Is the Atheist Movement Dead in the Water?

Posted by on November 20, 2011 in Thoughts | 11 comments

I am a staunch supporter of the atheistic movements we have seen rise in popular culture, especially over the past 10 years. It’s not because I hate God, or because I’m rebelling against a religious past. Firstly, I am atheist because I see no reason to believe nor evidence to suggest that God exists. I was never brought up religious, and am not rebelling against anything from my past. I’m not doing it because it’s the latest cool thing to do as some would suggest. I do it because religion, particularly organised religion has far too much power in politics and society, pushing its moralised ideals upon all people instead of staying in the churches and mosques where it belongs.

I have seen a groundswell of support among people, those who are “coming out” as atheists, those who are finding the powers of social media, and those who are empowering themselves with knowledge about the natural universe. And it is an exciting time to be alive, one where our ideas can be shared, theistic and non-theistic alike. However I am beginning to feel that the atheistic movement is treading water somewhat, not really making much change in the world. It seems to me it is more akin to beating ones head against an immovable object rather than spreading encouragement for people to learn. I see it mostly on Twitter, and in blogs and the like, but most engagements seems to consist of contradicting theistic claims, the same claims over and over and over again. Nothing is changing, and I doubt if we will ever see a single mind change from an engagement on Twitter over whether the Bible is the true word of God.

I feel we are lacking focus. The problems of the world are not caused by religion alone, rather abuse of religious privilege, abuse of political power, and pressure from those who have the money to quash the forward thinking ideas that could see us into the next millennium. As sad as it may seem, the role of religion in this whole debate is only a minor player. Rather than attacking the religion, we should be attacking the root of the perceived need to believe, and replace it with reasoned and rational thought. Religions can only thrive on ignorance, willful or otherwise, for when one starts to ask questions, the theistic claims start to crumble like chalk.

I know I’m not the only person who realises this. I have seen a few people finding the fight a disillusioning experience, with all the head-beating and knowledgeable posturing, the stubborn opposition plugging their ears and yelling “NUH-UH!!” But all this achieves nothing if we can’t make some real change in the physical world. Even among the ranks of Atheists online, we have recently seen infighting, on the blogosphere and on Twitter. And it would seem that we can’t all agree what the best way forward is.

I’m not sure either, but I know that an unfocused attack on everything that’s wrong with the world all at once is not going to solve anything. The atheist movement is far from dead in the water, but it does need some kind of focus, something to aim for that is beyond simple anti-religious diatribes. We can disparage religion all we want, but without a solution, what are we really offering.

Having said this, I am not suggesting that we stop either. Far from it. I will continue to point out ridiculous propositions and atrocities carried out in the name of religion, but I am going to attempt to focus my attention on the advocacy of gaining and using knowledge, first and foremost. The one thing the atheistic movements have on our side is knowledge of facts, knowledge of objective truths, and the ability to use this. This is our most powerful ally and the strongest weapon we have in our arsenal, and we should use it as such.

The movement is not dead in the water, it just needs for the current to be pointing in one direction, rather than many.

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  1. I know what you mean. On a debate forum I moderate I see the same tired old arguments being presented by theists over and over again, oblivious to the challenges and corrections presented by non-believers.

    I’m not surprised, though, since the theology they base their arguments on hasn’t changed much in the last several hundred years. They’re stuck with the same, single source book for their beliefs as they’ve had for centuries. It’s not like god is going to add a new chapter on “Christian behavior in the 21st century” for them to go by.

    I suggest it’s time to treat religious belief like the out-dated, irrelevant claptrap it is and focus less on arguing the same old points with theists and focus more on what humanism and science can do to improve our world. We need to go on the offensive and speak out against inhumane and unscientific attitudes being allowed to influence our societies and governments.

    Instead of apologizing for the perception that atheists are militant it’s time for us to become truly militant and assertive with our opinions. Not necessarily our opinions on theology but our opinions on how much more beneficial to all a secular society and government can be.

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  2. I managed to find a Humanist Organization in my city. It’s fairly new and we are slowly growing our members. There are a lot of challenges but it’s probably one of the best ways to get our message across to the public. Besides, it’s also a great social gathering for like-minded people. We can learn a lot from the church groups as far as organization and spreading the message goes. Thank Zeus our message is the realistic, logical one based on empirical evidence and science! Morality is doing what’s right no matter what you’re told. Religion is doing what your told no matter what’s right. If you talk to god you’re religious, if god talks to you you’re insanely delusional.

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  3. Marty, I think what we’re seeing is the movement evolving, not dying.

    There will always be those who just want to argue about whether God exists and whether evolution is true. This is not entirely useless, if done well (but it rarely is). Some have said their path to reason began by reading such arguments. We have to remember that many religious people’s first realisation that there IS a contrary view comes via the internet.

    But you are right that this has little effect on the real problem, which is the intrusion of religious dogma into political policy. That’s why we’ve spent the last 18 months setting up a national lobby group – Reason Australia. I hope you won’t mind me ‘plugging’ it here.

    The Reason Australia (RA) website is at

    RA will function to lobby governments and publicly expose policy decisions which are not properly based on reason and evidence. We will advocate and seek to educate the public about the values of secularism, critical thinking and evidence-based decision making.

    RA is an incorporated organisation. We are a national umbrella group for Australia’s various atheist, skeptical, rationalist, humanist and secular organisations. Foundation members include the Rationalist Society of Australia, the Council of Australian Humanists, the Secular Party of Australia and the Australian Skeptics.

    We have a highly experienced board and management team led by Dr Meredith Doig. This is a very serious undertaking and we have spent a great deal of time and effort to give the organisation the firm foundations required for a long-term enterprise.

    Our policies are set out on the RA website:

    Membership is open to groups only at this stage. But, we are seeking individual supporters who can be mobilised to assist with specific campaigns and respond quickly to issues as they arise in the media and/or public debate. We are also hoping to be able to draw on our supporters’ diverse range of skills. A database to enable us to achieve these aims is being developed now. Groups can apply for membership or individuals can sign on as supporters by clicking the ‘Community’ tab on the website.

    Anyone with a specific inquiry is welcome to contact me at [email protected]

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  4. We are fighting a war on a hundred fronts at once. Encouraging society to leave religion in the past is one way to affect political change, because of course if there are no more theists then there are no more theists making laws that infringe on your rights. Fighting legislation is another front of this battle. The internet has provided a platform for people to learn more about religion than their Preacher would want them to know. You are not likely to have someone admit over twitter that they became an atheist because of another atheist. It’s probably happened thousands of times. It’s an earth shattering, life changing experience to give up god… giving credit to the asshole on twitter who ruined fantasyland for you isn’t on the top of the list. Top of the list is usually to try and forget about it, or avoid it… for most people at least.

    Once that seed was planted on twitter, another atheist came over with a can of water to provide the thought, nourishment.

    We need to balance both the growing acceptance of atheists with our criticisms of religion.

    I don’t think we’re treading water at all, in fact I think we made much more progress in the last 5 years than anyone could have expected.

    In Rationality,

    Brian Sapient

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  5. Some may feel that atheism has lost its way, but I for one have not. My first objective is the dissolution of the Papacy, with its support of homophobia, misogyny, and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, along with its attendant idiots the Bible Literalists and the Young Earth Creationists. My next objective is the removal from this world of the evil of honour killings, this currently being promoted by lunatics who cite Islam. My third objective is the bringing-down-to-earth of the members of the GOP (God’s Own Party, or Grand Old Party, depending upon your predilections) who delight in the exploitation of other people for their own financial gain and who use God as a justification for their actions.

    As such, I will continue to wage a war of words against the Papists until I (or my successors) have have achieved at least the first objective.

    Have we lost our way? No, but we may have forgotten to keep communicating the message.

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  6. “I feel we are lacking focus. The problems of the world are not caused by religion alone, rather abuse of religious privilege, abuse of political power, and pressure from those who have the money to quash the forward thinking ideas that could see us into the next millennium. As sad as it may seem, the role of religion in this whole debate is only a minor player. Rather than attacking the religion, we should be attacking the root of the perceived need to believe, and replace it with reasoned and rational thought. Religions can only thrive on ignorance, willful or otherwise, for when one starts to ask questions, the theistic claims start to crumble like chalk.”

    That right there is the best explanation so far, and unfortunately, not many community and world leaders realize it.

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  7. I don’t think the Atheist “Movement” is “Dead in the Water.” You’ve posited an unfair metaphor, unfair in that it’s impossible to prove it one way or the other.

    I can see how it can get a little monotonous to the individuals involved, but it’s not slowing down. If anything, I’d suggest that it’s saturated—athiest blogs are easy to find, and the movement is more public than it was five years ago. Saturation, however, shows that the movement is alive and well. Religion has had thousands of years of saturation; athiesm and skepticism are naturally getting their fill in the market.

    I think the movement is going through the same sort of thing every movement goes through: a bit of stagnation as it finds a slightly new direction. I’m not the person to know what that direction might be. Perhaps they need a new star, a new book, or a new high-level public proponent. The New Atheism has focused on evidence; perhaps the next atheism will focus on something different.

    Churches go through this one all the time—their message becomes stale and overworn. Fortunately for athiesm, rationality, and skepticism, we have the whole universe to work with, not just an ancient text. The message never gets stale when it’s based on reality, and skeptical thought itself shouldn’t get dull—unless proponents focus too much on a book themselves.

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  8. 1. Firstly, some evidence:

    Note the drop between 2004-2006, then it’s pretty steady until today.

    2. NA has succeeded in raising the level of public awareness of non-believers.

    It’s motivating factor is political lobbying, and it may yet make significant legal or behavioural in-roads within (non)democratic states.

    3. Academic research is telling us that persuasion isn’t as simple as facts plus logic.

    To my mind, this is where freethinkers will eventually overtake 2000+ years of influential fire-and-brimstone rhetoric.

    Our frustration is the speed of progress. Our sense of urgency seems to hinge on current immoral uses of technology – whether or not we fear the apocalypse or merely retrograding.

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  9. The ‘movement’ should focus more on selling the benefits of being an atheist rather than focusing on the silliness of believing in a God. Being anti-something will only take you so far. There are benefits to belonging to a church and to being an atheist – but organized religions are, well, organized and established and have built in reinforcement mechanisms & benefits that make it hard to switch. Google Plus won’t grow by Facebook bashing and many who try it go back to Facebook because that’s where their friends are.

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  10. I agree, and it kind of reminds me of Occupy wall street. The thing is, getting atheist to go in any direction is like herding cats. I don’t know what the answer is, but I think it is a good leader. All through history we’ve had a leader to take us through a time of big change.

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  11. Yes, atheists should organize and become more dogmatic, perhaps even elect party officials and high priests/priestesses. There should be more indoctrination at younger ages, youth group organizations reminiscent of the Hitler youth, slogans, flags, and sexual encounters. Militant and subversive activities to promote propaganda should be expedited to grow membership and allegiance. And most of all the philosophical conundrums resulting from the “necessity of living with unyielding despair” as an Atheist should be minimized and silenced.

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