The Reason Rally marks a high point in the recent surge of atheism. For anyone who has been around long enough to watch atheism in America go from hated to somewhat tolerated to (almost) mainstream, this is an event we never thought we’d see: Thousands of atheists coming together on the National Mall for a celebration of freethought, with politicians and celebrities willing to speaking to us (at least via video)! It just didn’t seem plausible a decade ago.
For those of us under 30, though, this event doesn’t seem too out of the ordinary. A bunch of atheists getting together? It’s just like those gatherings we have for our college atheist groups. Or our local meetup groups. Or our online communities. Just bigger.
That wasn’t always the case.
Five years ago, the number of active campus atheist groups was just over 50. As I write this, the Secular Student Alliance ha over 350 affiliates across the country. It’s to the point where college students seeking out an atheist group at school are more surprised *not* to find one. Even high school groups have begun popping up. These atheists are not only active in their communities and spearheading conversations about religion on campus, they’re also media savvy, getting featured in their school newspapers, local media, and even major publications time and time again. We’re not anywhere near “Campus Crusade for Christ” levels with regard to money or ubiquity, but we’re not showing any signs of slowing down.
Even people who are not atheists are becoming more accepting of atheism. A recent report from Brookings and the Public Religion Research Institute found that people ages 18-30 were much more accepting of atheists than Americans 65 and older. Fifty-six percent of the younger generation viewed atheists favorably, compared to only 35 percent of the seniors. It’s getting to the point where high school and college-aged students all know someone who doesn’t believe in God. And when you know an atheist, you realize they don’t hate God, they aren’t immoral, and they have solid reasons for why they reject faith. It’s a lot harder to demonize us now.
Young people are also more likely to be atheists than ever before. Researchers Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell point out that “between 25 and 30 percent of twentysomethings today say they have no religious affiliation — roughly four times higher than in any previous generation.” Not all of them are atheists, but I’ll bet a large number of them are.
How did all this happen? It starts with every pastor’s worst nightmare, the Internet. Their “true stories” are now easily debunked on Snopes, their critiques against gay rights and women’s rights are quickly rebutted across the blogosphere, their arguments for the existence of God are laughable in the face of a well-written Wikipedia article. If you want to find the truth about how the world works, the Church of Google is more reliable than any megachurch pastor in the country.
Even though there may not be a physical building where we can meet, atheists have discovered communities online that weren’t around a decade ago. It’s easy to hear what other atheists have to say about current events on blogs, Tumblr, and Twitter. It’s not unusual to see the word “Pastafarian” show up under “religious views” on your friends’ Facebook pages, a humorous jab at faith. Want to put a face on modern atheism? Watch YouTube videos made by any number of popular heathens. We can talk about rejecting faith and thinking critically with an ease that wasn’t around a few years ago, and that has only amplified our message. The atheism subgroup at Reddit.com has nearly 600,000 (!) members.
Perhaps the strongest indication that atheism is hitting a tipping point in our country -- especially for young people -- is seen in the story of Jessica Ahlquist. When she noticed a banner in her high school’s auditorium promoting a belief in God, she filed a lawsuit to have it taken down. She knew the prayer banner was unconstitutional and she ultimately won the case. As if on cue, many in her community treated her like a monster. One politician in her state even called her an “evil little thing.”
But online, she became a hero. Videos of her media appearances spread quickly. On my website, Friendly Atheist, I asked if people would contribute to a college scholarship fund for her. They came through, raising a grand total of over $60,000.
We still have a long way to go. But it’s not as hard for atheists -- certainly not in the age of the Internet -- as it was before.
What does all of this have to do with the Reason Rally?
We’ve never had a chance to celebrate en masse what we’ve mostly (up to this point) enjoyed online and in smaller groups: A chance to meet other atheists from around the country, a chance to talk about religion without feeling the need to censor ourselves, a chance to be inspired by the people who helped shape our views.
I expect to see hordes of young atheists make their way to DC for the event. And I hope they leave there eager to be even more active and politically-engaged.
Hemant Mehta blogs at The Friendly Atheist.
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