Atheism’s Silent Majority August 15, 2008

Atheism’s Silent Majority

Hi everyone, Richard Wade here.

“The silent majority” was a phrase first made popular by Richard Nixon in 1969 in part from his wishful thinking that a majority of Americans silently approved of his disastrous conduct of the Vietnam War. By applying this phrase to atheism I’m not saying that a majority of Americans are secretly atheists, I’m saying that I think the majority of atheists in the U.S. and in the world are silent, unseen, unknown and not typified by any of the various camps, communities, types or styles discussed in Hemant’s recent post, “The Two Atheist Communities.”

I think most atheists are in a sense unknown even to themselves. They never spend any time arguing with theists. They don’t belong to secular student groups. They never read atheist blogs or atheist books. They have never heard of Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris, nor have they ever heard of James Dobson or Dinesh D’Souza. Most atheists are busy enough just going along with their daily lives. Their lack of belief is an unimportant thing settled long ago in their minds without much conflict or discomfort. Atheism is not something they ever think about.

They don’t boil with passion for peace or war just under the surface in what they consider a hostile theist society; they’re mostly concerned with making a living and enjoying their free time. They’re mechanics, nurses, bus drivers, technicians, stewardesses, waiters and homemakers. They play with their kids, go fishing, go to baseball games, watch TV, make love and worry about the price of gas. Even though they fit the definition of atheist, they probably have never thought about applying that label to themselves. They’re not friendly atheists, militant atheists, angry atheists, activist atheists, passive atheists, appeasing atheists, aggressive atheists, neophyte atheists or old-timer atheists. They would find such people as peculiar as they find the sidewalk preacher screaming on his soapbox. They’re just ordinary folk whose minds, if you could read them, would not reveal a belief in gods.

Do these quiet, blithe atheists really exist? Hard to prove. The vocal ones are hard to count as well but the numbers of blog hits, comments on posts, book sales, organization membership and convention attendance give at least some indication of the numbers of active ones out there. The U.S. census and other surveys give a wide range of estimates for the number of atheists or at least those not affiliated with religious organizations and the Pew Survey shows that there is quite a bit of confusion over the definition of “atheist.” But certainly even the smallest estimates for people “unaffiliated” with religions in the U.S and in the world are a lot more than the numbers of people who visit blogs like these, buy Christopher Hitchens’ books or send checks to the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

I don’t see anything wrong with such atheists, in fact in some ways I envy them. They are living a more natural, more relaxed life. They’re living the life that we hope a thousand years from now all people will live, free from both godliness and godlessness, neither concerned with ancient defunct theism nor ancient defunct atheism. They’ll play with their kids, go fishing, go to whatever has replaced baseball games, watch the cortex-hologram version of TV, make love and worry about the price of whatever they use for gas.

Atheism is as old as theism but it is new as a burgeoning social movement that encompasses large numbers of people. As such it is still trying to find its voice, decide what it wants to accomplish and what methods it will employ. It is pulled in different directions from factions within and it bumps into different obstacles from without. Whatever it ends up doing will be done by the minority. The silent majority of atheists will not be much affected because they don’t consider themselves a distinct group within the larger society.

I’m not saying that what active atheists do is unimportant. Of course it is. I’m saying that we should not think we are important to more people than we really are.

Whatever we the vocal ones say, whichever way we the active ones go and whatever methods we the soft spoken or outspoken ones employ, we should remember that we will never be able to claim that we represent the majority of people who don’t believe in gods. They don’t consider us their leaders or their representatives. A few more each year will “get involved” in some kind of activity or activism, but most are not even aware of our efforts and if they are they don’t really care. They’re too busy living their lives free of all this stuff on which we spend so much time and breath. Good for them; I’m happy for them. In a way they’re a thousand years ahead of us.

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  • I can see where you are coming from on this and even why that may seem appealing… it’s the ‘ol “Ignorance Is Bliss” mentality.

    The problem is that it’s still ignorant. And while it does not hinder the acceptance of Atheism, it does not help it either.

    And yes, we can’t claim to represent the majority of non believers. In my opinion, I don’t think most Atheists think they do.

  • Adrian

    They’re too busy living their lives free of all this stuff on which we spend so much time and breath. Good for them; I’m happy for them. In a way they’re a thousand years ahead of us.

    Gotta disagree with you here, Richard.

    I know many atheists like this and while it may be a sort of goal to build a world where people can live ignorant of superstition, but it isn’t the world we live in. Even in Europe where theism is in decline, Islam has made some frightening advances. I think much of these gains come because so many atheists (and religious liberals) are ignorant and silent.

    I have a hard time imagining that you would applaud ignorance on any other subject, especially one with so many contemporary implications. Many of these people will wake up to find their schools dominated by Creationists, faith-based superstition replacing medicine, and free-speech lost to protect religion. There’s little in this to be happy about.

  • Ian

    I agree and disagree Richard. First, I usually considered these people to be “apatheists” in that they don’t really care about the religious questions. However, I don’t think they are so far ahead of all of us, but merely are ignoring serious issues that affect all of us (science education, secularism, etc.)

    Living too far in the future can be as dangerous as living too far in the past. Having goals about the future is good, but there’s a lot of work before we can get there.

  • Ubi Dubium

    I think I would have fallen in that group for many years. A couple of things have brought me to be more outspoken of late. The first is being a parent. I could shrug off the pervasive religiosity of society for myself, but now that the fundies are trying to push their mythology on my kids I can no longer ignore it. Second – easy internet access now allows me to connect with other atheists and to feel I am part of a growing community.

    In an ideal world religion would simply fade away, and we could just live our lives without having to think about religion or lack of it. That world is not coming anytime soon, alas.

  • Thanks, Richard, for bringing attention to the silent majority! Because such people never show up in locales like these, the whole internet’s perspective tends to be askew. They’re important to know about if we wish to break atheist stereotypes. The typical atheist–no, the typical person does not want attention drawn to him/herself in a remotely objectionable way. And thus being typical is a barrier to being an atheist activist, and a barrier to being out-of-the-closet. I’m convinced that this is why atheists are so weird (or “amazing”, as Greta called it).

    I don’t claim to have special insight into this matter but one thing I think you missed is that there exists a much larger spectrum. The people who never think about it, and have never even heard the word “atheism” are on the extreme silent end. And then there are people who’ve heard of “atheism”, but don’t identify by it. Then the people who identify by it, but don’t think about it. The people who only grumble to themselves when they see religion in the newspaper. The people who just quietly think to themselves “Religion is just dividing us; why help it along by giving it attention?” The people who are staunch secularist voters, but feel further activism is unnecessary. The people who feel strongly about it, but wouldn’t dream of telling anyone but a few close friends. The people who will only discretely discuss it online. The people who are shy, or scared away by the weirdness/amazingness of atheist groups.

    I could go on.

    I don’t feel it is accurate to characterize this diverse group with ignorance or bliss. That describes some of them, yes, but there are plenty of other reasons for a person to be silent.

  • Until about 2 years ago, I was one of those “silent majority” atheists. I’ve pretty much always considered myself to be atheist, but I never gave it much thought.

    If the topic of religion ever came up, I either didn’t participate, or I stated my nonbelief and that was that. Last year though, a christian friend of mine apparently didn’t know what the term ‘atheist’ meant, and thought I worshipped the devil. That made me realize how ignorant some christians can be and I started speaking up and I guess trying to prove that atheists aren’t bad people and we certainly don’t worship the devil, especially since we believe such a being doesn’t exist. Watching the news and reading more books also brought to my attention the negative opinion people hold against atheists.

    Now I’m outspoken about it and have even kinda deconverted 2 people, though they were pretty much fence-sitters anyway.

    I don’t think I was any better or worse off in my days of not giving it much thought, but I like being more outspoken about it so at least the religious people I know will no longer hold such a negative view of atheists.

  • Let’s remember that many theists also fall into this category; they “believe in something” but aren’t sure of what and really don’t care too much about it.

  • Aaron

    I am partially part of the silent majority. Mostly because in my younger years I was kind of a militant atheist. I then spent a few years on and off working for an evangelical Christian. We would constantly debate on theological topics. This was actually fun and great way to make the work day go by faster. We both would constantly challenge each others beliefs or non-beliefs. After a few years of this it started to become less fun, more of a chore. Since then I decided there was no reason to get involved. I saw no reason to burden myself with the addition of religion to my lifestyle and forgot about it for many years. Until recently when I became interested in the skepticism and that skepticism and found that atheism factored into skepticism. I am glad there are others that share my lack of a need to believe in such things. Personally I just ignore it, unless it worms it way into my world in such a way that I can no longer ignore it.

  • Adam

    I would just like to say I freaking love the new banner =3
    (thats a happy kitty, and nothing more)

  • Darryl

    I associate myself with the preceding comments that are critical of the silent atheists. If we were not beset with such determined and well-organized political fundamentalism we could all live blissfully ignorant; but that is not an option in a Constitutional Republic.

    The silent majority are citizens as well as “mechanics, nurses, bus drivers, technicians,” etc. The American dream never excluded citizenship; and citizenship is more than paying your taxes, watching your speed on the highway, and voting occasionally.

    You are correct that the minority do most of the work–I’ve never seen any social network of any kind where that was not the case–however, the silent majority, if it remains so, will facilitate great(er) damage to our nation and will feel the pressure upon them increase as their little slice of paradise is threatened.

  • Mattmon

    When Richard Dawkins was first planning on writing his book on religion, his editor had told him, don’t do it, the book will never sell. That was then. After several years under George W. Bush, his editor told him to go ahead and write the book. So he wrote it and The God Delusion was a major bestseller book.

    I think a lot of people that were previous in the atheist silent majority are now starting to become more active about it. In the past, the atheist majority was silent because they didn’t see religion as a problem. Because of the Christian Right and George W. Bush, people are starting to realize that religion is a big problem. That is certainly how it was for me.

  • Grimalkin

    My husband is sort of like this. The only reason he’s heard of Richard Dawkins is because I talk about it a good deal (and even then, he keeps getting mixed up and asking: “The guy in the wheelchair?”) There was never a time in his life that religion was an issue. It’s just a silly thing that some people believe in, like Santa Claus, and it isn’t worth any more thought than that.

    But on the other hand, he does care when theists try to take rights away from others based on religion, and he really HATES it when anyone tries to preach to him. He’s had a few run ins with some of the locals about that and basically told them that they were being rude and not respecting his wish not to have gods thrust in his face.

    But it’s always more of a “keep it away from me and we’ll get along fine” kind of thing. He isn’t all that interested in global implications and that sort of thing.

  • An unfortunate reality is that only the experience of bigotry will bring many silent atheists into the activist community.

  • “I’m not saying that what active atheists do is unimportant. Of course it is. I’m saying that we should not think we are important to more people than we really are.”

    Careful, Richard. Your humility is showing. Keep it up and you just might fail to alienate the apparently required number of confused but truth-seeking humans.

  • Firstly, let me say that this new banner looks much better than the previous one.

    Okay… now regarding the topic at hand, I’m not exactly sure what it is that the more vocal atheists are trying to accomplish.

    Is it equality you’re fighting for? Is it recognition? Is it acceptance? Respect? I don’t know… Is it really as bad as we sometimes think it is?

    You are absolutely right, Richard. I think the majority of the people, atheists and theists alike, are pretty much silent when it comes to publicly voicing their opinions. They simply don’t care that much about the issues that come up in places like this blog. They are way too busy living their ordinary lives.

    Your post did make me think. I think all too often, we get so wrapped up in our own small view of the world that we fail to see the big picture. Yeah… I guess we have to remember that what we see on the news and/or on these blogs represent a very small minority of the whole.

    But then again, is it contentment or complacency that make most people not care? And is that a good thing? hmmm…

    I have no solid opinion on this. Just rambling thoughts…

  • But then again, is it contentment or complacency that make most people not care?

    Maybe they’re simply not total geeks like the rest of us. 🙂

  • My husband has never believed in a god, but he didn’t realize he was an atheist until he was 35! They are out there, and they are just waiting to be told and be given a reason to care.

  • Funny thing, I was an atheist for a decade before I realized that I was an atheist. Raised Christian, every scrap of faith I had was gone by the time I was in my mid-twenties. I thought that made me “non-religious.” When asked by a friend whether I’d feel bad if I died before my parents, I said, “well, that depends on how fast I go out. I mean, whether I’d have time to feel bad about it.” Well, my friend says, “Wow! You’re about the most hard core atheist I’ve ever met! You can even consider life after death.” And it was true, by this time the very idea of life after death just seemed absurd to me. That’s when I started researching atheism. But, I can’t say it’s made me a more “active” atheist. I’m not likely to go to conferences or talks. Acknowledging my atheism, however, has given me a much firmer, and consistent way of approaching the world. And, I really like the word, “Atheist.”

  • I’ve actually fluctuated from silent to vocal several times throughout my life. My periods of being vocal were always a reaction to negative religious pressures from outside. When those negative religious pressures subsided, I was content just to live my life. When the negative religious pressures build up then I take interest and get vocal. But all along, I always identified with being an atheist.

  • KeaponLaffin

    I think many silent atheists are ‘secretly active’.
    Take my dad for example. I consider him an atheist, he has effectively been one since I can remember. I grew up going to church with Mom and Sis. He never went.
    Most would perhaps call him an aptheist. He’s not one to shout out ‘God is BS!’ but if asked, he’d probably reply with something similar.
    Now Dad is a conservative, like myself. He is also an active voter. This is where the social implications of in/active ‘silent’ aptheists comes into play.
    He doesn’t support/won’t vote for excessively evangelical candidates like Huckabee.
    He may not vote for candidates who run on the ‘Moral Majority'(heh) platform because he likes his beer,porn and swearing.
    On local issues like bibles in the classroom or the 10 commandments in a courthouse. He may vote either way, I haven’t asked, but it would probably only take a 10 minute conversation to get him interested in such ‘minor’ issues.
    And there are the other ‘minor’ issues. Local elections are important and frequently have a more diverse selection of candidates(who are actually electable) than national elections. School councils, City/County Commissioners and whatnot. I know he hates one of my County Commissioners who’s hellbent against strip clubs. But neither of us can vote against her. 🙁 Not in her district.
    Rambling point being: Even the ‘apparently’ rare breed of aptheistic conservative do provide a social force which many would agree (hopefully, even tho most atheists are liberal, we love you anyway) is conducive to science, knowledge and reality-based thinking.
    Heck, many ‘silent atheists’ may have affected the Republican Primary. I’m a registered Independent and in my state I couldn’t vote in either Primary. However if I had the choice at the time, I would have most definitely voted AGAINST the most blatantly Religious Right candidates.
    Not all Republicans are utter looney tunes.

    And sorry. I didn’t want to make this into an ENTIRELY political comment, but I guess that was my whole topic anyhows.
    Sadly, belief(or lack thereof) like skin color, should never be an issue in politics. But since it is we have to deal with it.
    Think of the basic beneficial effect of all those voters who don’t give a damn which Presidential Candidate goes to church the most? They might actually think about real issues for a change.

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