“The new atheism has been more than matched by the new sectarianism,” author and civil libertarian Wendy Kaminer told the nation’s religion journalists today.
Kaminer was part of a provocative panel called “Atheism Revisited” at the annual conference of the Religion Newswriters Association, help this year in Durham, N.C.
Todd Stiefel, head of the Stiefel Freethought Foundation based in Raleigh, N.C., has as his goal to more than match the sectarian forces in America.
While acknowledging the deep prejudice in the U.S. that faces anyone who proclaims they do not believe in God or doubt the existence of a divine being, Stiefel is part of a new civil rights movement hoping to build on the increase in Americans who stand outside any of the traditional religious currents.
“We need the same passion as other movements for equality,” he said.
For New Testament scholar and best selling author Bart Ehrman, who teaches at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, the story is more personal than societal. Still, he told how his public movement from evangelical Christianity to agnosticism has narrowed his job options, gotten him disinvited from speaking engagements and hurt the sales of textbooks he has written.
The fact that a panel on atheism was at center stage for a group whose stock in trade is writing about religion for mainstream media was notable in itself. There is a recognition that there are good stories to be told among those who reject belief as well as those who embrace it and recognition that one of the trends in American society is an increase in those trying to increase the acceptance of those who reject religion.
Kaminer, who writes for The Atlantic Monthly among many other publications, said she traces the growth in the free-thought movement to what she called “the faith-based attacks on Sept. 11.” She said that people saw “the potential viciousness in religion” and rejected religion (although she acknowledged that for religious people, the reaction was to blame people for adhering to the “wrong” religion.
She talked about the therapeutic approach that seems to have dominated a lot of the discussions of atheism in recent years. Atheist talk about “coming out,” about forming “support groups,” and self discovery and self expression. “It’s been a highly successful movement from a therapeutic standpoint,” she said. “From a political and legal perspective, it’s been less successful and the therapeutic approach may even be counterproductive.”
She said that the free-thought movement has increased the visibility of atheists, but not their clout. “It is inconceivable for anyone to run for high office as an atheist,” she noted.
But Stiefel would like to change that, saying his mission is “seeking full equality for all free-thinkers.”
He told stories of groups rejecting charitable donations from atheist groups, of proselytizing by some military chaplains, of hiring discrimination against non-believers. He told of families torn apart when a son or daughter “comes out” as an atheist or agnostic. And he told how the fastest growth among agnostics and atheists is among those 18-25.
Stiefel also talked of plans to boost the public visibility of the movement – community service projects, celebrity endorsements and a Reason Rally next March 24 on the National Mall in Washington D.C.
Ehrman talked about his own journey from a “hard-core, borderline-fundamentalist Christian” to one whose doubts about God increased as he explored the issue of suffering and where God fit in the midst of life’s tragedies.