Atheists are not a strong political force

Ten years ago, the Reason Rally was held in Washington DC. It was meant to serve as a big coming out party for atheists and nonbelievers and I was among those who attended. The day was rainy, which put a damper on things, but the mood was festive and celebratory. But as this article says, some of the high expectations of that day did not quite pan out.

Ten years ago, thousands of atheists, humanists, and skeptics descended by the busload upon the National Mall in Washington to attend the Reason Rally, the largest-ever gathering of nonbelievers. “We’re here, we’re godless, get used to it,” chanted the crowd, estimated to have between 10,000 and 30,000 people. For America’s growing non-religious movement, it was a jubilant coming-out-of-the-closet party.

Billed as a “Woodstock for atheists and skeptics,” the rally seemed to be a watershed moment for atheist and humanist political representation. But even as the number of Americans who identify as religiously unaffiliated has grown steadily—Pew’s polling shows a jump from 19 percent in 2011 to 29 percent this year—a follow-up rally held on the Mall in 2016 saw lackluster turnout.

Now, a decade after that first rally, the under-resourced non-religious voting bloc seems no closer to competing with the so-called Religious Right, which so many Reason Ralliers had sought to overpower.

Observers say that the movement’s current impotence is in part due to atheist and humanist leaders’ inability in the 2010s to unite and mobilize the religiously unaffiliated. Some of these so-called “nones” identify as atheists and agnostics; but about one in five Americans identify as “nothing in particular.” The individuals—as they can hardly be called a “group”—have particularly low levels of social and political engagement.

“The demographic shift is shifting away from organized religion, but not to organized anything else, which makes it all but impossible to ask them to do anything,” Mehta said. “Because most of them are apathetic. They’re not atheists.”

I think that it was always unrealistic to imagine that the atheist movement would become some sort of political juggernaut. Nonbelievers are all over the map politically, united mainly by their lack of religious believers, and that kind of negative cohesive factor tends not to inspire the kind of passion that creates major political movements.

The article discusses some changes that have occurred over the past decade over the past decade in the atheist movement.

In that period, American atheism and humanism were popularly linked to Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and the other so-called Four Horsemen of New Atheism. Their hyper-intellectualism and brash anti-religious polemics left an unpleasant taste in the mouths of many non-believers and moderate believers. It became difficult to disrupt the longstanding image of atheists as angry white men in their 50s.

While these failures have crippled the movement’s political power, much of that has begun to change in recent years. Many of the old guard atheist leaders have faded from the mainstream spotlight—some in disgrace, like American Atheists’ firebrand former president David Silverman, after facing #MeToo-era sexual misconduct allegations. Their downfall heralded a broader split between right-wing reactionary atheist circles and atheist organizations explicitly committed to social justice issues. Recently, more atheist and humanist groups have moved away from anti-religion evangelism.

Social justice issues are more likely to inspire people than lack of religion, although there is of course some overlap.


  1. Allison says

    Another factor limiting the number of people involving themselves in organized atheism is that a lot of the leaders and no small number of followers have managed to alienate pretty much everyone who isn’t like them (cis, white, male, middle- to upper-class.) For instance, there are a number of women who don’t believe in a god but won’t call themselves “atheists” because of the misogyny they’ve faced from atheist leaders and organizations. (A lot like how many African-American women refuse to call themselves “feminist” because of the racism in “mainstream” (i.e., white) feminism.)

  2. Karl Random says

    Number one with a bullet. The only thing I remember about the Reason Rally is how soon it was after ElevatorGate and that Dawkins was torpedoing Rebecca Watson behind the scenes. We were a movement that made big claims to social progressivism, just as a brag that we were better than the religious. But as soon as an actual test of that came, the dominant faction of the movement went proto-MAGA and alienated massive amounts of people.

    But I disagree with the contention about atheists not being a strong political force. Hate sells, and the youtube atheist community joined the nerd-to-fascist pipeline with great success. Politically motivated atheists have helped jesus-based fascism conquer the USA.

  3. sonofrojblake says

    It’s almost as if progressives in general don’t really want the change they bleat about, because rather than focusing on getting power (which is the obvious first step required to effect change) theyd sooner fight each other. Until people on the left can stop policing each other’s purity, we’ll be united only in our frustration at the right’s Persistent success.

  4. Reginald Selkirk says

    @2 I disagree. If we don’t police the purity of our own, then we become guilty of the hypocrisy we criticize on the right. Just think of all the “Family Values” Republicans who have been caught cheating on their spouses, diddling kids, etc.

  5. ardipithecus says

    Internecine squabbles are only harmful if they split the progressive vote. It’s a much bigger problem to overcome the power of moneyed interests directing party policy so that progressives’ voice is underrepresented.
    Progressives also have a much higher tendency than reactionaries to skip voting because of the self-fulfilling prophecy that it does no good.

  6. sonofrojblake says

    @3 -- in other words, your sense of your own rightness is more important than actually being able to help others,if helping requires some hypocrisy. I often think we don’t deserve power.

  7. John Morales says

    “Mehta said.”

    I remember when he started blogging; I commented there for a while, but soon decided he was too accommodating of religion, too wishy-washy in his views.

    (I give his opinions the weight I think they deserve, and I think he has far too much respect for religion and for religionists. In short, he hardly speaks for me)

  8. fentex says

    Why do some assume being atheist equates with being reasonable?

    Such that they see some kind of equality between being atheist and a Reason Rally?

    That is such a limiting view of people it’s no wonder to me it attracts little support or passion in a wider population.

  9. Mano Singham says

    fentex @#7,

    I think the use of the name Reason Rally was to suggest that atheists use reason rather than faith when arguing for or against some position.

    That use of the word reason has a different connotation than being reasonable.

  10. John Morales says

    I think the use of the name Reason Rally was to suggest that atheists use reason rather than faith when arguing for or against some position.

    Aspirational, maybe. Merited… well. Arguable, I think.

    That use of the word reason has a different connotation than being reasonable.

    Does it?

    (I remember the ‘Brights’ effort, too. Went about as well)

  11. lanir says

    Complaining that we all didn’t line up behind Dawkins and Sam Harris & co. because they failed progressive purity tests is disingenious at best. These people didn’t want to represent us. They wanted to represent themselves with the rest of us as helpless cannon fodder.

    To put it bluntly, we didn’t have bad followers. We had bad leaders who had no interest in leading. They just wanted all the rewards of being a leader without any of the actual work.

    Being a good political leader means identifying which of your ideas are popular and which are not. You promote the popular ones you share with a lot of people and try to make the unpopular ideas low-key. That’s not what happened with these yokels. They thought they had the wheel and could just steer the entire movement wherever they wanted on a whim. And that’s how we got “Dear Muslima” and Harris telling people that distrust of the the extreme elements of the muslim religion meant it was okay to have a frothing at the mouth hatred of any people who followed the religion. The idiot basically teed us up for the same treatment from the religious right.

  12. Tethys says

    Atheists are not joiners, so it is not surprising when they don’t form social clubs for the purpose of accumulating political power.

    Authoritarians simply cannot grok the idea that liberty and equality are not compatible with seizing political power.

    Why would anyone want to be associated with vain, greedy, entitled men like Dick and Sammy?
    Dear Muslima revealed that destroying cultural sexism and white male supremacy is a more important social cause. Any shared lack of belief in supernatural entities is beside the point

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