(NYT Op-ed) Molly Worthen–Wanted: A Theology of Atheism

Today, nonbelievers often seem inclined to describe atheism and secular humanism as an “identity” whose claimants should focus on winning cultural acceptance rather than intellectual debates. Here, they are taking their cues from the civil rights movement, particularly the rhetoric of gay liberation. Some organizations, for example, declared April 23 the first “Openly Secular Day,” “a celebration of secular people opening up about their secular worldview, and an opportunity for theistic allies to show their support for secular friends and family.”

“Many atheists are still in the closet,” said Nichelle Reed of Sunday Assembly. Nonbelievers like her hope that if they emphasize good works over grand argument, they can convince the bigots that atheists are decent human beings. Kelly Damerow, the interim executive director of the Secular Coalition for America, said that there is little discussion of moral philosophy among the activists she works with. “We get it. We know we’re good to each other,” she told me. “We would rather show people that we’re good.”

In the short term, this is a smart strategy. The language of tolerance and personal identity has particular appeal to millennials, who account for 40 percent of the atheist and agnostic population, according to the Pew Research Center’s latest study. August E. Brunsman IV, who directs the Secular Student Alliance, said that “nowadays you’re seeing a whole lot of people for whom it’s more important that they’re understood and valued by fellow citizens, not seen as being too weird.”

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