Atheists are one of the most hated minorities in America. Despite outnumbering many religious denominations like Evangelicals and Jews, atheists have almost no political influence. No atheists ascend to federal elected office, at least none who admit their atheism. In a recent survey, only 49% of Americans said they would vote for an atheist for President, atheists placing last after homosexuals at 59%.
Even the relatively enlightened district in which I live is filled with SUV's bearing the pagan fish fertility symbol now co-opted to mean "Jesus". I'm surrounded by churches with their tax exemptions and their special street signs. Still, unlike most other religious countries, America's religion tends to be more depressing than deadly.
The first time I saw a Darwin fish symbol on a car, I was quite surprised at the effect it had on me. Somehow, I felt relieved that I wasn't the only person who sees religion for what it is. I decided then and there to put stickers on my car and to try to make contact with others who might feel the same way.
During the 2004 political campaign, I discovered Meetup.com, a site that facilitates meetings for local interest groups. Though the site was boosted by grassroots political campaigns, it also serves hundreds of interests including knitting, bellydancing and, you guessed it, atheism.
For the last few months I have been attending an atheist meetup group. Unlike political meetings, the atheist meetups don't have an agenda. They're just an excuse to have dinner with a bunch of people who are not intoxicated by religion.
What do we talk about? I have found that members of my group are quite curious about personal histories. I suppose it's natural to want to know what makes a person immune to Bullsh*t. We also discuss philosophy, the environment, justice, skepticism, psychology and economics. Universally, the people I meet have become exasperated with religion and the lack of critical thinking that dominates our culture.
Meetups are entertaining and reassuring, but what can we do to change a political climate that opposes free thinking?
I'm a member of the American Atheists, an organization that prides itself on its political activism. AA does a great job bringing legal challenges on church-state separation issues, but they are quite abysmal on social networking. It's okay for AA to have a legal focus, but it will never be a complete organization for atheists until it recognizes the value of person-to-person social contact.
Unlike AA, the Brights seem to recognize the value of social interaction. Founded by brilliant minds like Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins, the Brights hope to escape the stigma of atheism through rebranding. They use the noun "Bright" as a label for someone who does not believe in the supernatural. For the Brights, a Bright is to an Atheist what a Gay is to a Homosexual. Unfortunately, the word "bright" is most commonly used as an adjective - an adjective whose antonym is "dim". Reminiscent of Apple Computer's early marketing campaigns, it suggests that people who don't buy into the product are stupid. Having been a hard-core IBM PC guy in the 1980's, I can't see this strategy winning much endearment from the other side. The Brights are sincere in their rejection of this misinterpretation, but I think their flawed branding campaign will fail nonetheless.
While branding and legal challenges may be important, they are unlikely to change any hearts. On the other hand, meetups can provide more than just an emotional respite for local atheists. They have the potential to bring more atheists out of the closet. If substantially more than one in a thousand atheists would attend regular meetups, it would have a very positive effect on the perception of atheists by believers. When religious people realize how many of their friends are atheists and free thinkers, it won't be so natural to discriminate against them. More importantly, it will make critical thinking a socially acceptable practice, despite the protestations of religious leaders.