Here’s an encouraging story:

Ken Bronstein was excited to notify us of a great coup: six members of his organization, the New York City Atheists, attended Mayor Bloomberg’s annual Interfaith Breakfast this weekend. It’s believed to be the first time nonbelievers have been invited, as nonbelievers, to the event.

We asked Bronstein why atheists would even want to attend an Interfaith Breakfast, seeing as they don’t, in point of fact, have faith.

“Oh, we have faith,” Bronstein told us. “Just not in God.”

A spokesman from the Mayor’s office confirmed that the Mayor had invited the guests as members of NYC Atheists, and “in his remarks did certainly welcome those who, while not professing a particular faith, do love the city, recognizing the importance of working together for the common good of the people of New York City.”


This is a very promising development. It is one more example of the positive effects of the increased visibility of athiesm in the last few years.

Bronstein finds the invitation, like the mention President Obama made of nonbelievers in his Inaugural Address, a sign of a “dramatic shift” in attitudes toward unchurched Americans.

“When I first got involved with NYC Atheists five years ago,” he said, “we had to put all our newsletters in envelopes, because most of our [regular-mail] subscribers didn’t want peoiple to know they were getting mail from us. I don’t have to do that anymore.”

One of the main goals of the New Atheist books was to raise the visiblity and social acceptability of non-religious views of the world. Here are two data points to suggest they are having an effect. Another is the findings of the American Religious Identification Survey from 2008, which showed impressive increases in the number of atheists, agnostics, and people claiming no religious identification over the last 20 years.

Just to be clear, I am not saying that the New Atheist books are the only cause, or even the main cause, of these trends. It is not as if we can do the experiment of replaying the last six years without the New Atheist books to see what would have happened without them. Long-term social trends can not be explained by anything as simple as the publication of a few books. The success of the NA books is as much the result of the increased acceptability of secular views as it is the cause of it.

Instead I have two more modest points. The first is that it is hard to belive that the NA books, and the ongoing barrage of media chatter they sparked, have not had some effect on increasing the visibility and acceptance of atheism. How could it be otherwise? Advertising works; sitting quietly in your corner does not. Michael Bloomberg has been the mayor of New York since 2001, but it was not until this year that he invited members of atheist groups to his interfaith breakfast. Did this idea just come to him in a flash of inspiration? Or has he been influenced by the increased visibility of atheism due in part to the NA books?

The second is that I see no evidence of any religious backlash in any of these developments. By far the biggest criticism of the NA’s is that they are in some way “hurting the cause,” where the precise nature of “the cause” is seldom spelled out. That the poll numbers are going in the right direction, and that we now have two major American politicians going out of their way to be inclusive of nonbelievers do not support that contention. Are other recent developments showing people flocking to conservative religion as a result of the bellicose tone of Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris? Perhaps someone can point them out to me in the comments.

Comments

  1. #1 Zeno
    January 5, 2010

    Bronstein’s answer doesn’t satisfy me. I still don’t get why atheists would want to attend an “interfaith breakfast”. Ick. It smacks too much of treating atheism as an alternative religion.

    I look forward to the day when the American Philatelic Society includes a special interest group aimed at people who don’t collect stamps.

  2. #2 MikeN
    January 5, 2010

    Maybe they could have gone but refused to eat anything?

  3. #3 Rob Jase
    January 5, 2010

    Nope, I couldn’t do it, the phoney good fellowship between the various believers who spend the rest of the year saying all the other attendees will go to their respective hells would destroy my appetite.

  4. #4 ABM
    January 5, 2010

    Maybe it’s a fun breakfast and they didn’t want to miss it on the grounds of not being religious. Also, important networking can occur at these things, perhaps they’ll talk to some people and open some hearts/minds to the “normality” of non-belief.

  5. #5 James W
    January 6, 2010

    Zeno (@1) –

    If the American Philatelic Society had a cosy breakfast with the government with the potential to discuss and even influence policy, I’d damn sure be happy to turn up and represent the non-philatelists.

    And believe you me, as an ex-philatelist myself, I can tell you – these stamp collectors will stop at nothing until they’ve trampled on the constitution and turned this great nation into a philatocracy!

  6. #6 Hank Fox
    January 6, 2010

    Oh, you curmudgeons. They should absolutely go!

    Show up, look good, participate, get positive press, and get invited back next year. The point is: Visibility. Make it so it’s EXPECTED that any gathering of godders — like those talking-heads panels where “community leaders” discuss morality, etc. — has to include a non-godder.

    By their very presence, the point will be made that you don’t have to be goddy to be good. Pave the way so that someday soon atheists can get elected to office.

    How else can we advance our nefarious plan to take over the world and, you know, corrupt Christian children?

  7. #7 eric
    January 6, 2010

    I agreewith James and Hank, this is a good thing.

    Zeno, I don’t think you’re understanding either Bronstein’s answer or the comments from the Mayor’s office. Both are taking “Interfaith breakfast” and broadening the meaning of “faith” in that title to include people who have faith in their fellow New Yorkers.

    Now, the NYC Atheists could’ve replied “Oh no Bloomberg; when you first started your breakfasts you meant religious faith. We aren’t going to let you change that meaning now.” But to me that seems like cutting off your nose to spite your face. If Bloomberg is willing to change what he means by interfaith, this is a good development, not a bad one.

  8. #8 Jason Rosenhouse
    January 6, 2010

    Hank and eric –

    Well said!

  9. #9 James Sweet
    January 6, 2010

    It is not as if we can do the experiment of replaying the last six years without the New Atheist books to see what would have happened without them

    Oh come on. That’s not all that much different from the proof that Creationists demand for evolution. That’s the problem with you materialists, you want us to believe in stuff like the Big Bang without doing a randomized placebo-controlled double-blind trial on it. Sheesh!

    As far as whether NYC Atheists should have attended — absolutely! James W (#5) nails it when he points out that philatelists do not have a privileged conduit to influencing public policy, and that if they did, it would be a damn good idea if us non-philatelists tried to get us some of that.

  10. #10 Pierce R. Butler
    January 7, 2010

    By far the biggest criticism of the NA’s is that they are in some way “hurting the cause,” where the precise nature of “the cause” is seldom spelled out.

    Eh? Just about every such critique I’ve seen has prioritized the teaching of evolution in public schools, or science education generally. I disagree, but at least the purported problem is fairly clearly identified.

    eric @ # 7: … people who have faith in their fellow New Yorkers.

    Unlike just about all the New Yorkers I’ve ever met… You might actually be safer putting trust in the Great Intangible, which at least does not have a competitive agenda.

  11. #11 Interfaith
    January 7, 2010

    I’m glad to see something like this. They should have been invited in the first place. Interfaith is for people of faith and of no faith, no one is excluded. If someone is telling you that interfaith is for only people of faith, you have been told wrongly.

    Thanks!

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