Emerging ideas tend to go through three phases. First they are considered so dangerous or odd that people won’t talk about them. Then they are thought so new and fascinating that people can’t stop talking about them. Finally, they become mainstreamed and are no longer unique enough to spark concern or secure air time.
Think back to 60 years ago when interracial marriage, homosexuality and transgendered people were unheard of or not discussed in polite society. Then look a little more recently, to when a person could get air time on major TV and radio talk shows just for being interracially married, gay or transgendered. And consider now, when these ideas have become sufficiently mainstreamed that they don’t generate that level of interest.
Well, today, the idea that one can be a good citizen without believing in a God is in the middle of that process. People who are nontheistic (atheists or agnostics) are suddenly interesting. And, in being interesting, they have become more willing to show themselves.
But it wasn’t always this way. I can remember, back in the 1960s, that if you wanted to publish a forthrightly atheistic popular book you needed to go through some little-known freethought publisher to do it. No mainstream publishing house would touch your work. Moreover, none of the major vanity houses would accept your money despite your willingness to pay for such publication. Also, as a customer, if you ordered an atheistic book or periodical through the mails, it came to you in a plain brown wrapper.
How much this has changed! Today there’s a special market niche for nontheistic books. You can even purchase them in airport bookstores and read them openly!
Beyond this, in my own profession of marketing secular ideas across the country, I find only rare difficulty placing godless messages in newspaper ads, on highway billboards and on the sides of buses. These promotional efforts generate controversy and attention, to be sure. But the key factor is that my money is accepted and my ads appear.
In tandem with the increasing opportunities for nontheistic people to express themselves in the marketplace has come an explosion of local nontheistic groups. Aided by the Internet, we find that, like never before, agnostics, atheists, brights, freethinkers, humanists, rationalists, skeptics, secularists and all the rest have been forming local societies, book clubs, campus groups, meetups, parenting circles, support groups and so on in cities small and large, in every region of the country. (This is in addition to the wide range of purely virtual communities across cyberspace.) And through my work, many local groups have been combining their efforts in local coalitions-more than fifty of them so far from coast to coast-in order to strengthen their social impact through cooperation.
On the national scene, not only have the existing organizations enjoyed dramatic growth in membership and financial support, new organizations have cropped up to widen the range of programming. This means that the range of activity isn’t focused anymore on only the expression of ideas through publications and conventions. Now there are nontheistic charities, political action groups, legal centers, and educational programs.
In sum, since 2004-marked by the release of Sam Harris’ “The End of Faith” and Susan Jacoby’s “Freethinkers”-a growing “coming out” by the godless has been underway. The Reason Rally, therefore, is simply a more noticeable expression of that phenomenon. It’s also a way that the organizations behind it can let more people know that they needn’t express their independence of thought alone, or silently. They can become part of something larger: a movement. And make a difference.
Finally, as this process continues, in good time the secular minded will be permitted to take their place at the table with everyone else--recognized as legitimate contributors to society with ideas that make up an important part of our culture and its history.
Fred Edwords, national director of the United Coalition of Reason, has been a secular activist for more than 35 years.
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