Why Atheists Have Become a Kick-Ass Movement You Want on Your Side

Atheists are becoming a force to be reckoned with. They are a powerful ally when inspired to take action — and a powerful opponent when they’re treated like dirt.

Why would any organization or social change movement want to ally itself with a community that’s energetic, excited about activism, highly motivated, increasingly visible, good at fundraising, good at getting into the news, increasingly populated by young people, and with a proven track record of mobilizing online in massive numbers on a moment’s notice?

If you need to ask that — maybe you shouldn’t be in political activism.

And if you don’t need to ask that — if reading that paragraph is making you clutch your chest and drool like a baby — maybe you should be paying attention to the atheist movement.

The so-called “new atheist” movement is definitely not so new. Atheists have been around for decades, and they’ve been organizing for decades. But something new, something big, has been happening in atheism in the last few years — atheism has become much more visible, more vocal, more activist, better organized, and more readily mobilized — especially online, but increasingly in the flesh as well. The recent Reason Rally in Washington, DC brought an estimated 20,000 attendees to the National Mall on March 24 — and that was in the rain. Twenty thousand atheists trucked in from around the country, indeed from around the world, and stood in the rain, all day: to mingle, network, listen to speakers and musicians and comedians, check out organizations, schmooze, celebrate, and show the world the face of happy, diverse, energetic, organized atheism.

Atheists are becoming a force to be reckoned with. Atheists are gaining clout. Atheists are becoming a powerful ally when we’re inspired to take action — and a powerful opponent when we get treated like dirt.


Thus begins my latest piece for AlterNet, Why Atheists Have Become a Kick-Ass Movement You Want on Your Side. To read more, read the rest of the piece. (Which has also been reprinted in Salon.) Enjoy!

Why Atheists Have Become a Kick-Ass Movement You Want on Your Side
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26 thoughts on “Why Atheists Have Become a Kick-Ass Movement You Want on Your Side

  1. 2

    Great post Greta—I fully believe that we are just scratching the surface of the atheist movement. We will continue to grow and become stronger as time moves forward. I also believe that at least in the western world the Christian sects are aware of this fact and is one reason we see so many more “battles” taking place. It is a fight that they cannot win. “Reason” will trump “faith” in the end…it always does.

  2. 4

    excellent as always. As one of those who pulled their donations to ACS because of their antics, I always like to see that debacle for them mentioned.

  3. 5

    I made the mistake of reading the alternet comments. They were mainly some guy named StephenMoss trying to pin Stalin’s atrocities on atheism and people telling him he was wrong.

  4. 6

    I’ve got a funny idea. How ’bout we all recognize that it’s wrong to base laws on any religious teachings, everyone recognizing that since we all live together we should respect the views of everyone else, teach science in science class and religion in church, and just try not to be douche bags to one another? Does that sound good? I’d like to try it.


    (A left-wing leaning moderate Christian who remembers that according to the Bible, Jesus was a Jewish brown-person socalist who didn’t stutter while he spent his life teaching humans to respect and love each other and to promote things like equality and charity.)

    /I promise I’m not the only one of my kind
    //or, at least I hope not

  5. 8

    I’ve got a funny idea. How ’bout we all recognize that it’s wrong to base laws on any religious teachings, everyone recognizing that since we all live together we should respect the views of everyone else, teach science in science class and religion in church, and just try not to be douche bags to one another? Does that sound good?

    ….what exactly is it you think we’re pushing for?

  6. 9

    I wish the skeptics would be a bit more skeptical about Kiva … I considered contributing, but I did some research on microlending and 1) the interest rates are often ridiculous (this includes many of Kiva’s affliates) 2) while microlending is often said to ’empower woman’, in some extremely patriarchal societies, the woman’s male relatives make her take out the microloan, take the money, and leave her with the debt 3) microlenders (including some Kiva affiliates) sometimes use humiliating tactics to ensure payments are made, sometimes reinforcing patriarchal ideals in the process (so much for ’empowering’ women). I know there are probably some Kiva affliates who are doing real good, but I really cannot tell the good from the bad, so I would rather avoid it.

    The fact that the atheist/skeptic/agnostic/etc team is the top team on Kiva, in my opinion, does not reflect well on the movement, particularly their skeptical rigor.

  7. 10

    “Atheists have been around for decades”

    Atheists have been around for millennia; presumably from the very dawn of religion … surely it’s just the organising that’s recent?

  8. 12

    @Sara K.

    While not claiming that one should treat the information on the Kiva site as the unvarnished truth, the Kiva FAQs do address the very issues you bring up.

    It is not unreasonable to assume that the cost of providing capital in 3rd world countries is higher than in developed countries and if one is to stick to the loan model then interest rates need to be proportionately higher.

    When I lend money through Kiva I tend to favour collectives run by women as this reduces the likelihood of the types of abuses you mention.

    Despite it’s flaws, I think the Kiva model is far more beneficial than a model based on charity or foreign aid.

  9. 13

    What really surprises and galls me is how groups that experience (some of the worst) discrimination would rather not have the support of atheists, despite the fact that we are the least likely to be bigoted.

    I would bet that when most reading this see FTB bloggers like GC, Crommunist and Reed, they say “human, human and human” like I do, not “woman, black, and LGBT”.

  10. 14

    Do we even want the liberal movement as our allies? How can liberals benefit the atheist movement?

    I mean okay, we tend to rally for the same causes a lot, but at the same time “atheists are just as bad as the fundementalists” is a liberal meme.

    They define themselves as our enemies, and they suck at winning. The rise of the religious left seems to have largely coincided with the rise of American atheism, and the general liberal distaste for war utterly failed at stopping two of them.

    Do we really want these as allies?

  11. 16

    @steve oberski

    The problem with the ‘but they should charge high interest rates in order to cover their higher costs’ is that the whole point of non-profit microlending is that it HELPS THE BORROWERS. Now, if we were talking about individual moneylenders who lack foreign backing and depend on their borrowers making their payments in order to feed their families, I would be a bit more sympathetic about the high interest rates. But we are talking about international organisations which get funding and interest-free capital from people trying to HELP THE BORROWERS, not make a living. Unless dealing with a situation where inflation is running high, charging more than 15% interest is not going to help the borrower – even if they make the payment, much of their profit goes to paying the interest and not improving their own lives. After all, in the United States, most enterprises would not borrow money at more than 15% interest because they know it’s not to their advantage, and I haven’t seen anybody explain how things are different just because it’s a different country (again, excluding high inflation levels). Yes, I know microlending comes with high costs, but if they are a NON-PROFIT and incapable of subsidizing their interest rates to a reasonable level, they should try to find a more effective way to alleviate poverty.

    Another issue I have with offering capital through Kiva is that, based on the research I have done, microlending often works best when it is paired with microsavings – the ability for impoverished people to set aside some money in a safe place and even get a little interest on it. Most microlenders do not do this because it’s cheaper to get money through Kiva than through microsavings programs. I’d rather make an outright donation to a microlending/microsavings program which I vetted had good practices than make ‘loans’ through Kiva.

    Anyway, there has been popular backlash against microlending in India and Bangladesh, which to me is more evidence that microlending is harmful to many of the ‘beneficiaries’. I’m not saying that that microlending is never a good idea, but the more I learn about the topic, the more I come to the conclusion that the good microlending organizations are a minority and that it is difficult to vet them without talking to the borrowers directly (now if Kiva could create a method that you could directly communicate with the borrowers – ask them questions about their business and the loans they are receiving and so forth – that would be very interesting …)

    As far as your mention of ‘charity and foreign aid’ – it’s is difficult for me to make any judgements on that as there are so many different kinds of charity and foreign aid. My preferred method of ‘charity’ is to support local organisations trying to improve their society through education, activism, etc – for example, an organization trying to get their local government to support women’s rights, or an organization which educates farmers about different techniques to deal with drought, and so forth. This is the type of activity where I think a little money can do a lot of good and lasting good.

  12. 18

    Bruce Gorton #14

    Do we even want the liberal movement as our allies?

    You can get all chummy with conservatives. I prefer to be with liberals, especially considering I am one. And I certainly am not going to hang out with libertarians.

  13. 19

    ‘Tis Himself

    I am in no way siding with the conservatives (basic human decency throws that alliance out) but the thing is I don’t think the liberal movement has been or would be beneficial to the atheist movement as an alliance.

    Ecumenism is often a very liberal theological viewpoint, based fundamentally on the ideal of tolerance. Unfortunately it fails basic logic and does absolutely nothing about religious abuses of human rights, and constantly needs to be navigated around before such abuses can be dealt with.

    Further we have to deal with issues such as alternative medicine – which often sells based on liberal concepts such as the evils of “big pharma.”

    Still further, the basic arguments for liberalism are constantly undermined by liberals. Consider the traditional liberal media – and the tendency to hire conservative columnists with minimal fact checking.

    This constant tendency to self-undermine was part of what haunted Obama’s first two years as president. Constantly seeking bi-partisan consensus watered down a lot of what Obama had to offer, and it is only due to the complete insanity of the current Republican Party that he is likely to win a second term.

    While I think the atheist movement can rally on the same subjects as the liberal movement, and we have a lot of overlap, that basic tendency at the heart of the liberal movement means we would likely be better off keeping the atheist movement independent.

  14. 20

    @Sara K.

    I found the book “Dead Aid” by Dambisa Moyo (http://www.dambisamoyo.com) particularly illuminating with respect to the damage foreign aid and to a lesser extent charity has caused and is causing in Africa.

    While the book is specific to Africa I’m sure the issues it describes are pertinent to most developing countries.

    I don’t necessarily disagree with what you say but lack the background to to come to a completely informed decision with respect to the pros and cons of a micro-loan based initiative.

  15. 21

    Atheists have a record of treating people like dirt once they have the poltical power to do so.

    It never fails, and I have experienced it at work and school.

    That said, you may in fact get the control you really seek…but the end will results will be the same as they always are when that happens.

  16. 22

    Bruce Gorton @ #14 & #19: Yes, I understand that uncritical religious ecumenicalism — and the hostility towards atheism that so often accompanies it — is currently a big part of liberalism. That’s a big part of why I wrote this piece, and why I write many of the other pieces I write for AlterNet: to persuade liberal religious believers out of this position, and into a position that’s more atheist-friendly. I don’t think this is going to happen overnight, but I think it has potential to happen eventually, and I want to start planting the seeds for the idea now.

    As for liberalism being ineffectual: There is some truth to what you say. But I think many liberal and progressive movements have been extremely effective at advancing their agendas. The LGBT movement is Exhibit A. I think if they could drop their hostility towards us, we could build a powerful alliance that would greatly benefit both groups.

  17. 23

    @Jim christensen:
    Oh yes. History shows that VERY clearly. I mean like…..uh…and…..and there’s always…..

    Try to actually make an argument. Not just declarations.

  18. 24

    Atheists have a record of treating people like dirt once they have the poltical power to do so.

    Why is it that the only Christian party where I live is also the only major party that still tries to deny homosexuals the right to marry, and the only party that fought to keep the law requiring transsexuals to be sterilized?

  19. 26

    It never fails, and I have experienced it at work and school.

    What did they do? Did they make Baby Jesus cry? Did they maybe *gasp* DISAGREE?!!??!!!!

    The bastards.

    To be serious for a moment; your post is way to vague to make any sense. It’s essentially noise. Try again, with a bit more detail this time.

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