 2008 in atheism, literature, rationalism, religion


29 responses to “Atheist Numbers vs. Evangelical Clout

  1. Sean the Blogonaut

    June 26, 2008 at 9:32 pm

    On evangelical influence, “The Family” by Jeff Sharlet sounds like a good read to me.

    On what should atheists do? Co-ordinated nibbling at the edges opposing religiosity in government in state documentation. At the same time find people that can be loud and proud and choose battles intelligently.

  2. athinkingman

    June 27, 2008 at 4:24 am

    Personally I’m not to keen on the idea of organizations (though I accept they may eventually be necessary). I think this is because it would give people the easy dismissive response of ‘just another religious group’. I agree with Sean that we should take opportunities to challenge perspectives whenever a good situation arises, and not allow people to think that there is no alternative to the religious status quo.

    Encouraging stats about growth!

  3. PhillyChief

    June 27, 2008 at 10:56 am

    PZ Myers has an interesting point about that. He said thinking that grouping together makes us seem too much like a religion is precisely the kind of thinking they want us and everyone else to have. It’s a two for one special – it simultaneously makes us resistant to grouping and makes outsiders look at us like just another bunch of religious zealots. There’s quite a lot behind them saying things like “it takes a lot of faith to be an atheist”. It’s not just misunderstanding. I went into more depth here.

    I have nothing against atheist organization, but I see bigger fish to fry. Atheism grows out of logic and reason, or more simply, good ol’ common sense. There are issues that are directly related to atheism, but I think it’s more important to focus on issues of common sense. Atheists generally get associated with supporting issues of freedom, equal rights and education, but are these atheist issues? No, they’re common sense issues. So if our foundation is common sense, then supporting common sense issues certainly can have a direct effect on atheism.

    A related point is I think it can be a mistake to argue our rights are being imposed on. I think it’s better to frame such things in a broader context. It’s not our rights, it’s everyone’s rights, it’s about EQUAL rights, and protection for all, not just us. I also think it’s a very powerful tool to invoke morality. The religious right have had free and sole access to that weapon for years and it’s time that ended.

  4. Ric

    June 27, 2008 at 11:24 am

    We should pray to the Atheist God to hurl all the believers into the pits of hellfire… no, wait, that’s those other guys’ line, right?

    American Atheists has an organization which is a good source of information and intellect, though currently in the throes of organizational controversy.

    I tend to agree with Philly. Focus on the common good. Those other people focus primarily on their own narrow interpretation of ‘good’ and ‘common’.

  5. Lifeguard

    June 27, 2008 at 11:42 am

    The problem is that being the “fastest growing” group doesn’t mean jack sh*t until you’re the “largest” or at least one of the largest groups. Also, the fact that atheist/agnostics may be outgrowing evangelicals doesn’t necessarily mean that we outnumber those who otherwise self identify as Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, or what have you, however passively they may practice their faiths.

    The issue isn’t forming a community or banding together as a political action committee except insofar as it might encourage more folks to question their beliefs and come out about it.

  6. Steve

    June 27, 2008 at 1:50 pm

    Here’s an issue that I haven’t seen yet. I’m an atheist, but I don’t define myself by my atheism. Yes, I like to read blogs and listen to podcasts, but I also have other interests and some of them are more important to me than whether I believe in god or not.

    Essentially what I’m saying is that in my normal, day to day routine, I don’t think about my nonbelief at all. And I don’t really understand the idea of getting together to talk about other peoples unbelief on a regular basis.

    I support the atheist groups that fight the church and state issues with lawsuits, like FFRF but I support them with my pocketbook.

    I think there’s probably a lot of people out there like me, and that’s going to make organizing a problem.

  7. bullet

    June 27, 2008 at 2:02 pm

    The stigma of the label makes it problematic as well. If the only person I would hurt by coming out were myself, I’d be out already. But I have to think about my parents and my wife. The backlash on them could be really bad. So I wouldn’t be able to join any public group with “atheist” in the title. Unless it was a parade krewe. I think they’re the only organizations still allowed to have secret memberships.

    I might be a pussy, but I’m a pussy who relies on the religious idiots to take care of my family.

  8. bitchspot

    June 27, 2008 at 5:11 pm

    I’m against organizations specifically advancing atheism, simply because it’s not something we need to be advancing. If you want to support freethinking and rationality and logic and science, I’m all for it, but as soon as you put “Atheist” in the title, you’ve lost me and a large number of atheists. Atheism simply isn’t a dogma or a worldview or anything else, it’s a LACK of belief in the supernatural, nothing more. I wouldn’t join a group of non-stamp-collectors either, what’s the point in that?

  9. ExEvangel

    June 27, 2008 at 5:36 pm

    This reminded me of something I read earlier today,
    The book he wrote (and is clearly publicizing) looks interesting too. I’ll have to get this one on the Evangelical nation too.

  10. Ric

    June 27, 2008 at 6:17 pm

    bitchspot –

    “it’s a LACK of belief in the supernatural, nothing more.”

    Actually, no, and yes. It is a refusal to believe in the supernatural, true. But in a world of believers, atheism raises the question of how does one choose to live in society if one denies fundamental spiritual beliefs in that society? What do you choose as the basis of ethical and moral behavior? Why make those choices? How do you choose to relate to the rest of society? There’s a whole range of possibilities, from hiding your beliefs to waging full out intellectual war. Can you accept, without questioning, the moral/ethical basis of your society if it is derived from religious superstition?

    All of which is to say that atheism is not necessarily a simple passive lack of belief. It can be as intellectually and emotionally stimulating as you choose to make it.

  11. PhillyChief

    June 27, 2008 at 9:45 pm

    We LACK nothing. Never accept that phrase, “we lack belief”. It is THEY who lack reason, who lack logic, who lack critical thinking, who lack true intellectual honesty to be be able to question EVERYTHING, not just what’s in front of them but what’s behind and more importantly, what’s under them, for if you are unwilling to question even your foundation, your core beliefs, then you will forever be a slave, a slave to dogma. NO! NEVER define yourself as lacking belief. Do you define yourself as lacking cancer, lacking physical handicaps, or lacking insanity? Of course not! Such definitions are absurd, as is saying you lack belief.

    Unfortunately there are very real ramifications for coming out as an atheist. I understand that. Perhaps that’s all the more reason to work to champion the causes which are manifestations of common sense, for championing them does inevitably champion atheism. We should organize to stop threats to science education, and threats to education in general. We should champion equal rights. We should champion the rule of law and we should champion and lay claim to morality. Win those battles, and it shouldn’t even matter whether you declare publicly that you’re an atheist or not, which ultimately should be the point of our efforts, shouldn’t it?

  12. vjack

    June 28, 2008 at 11:48 am

    My gut-level response is that it is very clear that we must organize and make ourselves more visible. But that still doesn’t answer the question of how best to accomplish this. We are not going to get this done overnight, so some degree of patience is important. Still, it would be nice to feel like we are moving in the right direction.

  13. PhillyChief

    June 28, 2008 at 2:15 pm

    I think we advance as a whole by participation in a variety of different groups which each advance a principle that is either a predicate for atheism or shares a common origin and foundation. You attend the flower by attending to the soil, in other words. Participation in or support of groups like FFRF, Secular Coalition of America, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the ACLU, Science Debate, Center for Inquiry, and a host of other causes regional and national.

    An atheist specific organization may not be necessary if these other issues are addressed. The flower of atheism will grow naturally whenever and wherever conditions are suitable.

  14. salient

    June 28, 2008 at 2:44 pm

    We already have organizations that promote that rational approach to evidence that leads to atheism – schools and universities. This is precisely why IDiots are targetting education – destroy critical thinking and science, win more childish minds.

    As to fears of being labelled “just another religion”, such labelling is an inevitability. Because religion is so important to theonuts, they view, in religious terms, everything that even mentions a deity. For the sake of emotional, religionist arguments Dawkins plus another atheist constitutes ‘a cult’ and Dawkins plus more than two atheists constitutes ‘a religion’. Attempting to avoid any such label is merely to kow tow to theonuttic pressures.

    The private beliefs of average believers are not, as I see it, the problem. As distinct from your average mild-mannered believer, religionists have little interest in facts or truth (how else could they be religionists?). Religionists are chiefly interested in imposing their own way and will argue from and to emotion.

    I think that we need to present a visible and united front against illogic and ignorance. After all, these are the problems that theonuttery *uses* and *promotes*.

    The problem is political – like the priests of yore, the Religious Wrong is employing religion to manipulate the masses toward bigotry and ignorance. The new priests grow rich and powerful in the process.

  15. bitchspot

    June 29, 2008 at 3:41 am

    No, actually, it’s not. Atheism is simply the lack of belief in god(s). If you cannot answer affirmatively to the question “do you believe in a god” then you’re an atheist. That is the sum total of all atheism is. Once you start getting into any positive position, once you start saying how you should act or what you should believe, you’re no longer talking about atheism, but about a worldview that may or may not include atheism.

    It’s unfortunate that people tend to attach various elements to atheism that are not strictly equivalent.

  16. Andrew Clapper

    June 29, 2008 at 4:04 am

    I have noticed how people tend to assume that an atheist organization must exist to specifically promote atheism. What about one that simply gives people a way to connect to a friendly community of like minded people?
    I think most people, to one degree or another, have a psychological need to perceive that they belong to a group. I hypothesize it has something to do with the fact that we are a species of social mammals.

  17. PhillyChief

    June 29, 2008 at 12:12 pm

    No, atheism is the rejection of all god claims due to lack of evidence. Don’t fall victim to their semantic games. No atheist ever cooked up the definition “lack of belief”. You blindly accept that negative definition like you probably accept “pro-life” instead of “anti-abortion”. Think about your choice of words, and the choice of words others use for both themselves and for you.

    As for the rest of what you said, yes indeed, there is no atheist worldview. What I was addressing, had you seriously read my comment, was that there is a worldview which makes atheism possible, a worldview which esteems knowledge, experience and evidence and rational decision making based on those things. We as atheists naturally are going to disagree on many topics, which is largely why I think an atheist specific organization might not even work, but the things that allow for people to form sound opinions and argue them, I think, are things we can all agree on and thus, what we should struggle for.

  18. bitchspot

    June 29, 2008 at 5:15 pm

    Unfortunately, you really don’t have a linguistic leg to stand on here. Take other words using the “a-” prefix. Apolitical doesn’t mean rejecting politics, it means without politics. Asexual doesn’t mean rejecting sexuality, it means without sexuality. Atheism is indeed being without the property of theism, not about rejecting theism per se. Certainly one can be without theism and reject it, but if you are going to insist that all atheists must, by definition, reject theism, then you’re going to exclude a massive number of atheists.

  19. salient

    June 29, 2008 at 10:07 pm

    bitchspot, I’m not sure that language, which is secondary (descriptive) to any given position, can consistently be used as an argument about the primary position. To do so is to get caught up in semantics and sometimes to miss the point.

    Atheism IS a rejection of the faith-dependent beliefs prescribed by theism. It is a refusal to believe that which most of us have been instructed by massive, wealthy, influential organizations to believe. For some individuals it may be a vague sense of being unconvinced — but even then it is about being unconvinced by the edifice of religious claims.

    This is not necessarily an anti-religious position, but it is a rejection of religious claims for the supernatural. Non-belief in fairies does not carry the political implications of non-belief in inculcated dogma.

    I think that the current atheist resurgence is not merely a matter of failure to believe, which has, after all, been around for centuries. Nor is it merely an organized promotion of non-belief. It is motivated variously by the anti-empirical, illogical, divisive, bigoted, conservative, anti-humanist, and anti-science distortions (etc) associated with politically-motivated religious fundamentalism.

    I don’t see how forming organizations for people who happen to value empiricism-based rationality is equivalent to *forcing* people to reject theism.

  20. The Exterminator

    June 29, 2008 at 10:09 pm

    What do you, my readers … think atheists should do to acquire a stronger voice in American politics?
    Sorry I’m late to the party. I was busy campaigning for the Exterminator-Chaplin ticket. Did you know that those guys have taken a very strong stand supporting the complete separation of church and state? Not only that, but they have pledged never to bring faith or god into the political arena, an idea that seems to have been supported by many of the founders of this very country. Ex and Chappy are hoping that atheists and other freethinkers will insist on having political clout, much the way that other minorities have done. How? By absolutely refusing to vote for any candidate who refuses to take such stands — no matter how attractive he or she might seem on other issues. It seems that the Chappy/Exterminator coalition is demanding, through their electoral power, that freethinkers be heard and their issues be directly addressed.

    So what was the question again?

  21. PhillyChief

    June 30, 2008 at 11:11 am

    Unfortunately Bitchspot, you’re not seeing the difference between apples and oranges. “Without” and “lack” are not synonymous. It seems you’re arguing “without” to defend “lack”.

    “Without” is fine, and as you’ll see here, there were some clever alternatives like “freedom from faith” and “absence of belief” which reflect the idea of “without”.

    I don’t think your apolitical example holds, for people who are apolitical have made a personal choice to reject politics. True, there may be remote people who never confront politics so are apolitical in the sense that they simply are without politics, but are there people on this planet who are never confronted with theism? So yes, my definition is a proactive one, reflective of a conscious choice rather than a simple state of being, but I would argue that anyone who claims to be an atheist has at least once in their lives been confronted by theism and rejected its claims.

    I would go on to clarify “rejecting theism”. At least in my definition I’m merely rejecting theist claims. Every atheist has different views on religion. Some are much more adamant about it ending. I view it like smoking, drinking or drug use in that it’s not good for you but if it’s what gets you through the day, so be it, provided your use doesn’t hurt anyone else but yourself. So I reject theism, I’d work to help people get off of it and to make sure people never got on it, but I’d not deny someone from having it if they can use it responsibly.

  22. The Exterminator

    June 30, 2008 at 2:27 pm


    I love your last sentence above. Our new atheist motto, addressed to theists, should be:

    Believe responsibly.

    We might be able to go from there to:
    Do not believe and drive.
    Every church-meeting would then be required to have a designated atheist present to cart the god-intoxicated people home.

  23. Cephus

    June 30, 2008 at 3:12 pm

    The problem with claiming that atheism is a rejection of theism as opposed to a lack of the quality theism is that it makes no sense linguistically. I’ve already pointed this out with terms such as “apolitical” and “asexual” where in neither case is it a rejection of the property, simply a lack thereof. What you’re
    really talking about is “anti-theism”, which is specifically the rejection of the property theism.

    You can certainly be atheistic and antitheistic at the same time but the terms are separate and distinct
    in their meaning.

  24. PhillyChief

    June 30, 2008 at 7:22 pm

    “Do not believe and drive.”

    This is why I avoid Jesus fish cars and especially the ones with “Jesus is my co-pilot”.

    Atheism isn’t a rejection of theism, just their main claim.

  25. bitchspot

    June 30, 2008 at 9:03 pm

    The reason you avoid Jesus Fish cars is because they can’t drive worth a damn. We made that observation years ago, when you saw someone driving like a lunatic, invariably they had some kind of religious bumper sticker or logo on the car.

    I guess that since Jesus is their co-pilot, they went to take a nap.

  26. Pockets

    June 30, 2008 at 11:24 pm

    Straight organizing is not the answer. What atheists need is a manner in which to publicly prove themselves far more organized than their theocratic counterparts. More organized equals more reasonable in the eyes of onlookers. That said, it’s not really all that hard to do. They’ve the red tape and differing ideologies. You’ve the strength of “event planning” that comes without the complications of dogmatic stricture, mandatory evangelization, or holding a hammer in one hand while you flip through the bible with the other. What you need is a Charity Olympics, an Outreach World Series, a Souperbowl Kitchen Stadium. Why? Because how much better will it be to not only show atheists as more organized and therefore indirectly of keener mind, but to do so at the very game theologians tout plainly as “God’s work?” Seriously, don’t want to organize to the point of being further dismissed as a group? Fine. Remain out there, scattered, individualistic, and then come together in such force at only the time of said competition in such a way that buries your opponents. If you only come together once every so often and do more measureable good than those who claim to practice those same acts of good on a continual basis, it kind of cuts the legs out from under them. Then disperse again. Your job is done.

  27. awfrick

    November 23, 2009 at 12:13 am

    It’s interesting to see how the more renown atheists view this issue – Dawkins organized the ‘Out Campaign’, which has undoubtedly raised awareness about our constituency, while Christopher Hitchens has said quite the opposite, just telling other atheists to congregate with ‘other free thinkers’.

    I think us atheists should try to unite together, while not adopting the same evangelical mindset as the religious.


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