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.