You know that guy down the street? Nice guy, about 50, IT consultant, first guy on the block to clear his walks and mailbox after every snow, fought in Desert Storm, keeps his yard immaculate, put two daughters through college, donates for breast cancer research and puts up a flag every Fourth? That guy?
Well, that guy is an atheist. Not a communist, never been in jail and doesn’t eat babies. Just an atheist. A 21st-century atheist in America has nothing to do with the former Soviet Union. Nor is he any more likely to end up in prison than anyone else.
The new atheists bear no resemblance to the villainous monster the churches have warned us about for the past 1,500 years. Although a lot of political resistance and faith-based bigotry still exist, atheists are no longer social pariahs. But it took the advent of the Internet for nonbelievers to find each other and their voice.
As a result, America’s religious makeup is rapidly changing. The American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) shows the country is trending away from Christianity, falling from 86 percent of the population in 1990 to 76 percent in 2008.
Seventy-five million Americans, or one in four, are not Christians. More than 50 million of those claim no religious affiliation. ARIS refers to them as the “Nones.” So, how, exactly, is “atheist” defined? Technically, an atheist is someone who does not believe the ancient deities are real. That describes 12 to 15 percent of Americans, although only 1 to 2 percent refer to themselves as atheists.
The Nones (including non-believers and the unaffiliated) are the third-largest group in the survey, outnumbering Jews, Muslims, Mormons, Buddhists, Hindus, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Southern Baptists combined. In the District, the percentage of Nones jumped from 7 percent in 1990 to 18 percent in 2008; in Maryland, from 8 percent to 13 percent; and in Virginia, 7 percent to 15 percent.
The average atheist in America is invisible. Many choose silence because for most of the past 2,000 years, it was highly lethal to speak out.
But, atheists are everywhere. They are your family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, police officers, doctors, businessmen, celebrities and the guy who fixes your computer. And they are happy to fly under the radar of the professional evangelizers. So, when you say you don’t know any atheists, what you are saying is you don’t know who they are.
Rick Wingrove, chief executive Beltway Atheists