By Robert Bernstein
Our Humanist Society talks span a wide range of issues relating to Humanist principles. Many have to do with matters of public policy, science, technology and ethics. But some inevitably are related to religion.
Our most recent talk “Why I’m Still Optimistic About Atheist Activism” by Hemant Mehta may sound like a diatribe against religion, but this “Friendly Atheist” delivered something far more interesting.
Humanist Society President Judy Flattery introduced Hemant Mehta:
- Mehta is the founder and editor of “Friendly Atheist”, a YouTube creator, and podcast co-host.
- He is a former National Board-Certified math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago.
- He has appeared on CNN and Fox News and served on the board of directors for GO Humanity and the Secular Student Alliance.
- His books include I Sold My Soul on eBay, The Young Atheist’s Survival Guide, and Queer Disbelief (editor).
Mehta began with his own history of coming to atheism. In high school he began questioning his religious belief and in college he started his own chapter of the Secular Student Alliance.
He showed a series of valuable slides, which he kindly allowed us to share. He used Google Trends to generate some of the graphics.
Starting with the frequency of searches for “New Atheists” and “New Atheism”. The searches peaked in early 2006 and have declined since.
Searches for “Atheism” peaked a bit later and lasted longer, but these have also declined over the years.
He showed a list of books on atheism on Amazon. There are a few newer ones by Andrew Seidel and Seth Andrews. But most are from the era of the New Atheists Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens and Harris who first wrote atheism books in the mid-2000s.
Shouldn’t we have moved forward?
He showed a photo of Dawkins speaking to the Reason Rally on the Washington, DC Mall in 2012. The crowd was estimated at 20-30 thousand. Perhaps the largest atheist gathering in US history.
Another Reason Rally there in 2016 was much smaller.
David Silverman was president of American Atheists from 2010 to 2018. He appeared on Fox. That doesn’t happen anymore.
So, why is Mehta optimistic? Because of what has been called “the rise of the Nones”. American adults are ever more likely each year to say “None” when asked their religious affiliation. About a third now say they have no religious affiliation.
Even more interesting is to see how religiosity has declined by generation as well as by time. Each generation is less religious than its preceding generation. And each generation is getting less religious over time.
In high school Mehta felt alone as an atheist. One reason he started the atheist group in college was to be able to meet fellow atheists. Now, that is not really necessary because so many students are non-religious.
Not everyone who believes in God belongs to a religion. So it is interesting to see the downward trend in people who say yes to the statement “I know God exists and I have no doubts about it”. For the first time ever, this has dropped below 50%. This does not mean they are non-believers. But that seed of doubt is important.
Sociologist Phil Zuckerman wrote an article in Salon in 2021 showing that staunch atheists show higher morals than the proudly pious. He looked at a number of key ethical issues. Support for: Helping refugees, affordable health care for all, accurate sex education, death with dignity, gay and trans rights and animal rights.
And opposition to: Militarism, government use of torture, the death penalty and corporal punishment.
57% of all Americans support abortion rights. But 87% of atheists do. Only Unitarians are higher.
One Pew survey asked if people believed one’s gender is determined at birth. A measure of whether trans people even exist in their mind. 71% of atheists/agnostics are open to the possibility that gender can change from birth. Only 15% of white evangelicals say this.
65% of atheists say no to the death penalty for murder. Only 23% of white evangelicals say no.
Pew did a survey in February 2021 about attitudes toward possible COVID vaccines. None yet existed and there was no organized opposition to them at this time. 90% of atheists said they would take the vaccine. Only 54% of white evangelicals said they would.
It is important to remember that in the past, atheists were just an asterisk in such surveys. Usually lumped in with “Other”. Now atheists appear as a separate category because of our numbers.
Numbers have grown so large that there are now specialized atheist organizations. Groups for Black atheists, for LGBTQ atheists. And, most notably, for ex-specific religions.
Lloyd Evans has a YouTube channel for ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses with over 100K subscribers.
Such specificity is very valuable for people in such religions. They know that this person knows what they are going through. Jehovah’s Witnesses who are questioning their religion will watch his videos, even if they are less interested in generic atheist writers and organizations.
The same goes for John Dehlin who hosts a podcast for ex-Mormons. He grew up in Mormonism and still has family in it. He knows what they are going through as they question their religion.
Ex-Fundie Diaries is a YouTube channel hosted by someone named “Elly” to connect with ex-fundamentalist Christians.
There are ever more platforms for these people to connect.
There is a new Amazon Prime series “Shiny Happy People” about the Duggar family.
Reddit not only has an Atheism sub-Reddit. It has a sub-Reddit for people who have left several different religions.
Fundie Snark Uncensored is a sub-Reddit he finds especially fun to browse.
Ex-Muslims of North America placed billboards like this, advertising that one in four Muslims in the US have left Islam.
Big atheist groups have shifted focus away from theological discussions and toward strategizing on critically important practical matters. Notably, reproductive rights for women following the Dobbs decision at the Supreme Court. A Court packed by Republicans with religious extremists with no regard for the secular nature of our Constitution.
This strategizing involves alliances with progressive religious organizations.
The January 6, 2021 insurrection raised awareness of Christian Nationalism as a force trying to overthrow our secular system of government.
Political candidates are coming out of the closet about being atheists. They are not making atheism their central focus, any more than gay or trans candidates have done so. But they are normalizing atheism.
He gave the examples of Megan Hunt in Nebraska and Sarah Henry in Florida.
But he also gave the example of Mallory McMorrow in Michigan who is a progressive Christian who is an ally.
Mehta loves solving crossword puzzles. And the NY Times puzzles are the king of them. There is a database of NY Times puzzle entries and clues. He looked up “God” and how it was clued 1994-1999. The clues were all very respectful.
But in recent years the clues have become more daring. For example “Word in the Declaration of Independence, but not in the Constitution”. Or “Mars but not Earth”.
He joked that most people solving puzzles are about 90 years old, plus himself. I will note that I have been solving puzzles since my brain injury from being hit by a car in 2002. Recommended by my speech therapist. But I concur that most puzzle people are older, meaning that this challenge to “God” is notable.
Mehta then took questions.
Judy Flattery noted that she can’t remember the last church wedding she attended. Mehta said that some states require require people with a religious ordination to perform the weddings and sign the certificates (unless you want a government official to do it for you). That excludes Humanist celebrants.
There have been lawsuits about this. And also “religions” invented specifically for this purpose! You can be ordained by mail!
I thanked Mehta for his optimism and for his vision of how atheism is evolving. I made a comparison with feminism. When I was growing up, feminism was making big changes. But then it seemed that many key rights had been secured and people got lax about identifying as a feminist. “That was just something our mothers had to do.” Until Dobbs woke people up.
Mehta answered by saying that people have shifted to joining organizations promoting the causes they care about. Progressive organizations. This can be frustrating for Humanist organizations like ours. But they are promoting these Humanist principles in these organizations.
Judy Fontana is the activity organizer for the Humanist Society. She noted that the Surgeon General has identified alienation and loneliness as a health issue. Religion historically was a way to create community and she tries to do this through HSSB.
Mehta agreed this is a challenge. He said it is OK if people meet up through organizations that are trying to achieve specific, concrete results. It is OK to have many events at different times and people can attend the ones that interest them and that are convenient.
Here is Mehta’s Friendly Atheist page!
For more information about upcoming events with the Humanist Society of Santa Barbara or to become a member, please go to https://www.sbhumanists.org/