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Why Atheists Have Become a Kick-Ass Movement You Want on Your Side

Atheists are becoming a force to be reckoned with. They are a powerful ally when inspired to take action -- and a powerful opponent when they're treated like dirt.

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When a cause catches their hearts, the atheist community can be a powerful ally.

And when a cause catches their hearts in a different way, they can be a powerful opponent.

The American Cancer Society snafu is probably the most obvious example of this. When the ACS turned down the Foundation Beyond Belief's offer to participate as a national team in the Relay for Life, they apparently didn't expect much pushback. But when the story broke, it went viral -- and made misery for the ACS. For weeks, the ACS was deluged with emails, letters, phone calls, and posts to their Facebook wall. For weeks, their Facebook wall was taken up almost entirely with angry posts about the story. Importantly, while the chief instigators of the rage-fest were atheists, they were quickly followed by a crowd of religious believers, who were just as outraged at the anti-atheist bigotry -- and at the rejection of perfectly good money -- as the heathens. And very importantly, a flood of people halted their donations to the ACS... including many people who had been regular donators for years.

But there are plenty of other examples as well. The abovementioned American Airlines anti-vaccination ad. The abovementioned Sean Harris protest. The sublimely ridiculous Gelatogate, in which a local gelato merchant in Springfield, Missouri posted a sign in his store window reading, "Skepticon [a skeptical/ atheist conference] is NOT Welcomed To My Christian Business"... and then got a faceful of Internet fury when a photo of the sign was Facebooked, Tweeted, G-plussed, texted, blogged, emailed, and generally spread through the atheosphere like wildfire... and then backpedaled as fast as it is possible for a human being to backpedal. Like many social change movements, organizing atheists is like herding cats, and it's not easy to predict which issues will catch their imaginations -- but when it happens, the combination of passionate motivation and Internet savvy turns them into a powerhouse.

And very importantly, the atheist movement is increasingly becoming a youth movement. The Secular Student Alliance -- an umbrella organization of non-theistic college and high school groups around the United States and the world -- is growing at an astonishing rate. In 2009, they had 143 affiliates: in 2012, they had 351. Impressively, their high school rates are climbing at an even faster clip. In 2010, the organization had only four high school affiliates: this year, that number has climbed to 37. And as anyone knows who understands politics getting young people inspired and on board is enormously important for the long-term future of any social change movement. What's more, many of these student groups are active in service projects and social change activism outside of atheism... and are eager to partner with other groups to get the job done. If you're in any doubt about the power of atheism to help move political mountains, now and in the coming years -- pay attention to those SSA affiliate numbers. And pay attention to how they keep growing... and growing... and growing.

So what's the take-home message?

Atheists are your friend. Or they can be. And they can be a very powerful friend indeed.

Progressive and social-change organizers and organizations are having a hard time seeing the atheist movement as... well, as anything, really. Except maybe as a pain in the neck. Many progressives are undoubtedly aware of the existence of atheists: the atheist community's efforts at visibility have been paying off, and atheism is being discussed in progressive circles as widely as it is everywhere else. But somehow, while the existence of atheists has become undeniable, the existence of atheism as a social change movement is still largely being ignored. To give just one example: In over 100 panels, training sessions, and other presentations at the upcoming 2012 Netroots Nation conference for online progressive activists, not one is about atheists or atheism. (Conflict of interest alert: I was one of the proposed panelists on a proposed atheism panel for Netroots Nation 2012.)

 
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