Standing outside the wreckage that is Moore, Oklahoma, Rebecca Vitsmun holds up her enthusiastic little boy for the cameras. She made a quick decision to flee her home before the now infamous tornado pulverized it. A friendly conversation between she and CNNâs Wolf Blitzer becomes awkward when he asks her, âYou gotta thank the Lord, right?âÂ
She hesitates to say anything.
He repeats the question, but this time with a hint of curiosity. âDo you thank the Lord for that split second decision?â
âI’m actually an atheist,â she tells him with a smile. They laugh and then she assures him, âI don’t blame anybody for thanking the Lord.â
In this brief moment, I see a woman who recognizes that her atheism will be unexpected, but nevertheless offers it up in a frank, yet non-judgmental way. Blitzer discovers — if statistics are correctÂ that 1 in 5 Americans do not affiliate with any religion — that an aftermath this devastating is likely to have at least one person who doesnât thank the Lord.
In the history of atheism, we are at a point in time in which disbelief is not simply the luxury of an elitist who could afford to make enemies. This time around, especially the last 10 years, atheism is finding its way into the mainstream.
There are campaigns, billboards and bus ads all urging people to âcome outâ to their families. There is The Clergy Project, which helps clergy find new employment and safely exit their churches, and The Apostasy Project, a similar organization for just about anyone else. There are atheists who are musicians, comedians, TV characters and politicians. There are atheist charities like Foundation Beyond Belief, atheists involved in inter-religious dialogue, atheist churches, and atheists promoting gender equality among fellow atheists.
Atheist responses to cultural needs are swift. Very shortly after Rebecca Vitsmun told the world she is an atheist, the Oklahoma Freethought Convention printed t-shirts with âActually, Iâm an atheistâ on them, with the proceeds going to a relief fund to help her and her son.
What fascinates me about the sheer industry of it all is that the atheism of today reminds me of evangelicalism, whose own history has engaged all the same resources to increase their numbers. I realize that saying this is likely to offend both the atheist and the evangelical, but on the face of it, the public relations strategies of both groups are not that dissimilar, even if their worldviews are. These campaigns are allowing the nonreligious to have a significant public presence.
Consider, for example, Democratic State Representative Juan Mendez of Arizona, an atheist, who opened the afternoon session of the House of Representatives by asking people to not bow their heads for the opening prayer.
âThis is a room in which there are many challenging debates, many moments of tension, of ideological division, of frustration,â Mendez said according to the Phoenix NewTimes. âBut this is also a room where, as my secular humanist tradition stresses, by the very fact of being human, we have much more in common than we have differences. We share the same spectrum of potential for care, for compassion, for fear, for joy, for love.â He then quoted Carl Sagan.
Consider also those secular humanists who want a fairly traditional wedding, but without inviting God and without the more clinical feel of a Justice of the Peace. Humanist organizations are now seeking to address these ceremonial concerns by offering secular weddings and funerals. This is occurring in places like North Carolina, where lawmakers recently attempted to establish Christianity as the state religion. Likewise, in post-Catholic Ireland, secular humanists are picking up the roles once held by priests in these ceremonies.
While the religious are still running the world, the topography of the globe is quickly changing. Recent data from the National Household Survey shows that in Canada, approximately 24 percent are now unaffiliated with religion. In Mexico, the numbers of nonreligious are at the new high of 56 percent, leadingÂ to a Vatican visit seeking to find out what went wrong.
Similarly, the Office of National Statistics recently released new figures from the 2011 English and Welsh census, showing that of the 25 percent who say they have no religion (an ever-growing number), 39 percent are under 25 and 42 percent are between 25-49. These new numbers may, in part, be due to a robust campaign by the British Humanist Association, encouraging people who are not religious to step-up and check the box on census forms indicating as much.
This last part highlights the real strategies of atheists, secular humanists, skeptics, agnostics, and all other shades of general non-theism. There will always be those who convert from religion to non-religion. The convert, however, has not been the real target audience. Instead, the endgame of many campaigns, like that of the BHA, is to get people to be vocal about their already existing convictions, that is, to first get the closeted nonreligious to publicly profess their non-faith.
If groups like evangelicals want to understand how the tide is shifting, they need only to see that they are losing at their own game. People are reminded by the nonreligious that they âare not aloneâ and are being offered a place to belong and be themselves, but without the threat of hellfire. It has increased their public presence, pushing even the Pope to say that good atheists get to go to heaven too. This has currency for those who are already quietly nonbelievers and this eventually changes the numbers. It has allowed atheists to create a public space for themselves where there wasnât one previously.
It also allowed a woman to tell Wolf Blitzer and the entire world that she is an atheist.