Mrs. A.S. and I will be going to the AAI 2009 convention at the beginning of October. We have never been to an atheists convention before, and after our experience with some local atheists, we've been somewhat apprehensive about what we'll find there. So to prepare ourselves, we bought a DVD of the AAI 2007 convention to watch.
They had quite a lineup of speakers for the 2007 convention, and the talks given by Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, and especially Sam Harris were quite enjoyable. Harris's talk was about the word "atheist" and whether that label should be abandoned because of the negative connotations associated with it — which I've also thought about.
Listening to his talk got me thinking about a conversation Mrs. A.S. and I had over dinner with a skeptical friend of ours a couple of weeks ago, where we were talking about the apparent rise in the number of non-religious people in the U.S. over the last several years.
I say "apparent rise" because I am, of course, skeptical. I've often heard that it has finally become acceptable to identify as a non-believer, and more of us have been able to "come out of the closet" thanks to the popularity of the books by Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, Harris, and others. This is probably true, to some extent. But these books and the entire "New Atheist" movement (if you can call it that) didn't come about because people suddenly became more enlightened; more likely, they were the result of events happening in a broader social and political context.
At the time, George W. Bush was in the middle of his second term as President — the high point for a confluence of religion and politics, where government policy on everything from war to education seemed motivated by religious belief. Public opinion of Bush, particularly about the Iraq war, had dropped like a stone since just after the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001. Republicans, who were largely in control, and had hopped onto the evangelical bandwagon to get that control, had been weaving religious righteousness into their politics for quite some time. But people were growing more and more dissatisfied with their policies and actions, especially when a growing number of these religious politicians were exposed as hypocrites whose public righteousness belied their private sins.
So the time was ripe. Being anti-Bush or anti-Republican was becoming more and more popular, and since Bush and the Republicans were so heavily identified with religion, it would be easy to equate an anti-Bush political position (be it progressive, liberal, Democrat) with an anti-religion position (secularism or atheism), at least on a very simple (though ultimately incorrect) level.
Atheism, in and of itself, is not a political cause, and I'm concerned that the burgeoning number of people who are now calling themselves atheists, while perhaps sincerely believing themselves to be so, merely (to paraphrase Dennett) believe in disbelief. And now that the political landscape has started to change, will these people go back to whatever they called themselves before?
Or worse, will atheism continue to grow as just a political movement? I'm reminded of Patrick Moore, one of the founders of Greenpeace who parted company with that organization when it got overrun with people pushing a political agenda that had little to do with environmental science. Atheism, to me, is the outcome of a worldview centered on critical thinking, skepticism, and the scientific method — all of which should also be applied in other situations. If the number of atheists grows, but they have simply latched onto atheism for political reasons instead of coming to it via critical thinking, have we really made any progress towards a new enlightenment?
It will be interesting to see how things unfold in the coming years. And I'll be watching this year's AAI convention carefully to see if I can discover any clues that might indicate whether all the recent atheist activism is pointing towards a real cultural shift or is just another political fad.