Unlike most religions, atheism has no single founder or point of origin. Becoming an atheist is not a matter of joining an existing establishment or swearing allegiance to a creed, but rather of waking up to a simple realization about how the world works. If religions grow like moss, a uniform carpet starting from a single point and spreading outwards, then atheists are like wildflowers scattered across the terrain, each one blooming with brilliant colors of their own.
It makes sense that such a spontaneous and individual movement would make inroads into society in the same way. An earlier post, The Quiet Revolution, pointed out some places in which this was happening. Enough cases have now accumulated to point out a few more.
In an editorial aptly titled The Spiritual Atheist, Donna Williams writes in the April 4 American Chronicle:
I wonder how many Atheists these 2000 folks [referring to the households in this study --Ed.] actually know? And which ones do they know? Do they know the sort of atheists who are apalled when ministers of religion appear in newspapers sued for pedophilia? Are they talking about the sort of atheists who man counselling hotlines taking calls from battered spouses and survivors of child abuse and incest within 'moral', 'religious' homes which taught them never to 'tell'? Are they talking of atheists who care about global warming more than taking the family to church in the four wheel drive? Are they talking of atheists who march against war and the destruction of rainforests? I'm sure there's some 'bad people' atheists, but theres also some 'bad people' religious people too.
I have long maintained that atheism is compatible with spirituality, and it is nice to see that viewpoint confirmed. Spirituality comes not from holding a set of dogmatic beliefs, but from treating others with loving kindness and appreciating the world in all its vast and majestic beauty.
Another author tells, here, of her experience seeing Julia Sweeney's one-woman show "Letting Go of God", reliving her journey to atheism:
Like anyone I know who has lost the faith in which they were raised, Sweeney's questions didn't arise from a whim or out of a desire to escape irritating rules and rituals. Rather, seeking answers to difficult and sincere questions led her through a gut-wrenching process and to a conclusion that she tried mightily to avoid.
...I admire Sweeney's bravery in publicly telling her story in a culture so predominately religious that she risks ridicule and marginalization for doing so.
Ms. Sweeney is indeed to be commended for presenting her personal story with such forthrightness and courage. But though she does risk ridicule for presenting it, I do not think she risks marginalization. There are a great many nonbelievers in our society, and as this essay shows, many of them need only a small amount of encouragement to be persuaded to speak out themselves. Just as in the parable of the emperor who had no clothes, sometimes it only takes one courageous voice saying what everyone knows in order to produce a general acknowledgement.
Sadly, atheists who speak out are sometimes met with worse than ridicule. Although the standard sewage of religious hate mail and threats inevitably follows when atheists speak out, as far as I know, no one has ever actually been murdered in the United States for advocating atheism. But while this is generally true of the Western countries, it is not always for lack of trying. Consider the case of Leo Bassi:
New York-born Bassi describes his show "The Revelation," which has toured successfully elsewhere in Europe, as a "tribute to secular values" and a "defence of atheism"...
The intention of his show, Bassi told El Pais, was to explain as an atheist his opposition to monotheistic thinking. In the two-hour satirical monologue, he plays a televangelist, a fundamentalist and the Pope (handing out condoms). At the end of the show, he directs people to a form on his web site where they can renounce their faith. He describes this as "reverse evangelism."
...After attempts were made to burn down the display window at the Teatro Alfil, Bassi was forced to hire bodyguards to protect himself.
Several days after the Alternativa Española demonstration outside the theatre, staff disturbed a man in the act of planting a bomb in the theatre. A 50-year-old man was seen fleeing the scene shortly before a performance was due to start. A homemade firebomb was discovered in a cleaning cupboard in the balcony, not far from Bassi's dressing room. The bomb was made of a gasoline can and two tins of gunpowder. The wick was lit when staff discovered it. There were 200 people in the theatre at the time, and bomb-disposal experts advised that the device could have caused untold damage.
Although these attempted acts of terrorism are a frightening reminder that the evil spirit of totalitarianism exists in every religion, they are also, in a way, a testament to the increased influence of atheism. The mere fact that right-wing fanatics feel so threatened by Bassi's show as to attempt to shut it down, both by legal action and by violence, shows that they believe people are willing to listen and be swayed by such a message. With any luck, the acts of these fanatics will accomplish nothing but to boost Bassi's visibility, as more people come to see for themselves what information others were willing to kill to keep them from seeing.
Bassi's case is a valuable reminder that some atheists still face not just ridicule or hate mail for speaking out, but actual danger of physical harm. Another such case is that of Wafa Sultan, an ex-Muslim courageously speaking out against the barbaric fundamentalists of her former belief system and the theocratic societies that spawn violence and hate. As might be expected, her doing so has brought a deluge of death threats from ignorant and savage extremists that ironically only confirm everything she has said; but so far she has remained undaunted. (See the transcript of an interview with Dr. Sultan here). Although we need a hundred more like Dr. Sultan if we are ever going to make progress toward banishing the evils of Muslim extremism, the least we can do is to stand by her side and support her however we can, not least by publicizing her message to Muslims not yet infected by the virus of fanaticism and with whom we can still establish a rapport and work for peaceful coexistence.
Turning back to American nonbelief, it has been said of science that a new theory becomes accepted not because it wins over all the adherents of the former, inferior theory, but because the older generation that refused to accept it gradually dies away. And while there is some truth to this, it applies tenfold to religion. For that reason, it is greatly heartening to see so many members of the younger generations, such as college students, not just rejecting religion, but speaking out as atheists with clarity and passion. Here are three such stories, representative of many more that are out there: an atheist student group at the University of Idaho, a student's column in the George Washington University Daily Colonial, and an atheist blogger in a progressive student group. All of their stories are well worth reading for the eloquence and rhetorical force with which these students state their views. If they are representative of their generation, there is indeed a great source of hope for the future.
Finally, I would like to highlight one more article that I think is the most significant of all: a Miami Herald editorial, New Orleans' spirit stirs atheist's soul. Although it treats atheism more briefly than any of the other cited articles, I think it is important precisely because of the matter-of-fact way in which the author states her atheism, neither apologizing for it nor attempting to defend it, but simply stating it as a part of who she is, as background to her other experiences. This, more than anything else, is what the quiet revolution consists of - atheism not as something unusual or shocking, not something we need to be forever arguing for, but as an ordinary, accepted part of society. The more articles like this we can see published, the more we can drive home the important message that atheists are people just like everyone else.