Is Atheist Activism Increasing?

The New York Times had an interesting article a few days ago, claiming that atheist activism has increased in recent years:

More than ever, America's atheists are linking up and speaking out . . .

They are connecting on the Internet, holding meet-ups in bars, advertising on billboards and buses, volunteering at food pantries and picking up roadside trash, earning atheist groups recognition on adopt-a-highway signs.

They liken their strategy to that of the gay-rights movement, which lifted off when closeted members of a scorned minority decided to go public.

Much of the evidence of increased atheist activism the article gives is anecdotal. The one systematic data point is evidence indicating that there are now many more atheist student groups than there were earlier in the decade. Unfortunately, the article also relies on the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey, which shows a major increase in the percentage of Americans who say that they that are not affiliated with any religion (up to 18% of the US population, compared to 10% in 1990). However, as I explained in this post, not affiliating with any religion is not the same thing as being an atheist. In the same ARIS survey, only 2.3% of respondents say that "there is no such thing as" God and 5.7% that they are "not sure." Thus, it is far from clear that the NY Times article is correct in suggesting that the 18% of Americans who are unaffiliated with any religion constitute a large potential reservoir of support for atheist activism.

Despite these caveats, I would not be surprised if atheist activism really has increased in recent years. Throughout modern history, increases in education and wealth have tended to promote secularization, which in turn increases the proportion of atheists in society (even though not all secularists necessarily deny the existence of God). As the Times suggests, atheist activism has likely increased as a reaction to the activities of the religious right. The rise of radical Islamism has also stimulated atheist activism by lending credence to claims that religious belief leads to violence and oppression. I don't think any of the above actually constitutes evidence for the truth of atheism. The fact that the religious right and radical Islamists are wrong about various issues does not in and of itself prove the nonexistence of God; and obviously, adherents of a variety of secular ideologies also have committed numerous wrongs. However, the rise of the religious right domestically and radical Islamism abroad has probably led atheists to engage in more activism than they would have otherwise.

Finally, as I emphasized in this article, atheist activism is needed to counteract the false but widespread impression that (shared by about 50% of the public), that being an atheist means that you reject all morality and have no values.

On this latter point, the Times is correct to draw an analogy to the gay rights movement. Just as the more effective gay activists have sought (with some success) to persuade the public that being gay is not an immoral perversion that undermines "family values," so atheists must dispel the deeply rooted belief that if you don't believe in God, you necessarily reject all moral values. Increases in education, secularism, and societal tolerance make this a more realistic goal than ever before.