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The Atheist Movement Has One Job

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“This is the atheist movement’s one job: to help people navigate the world and find meaning, purpose, and community in a society that has long depended on a god-belief for these ends.”

Thomas Sheedy, founder of Atheists for Liberty, recently joined me for a discussion about the future of the atheist movement. It makes for an interesting topic, given that atheism is defined by a lack of a belief in something rather than an affirmative set of beliefs. But I get it: Atheists tend to view religious beliefs as harmful to individuals and society, so they advocate against people following such beliefs.

At one level, the atheist movement is thriving as more and more people are abandoning traditional religion. But it is difficult to say that this is happening due to the efforts of a “movement” rather than the general process of society secularizing. Decades ago, prominent atheist authors such as Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins took atheism mainstream, where it remains. That boulder only needed to be lifted once. So what is the point of the atheist movement now? 

The typical justification for an ongoing atheist movement is that a concerted effort is required to safeguard the separation between church and state in the United States. This is, indeed, front and center in Atheists for Liberty’s mission statement. The organization also seeks to normalize atheism, preserve free thought, safeguard secularism, and advance individual liberty. These are all important projects. But, again, there is a case to be made that these values will advance irrespective of a formal movement of proud atheists. 

But there is one perspective on the atheist movement that arguably does justify the movement’s ongoing existence. According to Thomas Sheedy, “The majority of Americans [who have left religion] are not going to go back to church anymore. The majority of people in the Western world are not going to go back to religion. We need secular solutions.”

People are, in fact, abandoning religion and not going back. Less church means fewer social interactions and fewer chances to build meaningful relationships. Less religion means fewer opportunities to confront existential questions in the context of a worldview that offers confident answers. 

The obvious response to this new reality, as Sheedy notes, would be to find “secular solutions” to fill in the social and spiritual gaps left open by religion’s departure. And, to some degree, this is happening. It is not as if secular people do not know how to form communities. For example, there is currently an epidemic of male loneliness. No doubt all these lonely males could find companionship at a local church, but they could also, as The New York Times recently pointed out, find the sense of camaraderie they crave “out on the pickleball court,” for example. And in terms of a spiritual void left by religion’s absence, humans are naturally predisposed to telling stories that give life meaning. Whether it is living for one’s children, living for a taste of the American Dream, living as a proud member of a species that will one day populate distant galaxies, or all of these plus a thousand other grand narratives, there is an absolute treasure trove of alternatives to the archaic story that a virgin gave birth to a child who was killed by the Romans on a cross and then came back to life three days later.

Unfortunately, secular society is not effective at pointing out that there already exists a plethora of secular alternatives to attending church and believing in religious stories. There is a widely accepted notion that, as people abandon religion, they become increasingly anxious and depressed. This goes along with the view that there is a massive God-shaped hole in people’s lives—a hole that secular society simply cannot fill. And it may, in fact, be the case that religious people are less anxious and depressed. One study, for example, found that increased religious orientation among a sample of college students slightly reduced reported levels of anxiety and depression. The atheist movement does not need to feel threatened by this type of study. Rather, it can be taken as a call to action.

This is the atheist movement’s one job: to help people navigate the world and find meaning, purpose, and community in a society that has long depended on a god-belief for these ends. As noted, there are secular alternatives. But there is also abundant opportunity for atheists to reframe the problems handed to us by religious texts. For example, the very idea that we need a grand, cosmic purpose is a notion from the Christian worldview that should be reexamined. I can point to people in my life, along with philosophers such as Emil Cioran, who happily flaunt a purposeless existence. If that sounds shocking, it may be due to latent Christian indoctrination.

At the same time, atheists do not need to pretend to have all of the answers. As Sheedy expressed to me, “The human experience is a very unique and crazy one. I wouldn’t say, as an atheist leader, that I have all the answers.” This is one of the fundamental problems with religion: By claiming to have all the answers, the entire edifice can crumble the moment a believer starts to find cracks in the logic. People should be free to find their own answers. But that does not mean they need to find answers on their own. 

“We are entering a secular future whether we like it or not,” Sheedy observed. As this happens, the need for secular solutions to social and existential problems will only become more urgent. The atheist movement, hopefully, will be up for the task.

Peter Clarke is a freelance journalist in San Francisco. He can be found on Twitter @HeyPeterClarke

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