What’s Next for Atheists in a Godless World?

Across the globe, religion is in decline. Even in the United States, long an outlier among western countries for the slower pace of secularization, over a quarter of the country is now nonreligious and over half of the country is not a member of a religious community.

What does this mean for atheists and other nonreligious people?

For much of their history, atheists have focused their efforts on merely surviving. They have fought to attain tolerance, freedom from persecution, and still strive for equal rights. In 13 countries, atheism is punishable by death. And in other countries atheists still face significant discrimination.

This is not to diminish the fact that there is still work to do, but what happens when atheists win these battles for toleration and equal treatment? Furthermore, what happens when atheists and other nonreligious people become the majority in society, as is already happening in some places? What happens when atheists have political power?

These are questions that Todd Tavares and I are trying to answer in our new podcast, called Beyond Atheism. To this end, we are going to talk to leading scholars, thinkers, and activists.

There is a descriptive element to our podcast. We want to understand how things are. For example, we want to find out about how many nonreligious people there are, their legal and political situation, and their political preferences and values.

But there is also a normative dimension as well. This means that we don’t just want to know about how things are right now, we also want to know about what atheists should be doing now and in the future.

One question that is particularly pressing from my perspective is the relationship of atheists to politics. Traditional atheist activism has concerned things like ensuring the separation of church and state. There is undoubtedly still work to do in this area, varying by country. (In my province of Ontario, in Canada, for example, we have an entirely secular education system except for government-funded Catholic schools — a quirk of our founding constitution in 1867.)

But as we make more and more progress on this front, what should atheists turn their attention to? Are resources better spent, say, fighting climate change or economic inequality, than fighting mostly symbolic battles about, for example, the right to have “IM GOD” as a license plate?

In time, we will win these battles for equal rights, for separation of church and state. But then what?

Is there a core to atheist politics? Is atheism purely an oppositional identity? In other words, is it a worldview or an identity that depends on the existence of a religion to fight against? And if so, what happens when religion ceases to be a powerful foe?

If we don’t start thinking about what comes next, we will be adrift when secularization becomes more and more absolute. We need to clarify our values and our politics, beyond just saying things like: we believe God doesn’t exist, we believe in science and reason, we believe in separation of church and state, etc.

I see the podcast as an ongoing project. The questions are still open and we don’t have the answers yet. But through discussion, we hope we can discover them.

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Nathan G Alexander

Writer and Historian from Canada. Author of Race in a Godless World: Atheism, Race, and Civilization, 1850–1914 (2019) https://www.nathangalexander.com/