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2013: Atheism’s 10 defining moments

Rebecca Vitsmun
Rebecca Vitsmun discusses her atheism with CNN Wolf Blitzer. Screenshot courtesy YouTube.

Atheism was in the headlines perhaps more than ever before in 2013.

To highlight some of atheism’s defining moments and trends from the last year, I worked with a panel of ten writers, scholars, and activists to come up with ten major moments or currents in American atheism from 2013. Their contributions are below.

Godless congregations become global phenomenon

Second Sunday Assembly

The second meeting of the Sunday Assembly. Photo courtesy Paul Jenkins via Flickr Creative Commons.

2013 was a landmark year for atheists, Humanists, and nonreligious people building communities. Ex-pastors Jerry Dewitt and Mike Aus grew innovative and successful congregations in Louisiana and Texas, and the Yale Humanist Community launched in Connecticut. British comedians Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans embarked on a massive tour, spreading their popular London-based “Sunday Assembly” around the world. December brought Harvard Square’s new “Humanist Hub,” a 3200 square-foot community center with a Sunday school, a staff of 10, and Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick’s proclamation of “Humanist Community Day.” In May, James Croft and I agreed to write about these and many other nontheist communities in The Godless Congregation, a forthcoming book for Simon and Schuster. —Greg Epstein, author and Humanist Chaplain at Harvard | @goodwithoutgod

Pope Francis bucks tradition and reaches out to atheists

Pope Francis leaves after celebrating Christmas Eve Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican on Tuesday (Dec. 24). Photo by Paul Haring, courtesy of Catholic News Service.

Pope Francis leaves after celebrating Christmas Eve Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican on Tuesday (Dec. 24). Photo by Paul Haring, courtesy of Catholic News Service.

Straying from his written Christmas address, Pope Francis last week invited atheists to join in working for peace. This was the latest in a long list of positive statements from the new pontiff about the need for cooperation, dialogue, and understanding between Catholics and the nonreligious. While these statements do not change the aspects of Catholic teaching that many atheists take issue with, his call to humanize the “other side” in what is often a needlessly bitter divide between religious and nonreligious people was remarkable. Francis is right: we should seek common ground. And, with his example, dialogue between Catholics and atheists is already on the rise. —Rory Fenton, Dialogue Officer at British Humanist Association and President of the National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies of the UK & ROI | @roryfenton

Humanists increasingly help their neighbors

Foundation Beyond Belief

A Foundation Beyond Belief banner at the 2012 Reason Rally. Photo courtesy Ryan Somma via Flickr Creative Commons.

Atheists and humanists have always engaged in service to others, but 2013 will be remembered as a pivotal year for the organized, collective expression of humanist compassion. This year, local freethought groups made volunteering a larger part of their identity. The Beyond Belief Network of humanist volunteers more than tripled in size in 2013, with more than 90 teams contributing over 30,000 hours of service in their communities. And 2013 saw the launch of the Pathfinders Project, a global service trip by secular humanists laying the groundwork for a permanent Humanist Service Corps. —Dale McGowan, author and Executive Director of Foundation Beyond Belief | @MemingOfLife

Atheists become more visible in the U.S. military

2013 was a banner year for nonreligious sensitivity in the U.S. military. In October the Air Force Academy removed its mandatory “so help me God” pledge, specifically citing a desire to “…build a culture of dignity and respect” inclusive of nonreligious cadets. In June, the push for Humanist chaplains in the military became much more visible when an amendment was introduced into to Congress that would allow for Humanist chaplains to provide support for nonreligious individuals. While the amendment was ultimately rejected, it was supported by 140 representatives—a clear achievement considering the notorious political undesirability of atheists. Though the shift toward accommodating a religiously and nonreligiously diverse constituency has been met with controversy, the overt recognition and support of nonreligious individuals in the military is nonetheless heartwarming and hopeful. —Stephen Goeman, atheist and interfaith activist | @StephenChanges

Diana Nyad and Oprah Winfrey debate atheism and awe

This fall, Diana Nyad—who this year became the first person to officially swim from Cuba to Florida without the aid of a shark cage—did something else extraordinary: she gave a compassionate, articulate and thoughtful voice to atheists everywhere… up against Oprah Winfrey, no less. Winfrey, in a one-on-one interview with Nyad, insisted that Nyad’s poetic explanation of what she believes meant that Nyad was not actually an atheist. But Nyad held her ground with grace and strength, inspiring widespread discussion about atheism and awe. And as an atheist who is also “moved by all humanity,” it made me want to stand up and say, ‘Amen.’ —Vanessa Zoltan, Director of Learning Lab at the Humanist Community at Harvard |@vanessamzoltan

The “nones” make waves as the study of irreligion booms

2013 was a year of unprecedented academic consideration of atheism and irreligion. While the emerging data on the growing number of religiously unaffiliated Americans garnered headline after headline, the research went much deeper. To offer only a few examples, sociologists analyzed data related to the “nonreligious” to examine the composition of this growing demographic, scientists researched the evolutionary and cognitive frameworks of religious belief (and nonbelief), and ethnographers immersed themselves in atheist communities to better understand how atheism is enacted in social contexts. Meanwhile, organizations like the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network continued to grow as they supported scholars working within this flourishing field. It is not unreasonable to argue that in 2013 atheism was more studied, and better understood, than ever before. —Marcus Mann, scholar of contemporary atheist and secular humanist social movements | @MannMarcus

Atheists around the world rally for free expression

Bangladesh Protest

A Bangladeshi-born man, who now lives in the U.S., participates in a Washington, D.C. protest of the arrest of Bangladeshi bloggers. Photo courtesy Michael DeDora.

This spring the Bangladesh government arrested four atheist bloggers for criticizing religion. Secularist and atheist groups and organizations coordinated worldwide demonstrations to raise awareness and show solidarity with those jailed. Between April 25 and May 2, rallies were held at Bangladesh embassies and consular offices in New York City, Washington, D.C., London, Ottawa, Calgary, and Toronto, as well as on a college campus in Missouri. The efforts inspired an independently organized pro-free expression protest outside the jail where the bloggers were being held. The bloggers have since been released on bail, though their charges have not been formally dropped. The events marked the first time secularists and atheists so widely coordinated to defend the universal right to free expression. —Michael DeDora, Director of Public Policy at Center for Inquiry | @mdedora

Rebecca Vitsmun and the rise of compassionate atheism

Rebecca Vitsmun

Rebecca Vitsmun discusses her atheism with CNN Wolf Blitzer. Screenshot courtesy YouTube.

Oklahoma tornado survivor Rebecca Vitsmun’s generous response to Wolf Blitzer’s problematic “do you thank the lord” question, which went viral this year, is a perfect example of something that became much more common in 2013: proud but empathetic atheism. And the atheists who buck the stereotype of in-your-face anti-theism turned up their volume this year. Take Jamie Kilstein’s debate on Totally Biased, the lead character Piper Chapman in Orange is the New Black, rapidly growing discussion of atheists participating in interfaith work, or the increased concern among the nonreligious with combating Islamophobia. In a world that is still very much religious, it’s a hopeful sign for the year to come. —Adam Garner, Better Together Support Team at Interfaith Youth Core | @garntastic

Atheist community grapples with sexism

Lauren Becker

CFI’s Lauren Becker offers closing remarks at Women in Secularism 2. Photo courtesy Brian D. Engler.

In May, three hundred women and men gathered for the Center for Inquiry’s 2013 Women in Secularism Conference. The invigorating exchange of ideas from accomplished speakers was sometimes overshadowed by controversy surrounding the opening remarks from Ron Lindsay, CFI’s director, which many found offensive. (Lindsay later apologized.) When writer Katie Engelhart asked “Where are the Women of the New Atheism?”, a slew of prominent female atheists emphasized that atheist women are subject to pressures common to all women including economic insecurity, sexual harassment, and the general degree of privilege men maintain in society. As the atheist community advances toward gender equity, debate seems poised to continue into 2014. —Mary Johnson, former Catholic nun, author of An Unquenchable Thirst, and creative director of retreats for A Room of Her Own Foundation | @_MaryJohnson

Discussions about atheism and race expand

Blackout Secular Rally

Excerpt of the Blackout Secular Rally poster. Courtesy Blackout Secular Rally.

We live in a society in which race still matters. There are regularly tragic reminders of just how important race is to life and liberty in the United States—one such reminder came in the form of the Trayvon Martin murder. It reinforced the need for social justice work. And in 2013 atheists not only heard this call loud and clear, but also took action. The third annual Day of Solidarity for Black Nonbelievers in February and the Blackout Secular Rally in May marked in impressive ways a growing attention to racial justice as fundamental to atheist activism. —Anthony B. Pinn, Agnes Cullen Arnold Professor of Humanities at Rice University

In conclusion

As a Humanist Chaplain and atheist activist, I was amazed by how dramatically the media conversation around atheism seemed to shift in 2013. Perhaps more than ever before, we saw news about atheists living out their values, celebrating life, addressing problems, and working for meaningful change. In a culture fixated on conflict, a more accurate and fair narrative about atheists is emerging. Personally speaking, I was blown away by how the visibility of dialogue and cooperation between atheists and theists reached new heights this year. In the just over a year since Faitheist was published, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to discuss atheist-theist cooperation on CNN, msnbc, and Fox News, in magazines such as Details and Out and online publications like BuzzFeed, and in talks at venues around the world. And I was far from alone in this; it was incredible to see so many atheists have an opportunity to share their stories with the world this year. We have a long way to go, but as you can see from the ten contributions above, huge progress is being made.

As we head into a new year, I carry with me the stories of the many incredible nontheists I met and was inspired by in 2013—people who are working to improve relationships between atheists and theists, build and support communities for the nonreligious, raise the visibility of positive expressions of atheism, and better the conditions of life for others. Here’s to continuing that work, together, in the new year. —Chris Stedman, atheist columnist for Religion News Service | @ChrisDStedman

What do you think?

Readers: what do you think some of atheism’s defining moments or trends were in 2013? Did the panelists miss anything? Do you agree with their assessments? And do you have any predictions of what atheism’s big moments might be in 2014? Please let us know in the comments!


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  • Hi

    It is so neat that you and many other atheists are presenting a non-hostile image to the rest of us. Of course, that has really been going on for years but not getting headlines the way confrontation does.

    Happy New Year!

    ps don’t forget to check out Julian Baggini

  • Myopia a bit? The establishment of the Yale Humanist Chaplaincy gets mentioned instead of the growth of the many Secular Student Alliance affiliates at colleges and high schools? A contract for a book not yet written gets mentioned but not actual books published? The Ivy League is really not all that important guys.

  • Was a great year for non belief ! I have only been an athesot for four years, the first was depressing and awful, yet it is slowly getting better. Tbh, this last year, the joy, honesty, freedom, goodness of being without imaginary sky beings , for me, is really starting to kick in. Keep up the good work.

  • Atheism is the only honest approach to the grand, outrageous and conflicting claims religion makes for itself.

    Atheists do not claim God is impossible.
    Only that they don’t believe in one – yet.

    What else can you do but disbelieve the unbelievable?

  • I think a big one was related to the Opray Winfrey discussion with Nyad.

    J. T. Eberhard saw that video and, on his blog on Oct. 15th, 2013, said it made him want to start firebombing things.

    Crazy little weasel.

  • Looks like some Atheists are making the same 2nd big mistake Theists make,
    although not their 1st (God). i.e., “We’re all the same,” except for those who disagree, the kooks and demented.
    For theists, we all feel the guilt of sin, and need God and His salvation.
    For Atheists, it’s enjoying pissing off the religious, and knowing that “we” have the truth. But, there are Atheist and Theists, who enjoy openly talking about religion, life, etc.

    It’s so ironic (and sad) that this large and growing group (the Nones) is being overlooked by the politically correct UUs (Unitarian Universalists), but not the Pope and his church.
    Catholics may view this a just another case of having faith and that miracles do happen.
    While Unitarians say all churches have a part of the truth, and the current catchphrase “it’s OK to believe in God AND be a UU.”
    While, Catholics (Pope) may still see the importance of Faith and that “miracles do happen.” The Atheist in me is still skeptical.

  • Dave

    Theists have been present in UU institutions for a long time. They might be subject to some snarky remarks from the other UUs, but they have not vanished. It is true that the Seven Principles do not mention God, but officially the UUA does recognize its Theistic roots in centuries past.

  • Dave,
    There have been atheists on this planet since after The Great Flood with Noah, and I am sure there will continue to be ateiats until Jesus returns to come and take us home. It just goes to show you just how prevalent Satan is on this earth. He wants nothing more than to lie to you, steal your hearts and break apart families. That’s his job. He’s a liar and a thief. I would much rather believe in something tangible like Jesus and an everlasting life with God than atheism… Which is in nothing…. With no hope. Believing in God I have hope for my life. What kind of hope do you have?

  • Atheists don’t believe in nothing. We believe in things that have actual empirical evidence to support them. There are many things that fill us with wonder and awe. It’s a shame you have to resort to such stereotypes to attempt to make your point, but if you want to make claims about Satan and jeebus, and the flood that never actually happened (as geologists know), you should provide some evidence for your claims.

  • Atheism is first and foremost a rejection of authority, and a placement of self into supremacy. The rejection of all authority results in a VOID of actual knowledge, which the atheist replaces with self-derived worship systems such as Scientism, which fails to recognize the contingent nature of science factoids. The atheist becomes a Consequentialist in the absence of fixed, immutable moral principles, and that leads straight to the use of rationalization as a substitute for Aristotelian deductive logic – i.e. atheists lose rationality even as they falsely claim to have exclusive access to it.

    The failure to address the disciplined deductive conclusions of theist propositions, and merely reject them with neither disciplined logic nor material evidence to support their rejection, is firm evidence of atheist irrationality.

    Rather Atheism is an emotional rejectionism, not disciplined rational thought. There is no possibility that an Atheist can prove any premise under his rejjectionist philosophy, either using standard logic or by providing empirical, testable evidence in support.

    Atheism is blind belief in emotional rejectionism, and nothing more. Intellectually, it is a void, having only rejection (without logic or evidence) as its principle.

    Yet, at less than 3% of the population, they demand that the Other (whom they hate) be removed from their sight and the Other’s morals be removed from government, to be replaced with the Atheist Void.

    Because Atheists have only selfmade morals (if any) created by self-endowed moral authority which they think creates eliteness in themselves, there is no common trait to be used for developing trust, by comparing actions to principles. So Atheists cannot develop trust, and thus are considered to be as trustworthy as pedophiles, and no more (check the polls).

    Atheists cannot support their rejection and cannot be trusted.

  • Atheists have been shown to claim far more empathy for themselves than their supposed “good works” merit. Actual atheist empathy is negated by the attack ads they place specifically to elevate themselves purely by denigrating the Other. Pure atheism would manifest as mere disbelief; organized Atheism manifests as blind, irrational hatred and denigration.

  • I actually think a lot of these are spun. I’m not saying they didn’t happen, but this list does seem a little biased. The reactionary media coverage of, what I have no better term for, “Old Atheism”, is just that; a reaction to the “New Atheism”. I also think that a lot of misinformation and deliberate obfuscation was created in order to make, “New Atheists” separate from, “Old Atheists”. The majority, if not all, of “New Atheist” ideas are simple reapplications of the old’s ideas. Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, being the flag-wavers, didn’t really express new ideas. They just severed the dishonest tone of apologeticism. This is why New Atheism matters. It was the bloom. It made the public aware that Atheists cannot simply be ignored, and that we are literally in every level of the world. We are rich, we are poor, and we are also middle class. We are vegans. We are bodybuilders. I don’t think that this was a year of understanding or inter-faith dialogue. This is the natural result of being seen after years of systematic denial. Really sad that New Atheism was almost completely ignored on this page, when New Atheism as a movement is what created the strength, cohesion, and numbers we see today. I do think that Religion is a real enemy. I do think that we have to end it. I don’t think we should use violence or hurt anyone. But saying things that make people think and feel uncomfortable is 100% necessary. It cannot be avoided. It is not our fault if things that we say offend people. This is all my perspective. It’s probably flawed. Lastly, I think any kind of positive claims about the new pope are unwarranted and premature. We should wait until he’s dead. Then we can see how many child molestations he covered up.

  • I love it when people like stan make all of these bold claims but never have any actual evidence to support it.

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  • If I’m reading this right, in broad terms you’re saying some new ‘atheists’ are bringing that mindset which religious doctrine instills by default, to atheism, and it’s a contradiction. We (atheists) are not about doctrinal behaviour, we are individuals who collectively share ‘non-belief’.
    Even this notion of ‘humanist chaplains’ is an anathema to me, an atheist for at least 50 years perhaps more?
    Yes of course we can combine and lobby, but why are some structuring themselves like a pseudo-religion? No two atheists will agree on every point nor will they be equally ‘humanist’ or even law-abiding.
    It’s about societies, particularly in the small-town bubbles of America, waking up and making the coffee, not imagining they smell it.

  • You simply need to accept that theism is not a satisfactory explanation for many anymore. Faith does not equal fact and in most cases it flies in the face of reality.
    Religion has lost it’s special status and is just one more opinion among many. You can keep your beliefs no problem just don’t use them to discriminate against others it won’t be tolerated anymore. There’s no going back to the supremacy of the old dictatorial mythological doctrines.