The structure of social revolutions, part 2

A bit more than a month ago, I spoke about Thomas Kuhn’s notion of scientific revolutions.  In the case of Copernicus’ heliocentric model, and in many other cases throughout history, a major scientific discovery was not accepted by the scientific community, or in the public at large, within the generation of the person who discovered it.  This time, I’d like to talk some more about examples of social movements that have followed similar trends, and how this relates to atheist activism.

Atheists aren’t the only group that gets flack from Christian groups.  We commonly discuss atheism as a movement that shares roots with civil rights movements and also the current push towards marriage equality.

Actually, those two other things have more in common than you might think. See, until the US Supreme Court case of Loving v Virginia in 1967, many states outlawed interracial marriage. It’s actually kind of surprising to contemplate how recently that was, given that it’s accepted by just about everybody now.  The Virginia judge who sentenced the interracial couple to prison, in the case that eventually became the launching point for this USSC ruling, wrote the following:

“Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.”

Yeah, duh, right? It’s so obvious.


Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen
Left: Maurissa Tancharoen with her husband Jed Whedon (Joss’s brother)
Right: Cuba Gooding Jr. with his wife Sara Kafer
Avert your eyes, folks! Don’t look at the SCAAAAAAARY lawbreakers!

Seriously, if these people had lived in Virginia 50 years ago, they could have been arrested, because it violates god’s plan.  I don’t see many people working to roll back Loving v Virginia today, do you?

Similarly, let’s talk gay marriage. Yes, it’s still a long uphill slog. But maybe this graph will put things in perspective, copied from a research paper titled “Gay Rights in the States: Public Opinion and Policy Responsiveness“.


From left to right, the little shapes represent different age groups and their support for gay marriage in each state.  What you can read from this graph is that no matter where you go, younger groups support gay marriage in much greater proportion than older people across the board.  A solid majority of people aged 18-29 are in favor of it in all but twelve states, and the worst it gets is about 37% in Alabama, compared to 90% opposing it in the 65+ age range.

You know what’s notable about the 65+ age range in this case?  In 50 years, they’ll all be dead.

Change happens slowly everywhere — just like during the Copernican Revolution.  Frequently, within individuals, it never happens at all. Instead, as with evolution, we watch for it to happen over time, within populations.

A little encouragement for atheists

Okay, so most of the readers here are not gay, and most aren’t involved in interracial relationships.  Although I would hope that most of our followers are believers in social justice to the point where they support this kind of equality in both cases.  But what, specifically, does this have to do with atheism?

Some of the answer can be found in this recent study by our friend Gregory S. Paul.  The study shows that in 12 of 16 first world countries, the number of theists went down and atheists went up.  In some major countries the difference was quite dramatic.  In Great Britain, the number of atheists nearly doubled, from 9.6% in 1998 to 17.7% in 2008; and even among those who remained theists, the number of people who said they had “no doubt” about God declined.

The bad news, for those of us here in the USA, is that we are one of the exceptions. In the United States, God belief actually increased by a slight amount.  However, Paul also links to a separate Gallup poll which indicates that people disbelieve God at a rate that is four times higher in the US now than it was in the 60’s, so you still have to see that as progress in the long run.

As I’ve reported many times, we often get the question “Why bother arguing for atheism if you’re not going to change the minds of the most hardened fundamentalists?”  The answer I always give is that I’m not in it to change any one person’s mind in particular.  The fundamentalist on the other end of the phone line, I couldn’t care less if he individually decides to give up his religion.

What I want, instead, is to change the climate, in such a way that people feel comfortable with arguing for atheism.  They understand that their arguments have weight and merit, and that the case for theism is flimsy at best. Atheists should be less timid, in general, about being out of the closet. Theists should feel like they have to think twice when they are about to hit somebody with Pascal’s Wager, or “Are you a good person?” for fear that the stranger they accost will be well informed in his rejection of religion.  People on the fence should hear atheist voices regularly, so they don’t get fooled into thinking that the question of God’s existence is entirely one sided.

When that happens, kids will grow up thinking that atheism isn’t scary and doesn’t make life meaningless; it’s just one among many points of view, and it has legitimacy.  Over time, that drift can accelerate, until maybe one day the idea of talking snakes and a wine-conjuring superhero will seem as outdated as a geocentric universe.


  1. Jenea says

    Typo in paragraph right after the (awesome!) graph: “What you can read from this graph is that no matter where you go, younger groups support gay marriage in much greater marriage than older people across the board.” The last instance of “marriage” should probably be “numbers”.

  2. CroatianAtheist says

    I would rather call it evolution instead of revolution, since it’s mostly a change over generations…

  3. Kazim says

    I don’t know if you read the first post, but the reason scientific revolutions are called revolutions is because they involve a major paradigm shift to an existing idea. Within a generation, or a few generations, an old idea is more or less supplanted and made obsolete by an old one. It’s gradual, but it’s dramatic — kind of akin to the Cambrian explosion, maybe.

  4. Croatian Atheist says

    I haven’ read the first part, and I can’t find it, so I do apologize if I’m missing the point.
    I am talking about social acceptance of an idea. That seems to be very gradual and more dependent on generation change than on personal change. Yes, unlike biological evolution, individuals (in society) DO change, but the only thing I would call revolution here would be a change to a specific law.

    I am not trying to change scientific definitions, just contemplating 🙂 .

    (I hope my English is readable…)

  5. 1415dr says

    Brilliant article. It is amazing how much has changed in just 40 years. It gives me some hope that even if religion never goes away at least their social policies will fade. Thank you very much for the insight.

  6. Kazim says

    The link to the first article is at the top of the page. If you still can’t find it, it’s at

    And I am also talking about the social acceptance of an idea. That was the whole point of Thomas Kuhn’s work, “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.” Describing not just how scientific frameworks change, but how they come to be accepted among the general public. This post is an attempt to generalize that to non-scientific ideas.

  7. Roberto says

    I think the conclusion that support to equal-sex marriage will increase by the time the 65+ generation is no longer around may be fallacious, since the analysis isn’t tackling the shift in support with age. In light of that chart only, I think it’s not possible to discard the possibility that people that is currently in the 18 – 29 age group will become way less supportive when they get older, so the same graph generated in 50 years from now won’t be that much different.

  8. Croatian Atheist says

    Ok, I would have to read the book to really understand why “revolution” is used. To me, the word mens something abrupt, sudden etc…

    If it is a reference to an era than I was way off 🙂

  9. troll says

    That’s highly unlikely. What evidence is there that people become less supportive of marriage equality with age in any significant numbers? The way these charts have been shifting over the years show that the opposite is the case. People are changing their views in favor of marriage equality at a vastly faster rate than people who do the opposite.

  10. brenda says

    Except that social movements all have had allies to help them gain acceptance otherwise they would have failed. African Americans had white predominately Jewish allies in their struggle for civil rights. Women’s rights activists have and had male allies who helped support their cause. Minority groups cannot go it alone. You need friends.

    Who are your friends?

    If you look around and NO ONE wants to be allied with you perhaps you should ask yourself some hard questions. Maybe it’s you. I’m agnostic and I absolutely do NOT wish to be allied in with the New Atheism or with those who claim to represent it.

    You might want to ask yourselves why that is.

  11. Roberto says

    I wish you are right, Troll. Yet I still have to see evidence about shift (or lack of shift) in people convictions with age. Do you have any statistics supporting your position?

  12. Kazim says

    The whole point of this post and the previous one, in referencing Kuhn’s work, was that people generally don’t change their convictions once they are set. There are exceptions, of course, but as I pointed out in several cases, Copernican shifts happen when a new generation or several comes of age. The default explanation for the observed fact that younger people consistently support gay marriage in much greater numbers than older people would be generational differences, unless you have significant evidence that people are particularly liable to change their minds about this particular issue over time.

  13. sharkjack says

    As a relatively short time lurker, might I ask why this would be?

    I’m not sure where you’re from, I’m from the Netherlands so the whole social movement atheism part is sort of new to me. It just puzzles me what issues you see yourself on the opposite side of the New atheists on (besides what you want to make atheism/agnosticism refer to and what the right position to take on that is).

    Are you against seperation of church and state? gay rights to marriage? freedom of religion? Abortion?

    Granted these aren’t all necissarily atheist issues, but the AE has expressed support for them and sees them as crucial issues.

    So if it’s not the issues, then it’s probably the attitude of the people here. Do you listen to the atheist experience at all? Do you really think the hosts are that unpleasant? Or do you think the problem lies with posts on this blog? Or is it just the movement in general?

    This isn’t meant as an attack, it is really an honest inquiry (though I guess it doesn’t mean to much to say that on the internet).

  14. brenda says

    “might I ask why this would be?”

    Many people do not wish to be associated with the New Atheism because they take extremist positions on a number of social issues.

    “It just puzzles me what issues you see yourself on the opposite side of the New atheists on”

    Virtually all of their social beliefs. Sam Harris advocates torture and denying freedom of speech and of religion to certain groups he disapproves of. Closer to you Ayaan Hirsi Ali believes that your laws in Norway against anti Islamic hate speech are responsible for Anders Brevik’s mass murder of women and children. Those extremist beliefs and others are what will prevent atheism from gaining greater social acceptance.

    “Granted these aren’t all necissarily atheist issues”

    Yeah, none of them have anything to do with the theist/atheist debate nor will adopting socially liberal policies improve your standing. I like the Phil Plait “Don’t Be a Dick” idea but sadly I do not see many atheists trying to build bridges. They are pretty good at burning them and so now they are complaining they’re all alone on a burnt out landscape of their own creation.

    “Or is it just the movement in general?”

    Yes, it’s atheism as it exists today that I find morally repugnant. Right now there is a huge conflagration over sexual harassment at TAM. Rebecca Watson of Skepchic among others refuse to even attend TAM because of the abusive atmosphere there. My opposition to the Internet Village Atheist asshole phenomenon began long before Rebecca’s problems but I see them as a continuation of a general tendency I have observed for a long time. Like… how are the Richard Dawkins forums doing these days? Oh…. that’s right…. they became a cesspool of anti religious hate and bigotry so bad they had to just completely shutter the whole site.

    Which is of course someone else’s fault.

    Good luck with that.

  15. Jdog says

    The example given in the OP about interracial marriage should suffice. Are we seeing large numbers of people shifting to view it less favorably as they grow older?

  16. Kazim says


    You obviously have a lot of strong feelings and anger stored up on this topic. There are things you say which don’t really make sense to me, though.

    Like, for instance, your passionate support of Rebecca Watson. I agree with it, and I agree with her decision. But although she’s not attending TAM specifically, when you make a blanket statement of anger and contempt against outspoken atheists, you’re attacking Rebecca personally. One of the reasons she is such a well known figure is that for years she’s been an outspoken blogger and show host on topics of skepticism, science education, and yes… atheism. It says so right on her public profile.

    Many of Rebecca’s most ardent supporters come from this very network, Freethought Blogs — PZ Myers being one of the first to call out Richard Dawkins’ inappropriate reaction to her. There are numerous women and feminists who blog here about atheism, including Greta Christina, Ophelia Benson, and Stephanie Zvan. Everyone who blogs right here on The Atheist Experience has, at one time or another, expressed strong support for feminism, and this was the first blog to break the story about The Amazing Atheist’s vile meltdown.

    So your own outburst here is a little bit confusing to me. On the one hand it appears as if you’d be preaching to the choir — in principle, we’re on your side regarding the issues you named. On the other hand, the spite you obviously feel for atheist movements in general suggests to me that, oh, your eagerness to tar a group of potential supporters with a broad brush of divisiveness and vitriol prevents you from actually making allies
    of your own. Eh?

    Or this:
    Sam Harris advocates torture and denying freedom of speech and of religion to certain groups he disapproves of.

    Yeah, that guy sure does that. Which is why he takes all kinds of flack from a lot of so-called “new atheists.” I don’t agree with him. PZ doesn’t agree with him. I’m quite sure neither Richard Dawkins nor Daniel Dennett agree with him.

    But the odd thing is, none of that seems to be your real issue. On one hand, you suggest that atheists “take extremist positions on a number of social issues.” But when sharkjack points out a number of critical social issues which are, in fact, pretty central to atheist activism, you dismiss them because “adopting socially liberal policies [will not] improve your standing.” I mean, I could point out that most atheists are socially liberal, or that they overwhelmingly vote Democratic in most elections, both of which are true. But it seems that the positions they take on real issues only matter to you when you can cherry pick individuals to stand in as representatives of stuff that you hate.

    All I can say is, I’m sorry you feel so much spite, and I hope you can get over it someday.

  17. Andrew says

    “When that happens, kids will grow up thinking that atheism isn’t scary and doesn’t make life meaningless; it’s just one among many points of view, and it has legitimacy.”

    Yes. Exactly. Theism isn’t going away any time soon. The point is that atheism has to be made a legitimate, socially acceptable, and openly discussed position, which it is pretty much in every other first world nation except the United States, especially here in Texas and the South.

  18. jacobfromlost says

    “Yeah, that guy sure does that. Which is why he takes all kinds of flack from a lot of so-called “new atheists.” I don’t agree with him.PZ doesn’t agree with him. I’m quite sure neither Richard Dawkins nor Daniel Dennett agree with him.”

    I don’t think Harris’s positions are as simplistic as I so often hear. His position on torture, for instance, is far more nuanced a position than his critics ever imply, or perhaps even acknowledge.

    (you have to scroll down a little to get to the torture part)

    Far too often it seems that people are disagreeing with what Harris isn’t saying. My theory is that it stems from his interest in meditation, and a suspicion by his critics that he must be deep deep DEEP down a woo peddler, even though everything he says, and continues to say, contradicts this.

  19. says

    Brenda, if you consider the movement too extreme or shrill, why not try to change it by contributing a voice of moderation? Every movement has its share of intolerant, bigoted participants, including the so-called New Atheism. The right thing to do when you meet such people is to call them out on their faults of compassion or logic and change the dialog. It’s not uncommon that I read someone’s offhanded comment about banning public displays of religiosity or some other nonsense. That peeves me, and I call them out on it. If they’re a reasonable person, they’ll listen to a reasonable comment and sometimes change their mind.

    IMO, the ACA and the movement as a whole consistently advocate for the expansion and protection of rights, including freedom of people to practice whatever religion they choose. It’s a liberal agenda, perhaps, but if you can present good arguments for other points of view, I’m convinced they’d listen.

  20. says

    Wishing for a ‘report typo’ link. 😉

    Second-last paragraph, “…so they don’t get fooled into think[ing] that the question of God’s existence is entirely one sided.”

    Excellent posts, Kazim!