Days may be dark right now—after all, as the memes proclaim, axial tilt is the reason for the season. But things are looking bright for those who would like to see humanity more grounded in science and reason. If you are a nonbeliever in the mood for a party, here are 10 reasons to celebrate.
1. Coming out atheist is up and coming. In May 2013, after a deadly tornado destroyed her home, young mother Rebecca Vitsmun gave an unexpected answer when CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked whether she thanked the Lord for her decision to flee. Vitsmun tells the story in a sometimes-tearful interview with Seth Andrews, host of the Thinking Atheist. “I had this moment in which I realized you either lie or tell the truth, and I’m not a liar.” In that moment, Vitsmun outed herself not only to a national media audience but also to her Christian parents and friends.
Vitsmun’s situation was extraordinary, but candor about nonbelief is becoming more and more commonplace. From Hollywood celebs like Angelina Jolie to high school students, skeptics are opening up about their beliefs and values—or simply declining to lie when asked. (A quick-read book, Mom, Dad, I’m an Atheist, offers tips for those who are contemplating when, where and how best to come out.)
2. The cutting edge of freethought is less cutting and edgy. In generations past, coming out as an atheist required a devil-may-care attitude. The social and even financial costs were so high that most admitted atheists were also unflinching social activists, people who had a high degree of zeal and high tolerance for conflict. Most were also white males who were comparatively safe taking on the religious establishment. Until recently, then, atheism was virtually synonymous with anti-theism, and even today people complain that pioneers of the New Atheist movement like Dawkins, Harris, Dennett, and the late great Hitchens are unnecessarily antagonistic.
But thanks in part to their courage and flame-throwing, a new generation is emerging, one that sees atheism not as an end point, but as a beginning. Alain de Botton’s TED talk and book, Atheism 2.0, simply posits the nonexistence of God and then goes on to discuss what humanity can glean from the rubble of religious traditions. Many younger people are casting aside labels and adopting what fits from religious holidays and traditions, in the same way that they mix and match cultural, racial or sexual identities. As boundaries soften, more women, Hispanics and blacks are joining or even leading the conversations.
3. Biblical sexuality is getting binned. Finally. In the last part of December, marriage equality became law in two more states: New Mexico and—drumroll—Utah! Even more exciting is the fact that legal changes can barely keep up with shifting attitudes about queer sexuality. Things are changing when it comes to straight sex, too, and not in keeping with biblical priorities. Perhaps the most consistent sexual theme in the Bible is that a woman’s consent is not needed or even preferred before sex. By demanding an end to rape culture, today’s young women and men are making the Bible writers look as if they were members of a tribal, Iron Age culture in which women were property like livestock and children—to be traded, sold and won in battle. Small wonder the culture warriors have ramped up their fight against contraception and abortion. Imagine if, on top of everything else, all women got access to expensive top-tier contraceptives and the power to end ill-conceived childbearing.
4. Recovering believers are reclaiming their lives. Most atheists and agnostics are former believers, which means that many carry old psychological baggage from childhood beliefs or some post-childhood cycle of conversion and deconversion. While many former believers slip out of religion unscathed, some do not, and believers in recovery now have a name: reclaimers. A small but growing number of cognitive scientists are exploring the relationship between religion and mental illnesses like depression, anxiety disorders and panic. Marlene Winell, a California consultant who works full time with recovering fundamentalists, has brought attention to a pattern she calls Religious Trauma Syndrome. Darrel Ray has created a matching service for secular clients and therapists, while Kathleen Taylor at Oxford has raised the question of whether religious fundamentalism itself may one day be treatable.
5. Communities are coming together. When two British comedians, Pippa Evans and Sanderson Jones, launched a “sort-of church” for nonbelievers last January, their Sunday Assembly got media attention around the world. By December, they were on a 40-day tour of 40 cities from Auckland to Portland helping local groups launch assemblies of their own.
Their quirky effort is part of a much broader movement among atheists who are exploring how to build communities that provide mutual assistance, outlets for wonder and delight, rituals to mark holidays, and organized volunteering. Some, like the Sunday Assembly or Jerry DeWitt’s Community Mission Chapel, deliberately draw on the structure of the traditional church service, with music and a brief lecture followed by tea and coffee. Others, like Seattle Atheists, use social media to organize a broad array of lectures, community service opportunities and recreation. Harvard’s Humanist Community opened doors on a new Humanist Hub for both students and locals on December 8. Even clergy who have lost their faith are banding together for mutual support and friendship.
6. Secular giving is growing. In times of crisis, faith communities often step in to provide emergency assistance or to help those who are most poor and desperate. Proselytizing aside, churches are able to provide real service because they have both the will and the necessary infrastructure. Increasingly, atheists and humanists are saying, we need to do the same. Since 2010, the Foundation Beyond Belief has given away almost $1.5 million raised from nonbelievers who can give as little as $5 a month, and is now turning attention to building a corps of humanist volunteers, which is also a focus of the Harvard community. In July, the Foundation Beyond Belief will host its first conference, Humanism at Work.
7. The Religious Right is licking wounds. Bets are still out on whether the Catholic Bishops and the Southern Baptists are retreating or simply rebranding, but either one is good for people who care about science, reason, compassion, or the common good. What’s clear is that the two most powerful hierarchies in the Religious Right have realized that they can’t simply seize the reins of power and remake secular institutions along theological lines. Pope Francis has given a mixture of signals on how much evidence and compassion will guide church priorities—mostly along the lines of yes if you’re poor, no if you’re female. Russell Moore, new head of the Southern Baptist Convention, has warned that Baptists shouldn’t be “mascots for any political faction.” The takeaway for all of us? Fearful, authoritarian conservatives have been smacked back in their patriarchal power plays, and they know it. Shining a light on cruelty, bigotry and ignorance works.
8. Texas is evolving! The State of Texas is such a large textbook market that Texas standards can influence content across the nation. This means that a handful of well-placed wingnuts in Texas can reshape the next generation’s understanding of science or history. Thanks to the hard work of the Texas Freedom Network and young activists, public school texts in Texas will be teaching biological science rather than creationism. This fall, reviewers appointed by the Texas Board of Education pushed to include creationism in the texts, but publishers pushed back. Acceptance of evolution is growing across the country. As Darwin said, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.” Ultimately, the review panel itself rejected creationist arguments. Now that’s evolution!
9. Millennials are taking up the torch. When it comes to separation of church and state, young people are teaming up with established players like the Freedom From Religion Foundation for some real wins. Many of the most hopeful, inspiring freethought stories of 2013 had young protagonists, and we can expect more of the same moving forward. Zack Kopplin was still in high school when he took on the state of Louisiana over creationism in schools. Now he is a full-time science advocate and columnist for the Guardian. “Evil little thing” Jessica Ahlquist, whose lawsuit forced removal of a prayer banner at her high school in 2012, has continued a path of secular activism. Inspiring stories of other young church-state activists can be found here.
10. Rebuilding the wall of separation isn’t the only place Millennials are leading the way. Young adults who grew up isolated in abusive homeschooling situations have created a network, Homeschoolers Anonymous, so that they can lend each other support and fight for change. When a Catholic school in Bellevue, Washington fired a gay teacher, hundreds of students walked out chanting, “Change the church.” Their protest was picked up by students at other schools and Catholic alumni. A new documentary movie with a millennial production crew, The Unbelievers, has been described as a rock concert love-fest between biologist Richard Dawkins and physicist Larry Krause and their young fan base of science lovers.
For those who want to find secular inspiration rather than to join a fight for rights and reason, young photographer Chris Johnson has created a coffee table book that challenges readers to grab hold of this one precious life: A Better Life—100 Atheists Speak Out About Joy and Meaning in a World Without God. The title says it all.