Thursday, August 23, 2012

From Bible-Belt Pastor to Atheist Leader

NY Times  Not long ago, the atheist movement was the preserve of a few eccentric gadflies like Madalyn Murray O’Hair, whose endless lawsuits helped earn her the title “the most hated woman in America.” But over the past decade it has matured into something much larger and less cranky. In March of this year, some 20,000 people marched through a cold drizzle at the “Reason Rally” in Washington, billed as a political debut for the movement. A string of best-selling atheist polemics by the “four horsemen” — Hitchens and Dawkins, as well as Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett — has provided new intellectual fuel. Secular-themed organizations and clubs have begun to permeate small-town America and college campuses, helping to foot the bill for bus and billboard ad campaigns with messages like “Are You Good Without God? Millions Are.”

The reasons for this secular revival are varied, but it seems clear that the Internet has helped, and many younger atheists cite the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks as a watershed moment of disgust with religious zealotry in any form. It is hard to say how many people are involved; avowed atheists are still a tiny sliver of the population. But people with no religious affiliation are the country’s fastest-growing religious category. When asked about religious affiliation in a Pew poll published this summer, nearly 20 percent of Americans chose “none,” the highest number the center has recorded. Many of those people would not call themselves atheists; “agnostic,” which technically refers to people who believe that the existence of a higher being can’t be known by the human mind, remains the safer option. The godless are now younger and more diverse than in the past, with blacks and Hispanics — once vanishingly rare — starting to appear in the ranks of national groups like the United Coalition of Reason and the Secular Student Alliance.

The movement has also begun cultivating a new breed of guru in men like DeWitt and Nate Phelps, the son of Fred Phelps, the leader of Westboro Baptist Church, which pickets military funerals and gay-pride events with signs declaring “God Hates Fags.” Nate Phelps, a big, barrel-chested man who delivers fierce rebuttals of his father’s theology and narrates the agonies of his fundamentalist upbringing, has become a star speaker at atheist rallies and gay-pride events around the country. At the Reason Rally, crowds cheered as he declared that the Sept. 11 attacks played a critical role in blasting away his lingering belief in any sort of deity. [...]

“This story has kept you feeling that God has a destiny for you,” DeWitt said. “So now how do you reconcile that? How do you make sense of your life? It’s not easy.”

I heard parallel stories from a number of other participants in post-religion networks. “People have a really difficult time making decisions after they’ve lost their faith,” said Amanda Schneider, who organized a local Recovering From Religion group in Santa Fe (and also helps manage the broader organization). “They used to always base it on ‘What is God’s plan for me?’ They are still looking for something miraculous to guide them.” 


  1. The practical problem with the atheist movement is that it in order for it to prosper, it needs religion to feed off of.

    Imagine if there were no religion in the world. Then what would atheists do?

  2. Why do you (betzalel) say that?


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