The Origins of Aggressive Atheism

Non-believers are often marginalized in the U.S., which has led to a lot of resentment among their ranks. But don’t be deceived: For most Americans, lack of religion usually comes with a shrug, not a shout.

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By numbers alone, American atheists really aren’t that big of a group. According to a 2012 Pew report, atheists make up only about 2.4 percent of the population. Even agnostics, whom you could maybe call atheistic-ish, only account for an estimated 3.3 percent of Americans. Although both groups have grown somewhat since 2007, the bigger change has been among those who identify as “nothing in particular”-roughly 13.9 percent of the population, which is an increase of 2.3 percentage points over five years.

When you read headlines about the rise of the so-called “nones,” or people who don’t consider themselves part of a religion, that’s what they’re mostly referring to: the shruggers. They might be intensely spiritual or perfectly apathetic about faith, but for some reason or another, they don’t self-identify as definitively atheistic.

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Among those who do identify as atheists, though, the tone taken toward organized religion, especially recently, has been more shout-y than shrug-y. At the 2012 Reason Rally in Washington, D.C., for example, “a band fired up the crowd with a rousing song that lampooned the belief in ‘Jesus coming again,’ mixing it with sexual innuendo,” Cimino and Smith write. Attendees sported T-Shirts and signs with slogans like “I prefer facts” and “religion is like a penis” (involving a rather extended metaphor). There was a life-sized Jesus puppet.

This milieu shaped the rise of what you might call aggressive atheism, the kind that mocks and dismisses religious belief. As Cimino and Smith point out, this outspokenness has helped atheism gain visibility and coherency as a movement. But it also has downsides.

“In accepting a label, particularly the label of ‘atheist,’ it seems to me that we are consenting to be viewed as a cranky sub-culture,” said the writer Sam Harris at an Atheist Alliance conference in 2007. “We are consenting to be viewed as a marginal interest group that meets in hotel ballrooms. … As a matter of strategy, we have walked into a trap.”

For the next generation of atheists, though, things might be different-fewer dinners of bad baked chicken at conferences, more Internet.

“Especially with young people … there’s an openness with respect to choosing your religion, as opposed to just staying with the religion you’re born into,” said Smith. The Internet facilitates this: People who might otherwise feel isolated by the religious mores in their hometowns have access to communities of people who believe otherwise. “Atheists [aren’t] loners without any sort of social networks,” he said. “You can have social community, and social gatherings, without being in the same geographic meeting place.”

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This includes websites like Freethought Blogs and Reddit, which hosts a forum where people can post ideas and links about atheism. “According to its many testimonial posts, the forum known as r/atheism is a lifeboat in a sea of religious intolerance and incredulity,” Cimino and Smith write. Topics include family and friends who aren’t open to atheism, debates about social issues like abortion, and basic stuff like “atheist symbols other than the Darwin fish.”

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