The growth of student atheism

February 14, 2011 • 11:49 am

When I was in Whitewater, Wisconsin for Darwin Day, I spent an hour talking to the local Secular Student Alliance, which had just been formed.  There were already about two dozen members, and it was heartening to converse with a group of such young, intelligent, and eager kids.  One of their big questions was “How militant should we be?”  In other words, they wanted to know whether to act like P.Z. or like Mooney.  My answer was to be polite to opponents but never water down their beliefs for public consumption.

It was also heartening to learn that these college atheist groups are growing rapidly.  About 30 new ones have been formed in the last six months, a fact confirmed by the national Secular Student Alliance (SSA). Here’s a graph of the number of chapters over the last four years.

The SSA has recently hit 250 chapters, and—even more amazing—the organization is appearing in high schools, with five new chapters in just the last months.

Can anyone doubt what this growth—180% in less than four years—really means?

I can’t prove this, but I attribute much of this growth to the books of the Gnu Atheists.  The End of Faith, after all, was published in 2004.  I suspect it touched off a wave of “out” atheism, since the more people  express their godlessness, the more people become willing to break their own silence.  I heard this from the students at Whitewater, who had been emboldened to form their chapter because some of them learned that their confrères had similar beliefs.

I like to think this wave is now self sustaining: we won’t need any more Gnu Atheist books to keep it going.  And, when I say I want religion “eradicated,” this is what I mean: I want the young folk to realize that the superstitions of their elders are silly, and to cast them aside.  Like Darwinian evolution itself, atheism progresses not by conversion of individuals, but by change between generations.

209 thoughts on “The growth of student atheism

  1. when I say I want religion “eradicated,” this is what I mean: I want the young folk to realize that the superstitions of their elders are silly, and to cast them aside.

    Wait…just cast aside their elders, or execute them?

    I really need to be sure to catch up on the Gnu Atheist Plan for World Domination…

    1. “Let us break their bonds assunder and cast away their yokes from us.” (Ps 2:3)


  2. Harris was a big reason why I lost my Christianity. My appreciation for my Holy Spirit power couldn’t be sustained once he pointed out that my reasoning faculties were the basic ground on which I asserted I had Holy Spirit powers. The cognitive dissonance got to be too much and I had to admit that my religion was an enjoyable albeit fallacious practice of wishful thinking. I’ve been coming out as an atheist ever since.

  3. It’s interesting to note that there aren’t any secular student organisations in universities here in Europe. Rather we have a proliferation of student societies of different religious denominations but that’s because they’re in a *minority* and like to bond together and commiserate on their “persecuted” status. Arguably, when there are no student secular societies, it actually means that being secular is common and widespread and that is indeed what we should thrive to achieve in less-enlightened parts of the world. It’s a pity that the US counts among them.

    1. Interesting point. I also find it intriguing how in Alabama where I grew up, our public high school Christian student group always had attendance around 10-20 students. Out of ~1000 at the school. In a state where the vast majority of the population is Christian and the vast majority of young people are extremely evangelical. Only during special events like SYATP did a large number of students turn out.

      1. Again, something which is common and uncontroversial does not compel people to gather in groups and reaffirm their adherence to this something. It’s when you’re in a minority that you try to bond with people of similar views to preserve them under influence of the majority.

        1. So so so…so all these people who are so fed up with tribal gnu atheists should long for the immediate expansion of atheism so that gnu atheists will just fade back into the woodwork.

      2. I rather think it is that most people do not choose to think about what they ‘believe’ – they just perform the outward show of religion when there is peer pressure.

  4. While the New Atheist books didn’t lead me to come out (that was later), they did make me start thinking and eventually led to my ‘de-conversion.’ I read Harris (Letter — I didn’t read End of Faith until later), Dawkins, Hitchens, and Dennett (and Ehrman) all within a span of a few weeks.

  5. I don’t believe in general and at least in the north, and the east and west coasts that American’s are inherently stupider than most secular Europeans. I firmly believe they will come around and “see the light” sometime before they end of this century as new generations of young Americans emerge. But, unfortunately I could be wrong.

    1. People are stupid everywhere – including me – only some of us ask questions about ourselves & the world, while most go through life unthinking. so it seems to me anyway.

  6. Definitely encouraging… But those of us in highly fundamentalist parts of the world are realistic and don’t expect a ton of change within our lifetimes.

    On the other hand:

    I grew up Catholic and even tried one of the other Christian groups on campus my freshman year in HS. Fortunately, I was also taking biology and by the time I became a reasonably competent biology student, I couldn’t accept that the natural world was the result of creation.

    The Gnu Atheist books have made me more comfortable in being “out” about atheism. This post made me look back and think about it and yes, there has been a shift in the last 20+ years. It will be interesting to see what the next 20 bring.

    1. On the other, other hand, an old friend from high school, who is probably one of my most god-drenched friends, just posted pics on his Facebook page celebrating his 7 and 5 year old kids getting baptized. So there are plenty in the next generations getting brainwashed.

      1. Yes but nothing permanently soils a freshly-washed brain like exposure to outspoken atheism. Just a little bit seems to spread all over and then is nigh impossible to get out.

      2. What if they had died before – surely they would not be ‘saved’? I always assumed baptism was as a baby. I think the waters bubbled & seethed when I was sprinkled…

        1. Some sects hold to baptism after an “adult” believer’s profession of faith — although the “adult” can be a fairly young child. The basic idea is that the child is only “accountable” for sin after he/she is mentally mature enough to know right from wrong, and that baptism before that point does no good.

          Most Christian sects still hold to child or infant baptism, though, figuring that it has a magical effect even though the child doesn’t understand it.

          1. hence godparents… hmmm – the vikings had a sprinkling ceremony, though it is possible it had christian influence – ‘ausa’.

  7. Dear Jerry:

    I’ve been a regular reader and fan of yours for years.

    I think your observation is correct. I’m friendly with the person in Australia who works to organize these groups on campuses here.

    What concerns me though is that the concept of “secular” must in my view be supported by the religious. I feel that your advice to these young students should have distinguished between their personal views and opinions and the goals they pursue in public affairs and for wisdom and maturity … especially as by definition we are talking about highly educated people.

    The goal of a “secular student alliance” should not be to “eradicate” religion any more than the goal of hawk should be to eradicate rabbits. A “secular society” should exist to make sure the rabbits have holes … but also that they don’t get out and eat the heirloom vegetables.

    I have come to despair over this talking to kids in college about this issue … their eyes glaze over when you talk about religious freedom, about the “right” to worship and about why a secular state is fundamentally pro religion – because it clearly is designed to limit state interaction in matters of private conscience.

    But that’s not what you’ve said here. You’ve said be civil. Great, Jerry, thanks … but it should not need to be said. I don’t write to you with advice to not kick your cat.

    I assume you aren’t going to kick the cat.

    Civility should be assumed.

    What I think we should ask is whether these secular groups on campus are simply a bunch of kids in Darwin fish, mocking MohlerBots … or if they have the capacity for articulate and principled defense of our dearest rights.

    You may wish to eradicate rabbits, but you’re a good enough biologist to know how ecosystems work …

    Thanks, Scott

    1. You have no idea what I told the students versus what opinions I confined to this post. I talked to the group for an hour, covering many topics, INCLUDING their need to decide upon their individual goals. And you come along to tell me what advice I should have given the students but didn’t?

      And you also see fit to instruct me that, after all, I didn’t need to advise them to be civil?

      Sorry, your comment doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.

      1. me either, which is why I wrote a response that somehow got kicked down to #9.

        to which I would add:

        If this person thinks secular groups feed off of the religious…

        what about social groups formed around sports?

      2. I also agree that his comments make zero sense to me. The analogies he tries to draw are not instructive or reasonable.

        I’m writing because I don’t want anyone to confuse that “Scott” with me. I am in California, not Australia.

        I will add a summary report here that my anecdotal observations about religion and young people in California is very heartening, esp. episodes of parents excitedly anguishing over teenagers defying orders to attend church/ synagogue.

      3. What I’m trying to say … seemingly not well, is that groups who exist to advocate atheism are going by the title “secular” – so that it is ever more easy for the religious to accomplish a much sought after goal: to define “secular” not as a concept which is separate from religion, but one that is hostile to it.

        The “wall of separation” was not in any sense meant to be used as an elevated and armored position from which to destroy the church. It was to create a civic space which dealt only with matters “of the world” … atheism deals with questions “outside the world” … it is a religious idea, in the sense that it has a religious position. A secular state can not be an “atheist state” … it really is a form of MOMA … it is also baked into our system of human rights and law.

        This is not a simple problem. It is a big and serious problem.

        I take your point about reminding people to be polite, yes that never hurts … clumsy of me to say that the way I did. Sorry

        1. seemingly not well, is that groups who exist to advocate atheism are going by the title “secular” – so that it is ever more easy for the religious to accomplish a much sought after goal: to define “secular” not as a concept which is separate from religion, but one that is hostile to it.

          sorry, but you’ve hit the nail on the head here without realizing what you are saying.

          it’s the RELIGIOUS that have defined anything NOT RELIGIOUS as being hostile.

          there is no way to control that, sorry.

          the religious will make any outgroup an enemy. It’s in the very nature of the way religious thinking works.

          to say we should play by their rules is nonsense.

            1. LOL

              actually, especially with the US, it in fact WAS.

              again, you might take a closer look at the people who were involved with writing the US constitution.

              your lack of historical knowledge is astounding, and severely hampering your ability to put forth anything coherent here!

        2. The “wall of separation” was not in any sense meant to be used as an elevated and armored position from which to destroy the church.

          strange then, how so many RELIGIOUS groups have claimed the exact opposite.

          you really haven’t a clue what you’re on about, AFAICT.

          1. yes, exactly the trends … the pope wants “secular” = to “atheist” … equating these ideas as in creating a group called “secular students alliance” … which has ZERO religious members is the problem. These groups are not “secular” they are “anti religious”

            I’m happy to see people evangelize against god – but not as public policy.

            1. Ok, you’re just rambling incoherently now.

              time to say bye bye.

              suggest you take your meds, and then have a nap?

              1. Ummm. . . I may be on your side in this argument, but could I suggest that you avoid invective like “take your meds”? Let’s stay classy. . .

        3. atheism deals with questions “outside the world” … it is a religious idea, in the sense that it has a religious position.

          NOMA fail.

          First, as long as religion doesn’t confine itself to “outside the world”, atheism doesn’t by definition.

          Second, even in that case there are other versions of atheism, such as monistic, that deals solely with questions “inside the world”.

          NOMA is, ironically, a religious position. Atheism may be, but then is a weak and uninteresting claim to put alongside other religious claims (such as NOMA). We can do better on knowledge about the world.

    2. The goal of a “secular student alliance” should not be to “eradicate” religion any more than the goal of hawk should be to eradicate rabbits.

      Eh, that’s a stunningly bad analogy.

      Hawks would die without their prey species.

      As much as we Gnus rhetorically prey on the religidiots, we’d do much better without religiosity at all. Religion provides no nourishment at all for society; it’s a harmful parasite, sucking away valuable resources that could be put to much better use.

      Hawks shouldn’t eradicate rabbits, yes. But humans can and should eradicate species such as smallpox, polio, AIDS, and more.

      Eliminating religion by mocking it incessantly (“Have you nommed the reanimated flesh of your zombie overlord today? Did you know that Jesus liked to be squicked through the hole left by the Roman soldier with the big stick?”) and thereby turning youth off of it will result in a huge net gain for humanity. For example, instead of growing up to be witch doctor charlatans, those who might otherwise join the priesthood might instead become true professionals in the fields of social work and mental health.



    3. more problems:

      I have come to despair over this talking to kids in college about this issue … their eyes glaze over when you talk about religious freedom, about the “right” to worship and about why a secular state is fundamentally pro religion – because it clearly is designed to limit state interaction in matters of private conscience.

      would you say the government should be actively enganged in encouraging holocaust denial?

      global warming denial?

      moon landing denial?

      flat earthism?

      HiV denial, or even groups that entirely reject germ theory of disease?

      of course you wouldn’t.


      because this type of thinking is not only ridiculous, it is detrimental to a functioning society.

      the position of rational secularists should INDEED be to point out that the vast majority of religious thought is actually DETRIMENTAL to society, in much the same fashion. Most certainly it shouldn’t be getting incentives and tax breaks to be able to easily out-compete other ideas!

      so, I not only entirely disagree with your contention and admonitions, I think you have only thought about these issues in the most shallow of ways.

      1. Well the difference between the things you list, and religious beliefs is that a secular government is one which does not involve itself in “non worldly” matters.

        all the things you list are “in this world” …

        Religious beliefs deal with something other than matters that the “state” has a position.

        That you are struggling with this idea only proves that you don’t value the difference between a “secular” state and an “atheist” one … and that is what has me worried.

        Atheists want to talk about how religion is wrong. A secular state has to grapple with how to insure that religion is protected.

        1. Well the difference between the things you list, and religious beliefs is that a secular government is one which does not involve itself in “non worldly” matters.

          bullshit, plain and simple.

          Your response doesn’t even begin to address the point I made.

          all of the denialisms I listed have at least part of their roots in various religious claims and dogmas.

          these things DO have real world impacts, ergo, by your own response, they should indeed be of concern.

          A secular state has to grapple with how to insure that religion is protected.

          this is SO wrong, it hurts.

          NO NO NO.

          there is no constitution that has ever been written that defines that a specific belief system must be protected by the state.

          again, please read the US constitution, and YOUR OWN, ffs, before continuing on your irrational rants?

          1. Sure they do, your constitution says that “religious beliefs” will not be legislated.

            “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

            See it says that laws can not prohibit free exercise of religion.

            The Dover case was all about defining ID as “religion” … and that is the reason it “can’t be taught in state schools”.

            What goes on which side of the wall is a big problem, because it is a constitutional matter.

            1. Sure they do, your constitution says that “religious beliefs” will not be legislated.

              and yet they have been, and still are.

              so have many free speech issues.

              why is that?

              do you have ANY clue what the limitations to free speech are, and why they exist?

              or are you just a nutter, wasting our time?

              nevermind, I’m pretty sure I know the answer already.

    4. I agree with StateReligionVIC’s semantic point. A Secular Association and an Atheist Association should connote different goals, albeit having much in common. The concept of “secular” as traditionally used has been and still is of vital importance to the maintenance of some very fragile but important regimes in the mideast, Turkey for instance. It might also be saving the US from moving more towards theocracy…

      Secular != atheist, though the distinction is getting blurred.

      1. A secular state, in order to protect, must also define the nature of religious convictions.

        The edges of these are fuzzy and contested … just ask the Amish.

        Atheists should value the secular state because it protects their minority rights … however when they gain the status of majority, they must not turn that which has shielded them into a cudgel to beat those in the minority.

        Rabbits need holes, and the purpose of a secular political system is to make sure those holes are protected, but also that the fences are mended.

        It takes a constant struggle.

        But atheists and catholics, should both treat it better than they are … and Jews … well Jews especially should care … since its far from clear to me that the pogroms are over.

      2. True, the distinction between “atheist” and “secular” is blurred (quite often consciously by the religious themselves) and perhaps that was meant to be SRV’s point. However SRV didn’t make that very clear and managed to start an argument over semantics with people who’d probably agree with him/her if only the point was expressed a little more clearly.

        1. I didn’t start an argument over “semantics” – I argued that atheism is actively undermining the valuable concept of “secular” by using it instead of the term atheism.

          That is not a semantic point.

          I’m all for “out atheism”, “bus campaigns”, bold statements of personal disbelief, but I don’t want them run by government. I want the idea of what is secular to be distinct from what is “atheist” and distinct from what is “religious” … its not a semantic point.

          It is a statutory issue where I live.

            1. My point is that the “secular student alliance” is dedicated to the promotion of “atheism”, and to encourage the ridicule and mockery of religion. It exists not to promote “secular values”, as “secular values” would not attempt to comment on the content of religion. It is not either to promote “humanism” or “science”, but is in fact a major fruit of the “gnu atheism” (as Jerry rightly points out).

              It most definitely is not representative of democracy … as understood in the USA, which is exceptional in its specific protection of religious expression and right to religious freedom.

              Because it uses the name “secular” to dignify its deliberately atheist agenda it degrades the meaning and value of what people understand “secular” to be about … since a “secular” organization would not be “atheist” but rather “non religious”.

              1. SSA has in their name the world “secular”, but they clearly specify that they promote humanism and rationality for example. Secularism is one of the values they try to promote amongst others. So the use of the word “secular” is for the labeling purposes only. Just like the football team of Phoenix with name Cardinals has nothing to do with Vatican’s officials and their agenda or any species of birds.
                SSA can promote whatever it chooses to do under any label of their choice. It is not so important what is their name but what they actually do or intend to do.
                Your suggestion that because of their name they should change their goals sounds a bit misplaced.

              2. Ugh! As I and others have stated in several responses before, your definition of secular is not the only one. Secular can mean having nothing whatsoever to do with religion. The SSA fits with this definition!

              3. The SSA has everything to do with religion, in that it is an atheist group which is choosing deliberately to not use the term “atheist” in any of its bylaws or mission statements, but as this post shows, is taken as evidence of the growth of atheism.

                Atheism can not exists without reference to “god”. Secular means exactly what you say, however the SSA’s purpose is to bring people together to talk about “god”. It clearly means to be “anti religious” to “mock religion” and to be hostile to those who practice religion. It exists to promote “non religion”. The Gnu Atheism is a conversation about why religion is “wrong” … it is not a conversation about non religious topics, or a movement that simply wishes to work on social problems or promote science. It is “contra religion” … not “not religious”.

              4. It clearly means to be “anti religious” to “mock religion” and to be hostile to those who practice religion.

                How on earth do you get that out of any of the SSA literature?

              5. You can’t get it out of the literature, that is the whole point. They say they are “secular” and promote “humanism” … but they are exactly what Coyne says in the top line, “an atheist group”. For god’s sake if you are going to promote atheism, use the name “atheist”, don’t call yourselves “secular” and then give grants to the FSM. The FSM is not a secular project it is a satire on RELIGION. It exists to mock and ridicule religion.

                All I’m saying is that “secular” needs to mean something other than “atheist”, but this group is using it to mean “atheist”. When I point that out, I get called a troll, told I’m stupid, etc … etc … etc …

        2. I think you are right. To me secular means non-religious, whereas atheistic means not believing in god/gods/goddess/goddesses. I think what SRV is saying that secular should mean neutral – the default position, but that religion is taking a position outside this?

          1. I’m saying that our state, our, schools and our public institutions are “secular”, they are not “atheist” they are not “anti religious”.

            In public and in print, the Gnu Atheism wants to present itself as “secular” in order to seem respectable and less about a singular minded campaign to “eradicate” religion.

            Secular has important work to do, and the horde of kids with darwin fish and scarlet A’s should not use it to mitigate the fact that you are, as sam harris has pointed out, pointless.

    5. You perhaps wrongly interpret the word “eradicate”. It is like eradication of disease by medicine, where the “disease” is religion but bot religious people. Secular society may still allow people to believe any stuff and do whatever they do (like eat their food with dirty hands) but to keep those habits away from public life and public decision making (just like we do not allow polluting public wells – continuing that analogy with medicine and disease). The subject of eradication (or rather control) is the ideology alone and not freedom of people to indoctrinate themselves (but not others, especially children).

      1. Eradicate means “to wipe out” “remove completely” … in no sense does the meaning of the word “eradicate” imply, protect, limit harm to, uphold, defend, conserve, set aside, keep safe, or protect from harm.

        Which are all adjectives that apply to the secular principle of government.

        My personal experience from my interactions with people who are 20 and wear jesus fish and attend PZ myers’ talks on campuses here is that they do not gather to discuss the importance of upholding religious freedoms, and religious liberty.

        They want to hear PZ talk about how dumb the idea that a cracker can turn into Jebus is …

        A secular society should, care about crackers and Jesus only to the extent that someone might pass a law saying that it was either required of people, or forbidden.

        1. You clearly did not read what I wrote. I have written that the subject of eradication IS religion (ideology) and NOT religious (people). Gnus do not want to cuddle religion as you suggest but rather to remove it entirely as a valid subject of a public discourse. It can still exists in historical records or echo in some neutral traditions. Nobody is telling here to eradicate people.
          If you want to cuddle religion, astrology or ask crystals for healing in your private space – there is no problem too. You have your freedoms. But first improve please your reading skills.

        2. A secular society should, care about crackers and Jesus only to the extent that someone might pass a law saying that it was either required of people, or forbidden.

          I do not understand what is your complaint. Nobody is asking to arrest all catholic crackers and transform them into the compost (that would make no sense anyway – they turn to it later anyway). Crackers have all the freedom to be eaten by Catholics. You probably mistake atheists making fun from crakers turning into zombie with secular society and freedoms it gives to people.

          FYI: secular society give you freedom to eat your crackers but it gives others the right to make a good long laugh at you. And you can laugh at us too. Yes you have that right too.

    6. and about why a secular state is fundamentally pro religion

      No. A secular state is a state where religion is safe in certain ways. The state doesn’t need to be pro-religion for that to be the case.

      1. I take your point here. I think however that the American system of Government, by affirming and naming “religion” as a right, it means to protect religion and religious belief … this is all “affirmation”.

        You can’t affirm the right to keep guns – and also easily take them from people or keep them from having gun collections and gun shows and buying and selling guns.

        So USA may not be “pro” gun … but its hard to argue that the USA isn’t … Australia has gun laws that America can’t begin to imagine.

        So, I take your point Ophelia … the constitution of the US is not “pro” religion. It just “pro … tects” religion … agree?

        1. The Secular Student Alliance appears to welcome people are who are not atheists also. They call themselves an umbrella organization for skeptics, freethinkers, and naturalists. But you are still correct, secularist is a broader group of people than the Secular Student Alliance seeks for its membership since secularist includes theists.

          However, your analogy freedom of religion with the second amendment is more seriously flawed. People who advocate for atheism are actively exercising freedom of religion just as much as people who advocate for theism because any liberty with regard to expression necessarily entails the liberty to dissent. This is not the case with gun ownership, since not owning a gun is not an exercise of a right to own a gun. But even with gun ownership any prohibition on government forbidding or restricting gun ownership doesn’t conflict with advocacy against gun ownership.

  8. The goal of a “secular student alliance” should not be to “eradicate” religion any more than the goal of hawk should be to eradicate rabbits.

    specious reasoning at best.

    your implication is that secularism literally feeds off of religion.

    nothing could be further from the truth.

    If religion disappeared tomorrow, you would STILL have secular social groups meeting to do the same things they always did, just sans the need to any longer spend energy needing to demonstrate the value of it.

    I think you’re projecting from the current state of RELIGIOUS social groups, of which most actually don’t feel the need to demonstrate why their ideology is superior.

    ah, the value of being in the majority.

    1. I’d have to disagree with this. As I said in #3, here in Europe there aren’t many secular groups around because being secular is common and widespread. Sure, there are groups gathering to discuss science or philosophy but nobody gathers to reaffirm their secular values as that is something given and uncontroversial. It is religious folk who gather in religious societies to reason about the Bible or Koran together – they’re in such a minority that they even have interfaith gatherings to share their thoughts with followers of other religions.

        1. It is religious folk who gather in religious societies to reason about the Bible or Koran together – they’re in such a minority

          again, please re-read what I wrote:

          ah, the value of being in the majority.

          when in the minority, there is more emphasis on spending effort to define why you shouldn’t be.

          it works the same for any group.

          hence, as you rightly note, when secularism is in the vast majority, it no longer needs to spend energy doing this, while religious groups, now being in the minority, do.

          In fact, what I see is you agreeing with me, not disagreeing!

          1. I do agree with most of what you said. I just object to you saying that if there were no religion there would still be *secular* groups gathering to do what they do now. In my opinion, if there were no religion, these groups will no longer self-identify as *secular* as that would be implicit in non-religious society.

        2. Well, that’s a rather peculiar definition of “secular”. Would you call a discussion group on politics “secular”? Would you call a folk dance society “secular”?

          Of course, you can say that anything not inherently related to religion is secular. But what I mean by secular in this context is a social gathering whose aim is to expressly reaffirm their adherence to secular values and resist possible attacks by religion on those values.

          1. Would you call a discussion group on politics “secular”?

            uh, yeah, I would:


            I think you are confusing secular with secularist, or atheist, or anti-theist?

            again, while it is correct to say there wouldn’t be a need to push for secularism if there weren’t counters to it, it isn’t correct to say that secular groups NEED religion in order to exist, as the person I was responding to claimed.

            1. well, definition #3 in the link you gave, is apropos to my position. And I don’t think that anyone would argue that any social group NEEDS religion to discuss worldly (inherently non-religious) matters which is corresponding to the definition #1 in this link. So, it seems to me, we practically agree on all points.

      1. Its odd isn’t it. The USA was the first “secular” state. Many flags in Europe are some form of a cross. Many nations in Europe have “state religion” … but in the USA, the church was allowed the same advantages that markets were – it boomed. Its everywhere. Why? Because the USA is a secular state, it does not and can not use its power to suppress private conscience in matters of religious conviction.

        This is not what happened in the 1930’s in Germany. Not what is happening in China, Egypt today etc … it is a big and important point.

        1. This is not what happened in the 1930′s in Germany.


          it is a big and important point.

          it’s an entirely backwards one, or at best, irrelevant.

        2. Why? Because the USA is a secular state, it does not and can not use its power to suppress private conscience in matters of religious conviction.

          you DO NOT understand what the 1st amendment means, and what the “seperation” conclusion means.

          it not only means that the government should not interfere in free expression, it also means it should not ENCOURAGE specific expressions of religion.

          Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion

          do you think the US has done a good job of adhering to that notion?

          If you do, you’re more delusional than I thought. You might take a gander at the history of the influence of xian religion on education in the US. Or, what about the recent faith-based initiatives? government sponsorship of an Ark Park or various creation museums?

          You understand little of American educational history, and little of constitutional policy and application.

          why not stick to Australian policy, since that’s what you grew up with, right?

          or are you as unversed on how that has worked out in your own country as you are with what is happening in the US?

          seriously, why don’t you simply relate how things are working in OZ wrt the influence of religion on education and politics?

            1. I have to laugh at your regret regarding “free exercise” … I have had occasion to interact with people running for political office here in Australia who are part of the “Secular Party” … none of them are concerned about religious freedom, but they would, if elected legislate against the church, and adopt the habits of criticizing matters of private conscience in ways meant to offend.

              I’ve come to fear them, were these people ever to gain power, they would abuse it.

              I’m convinced that they can’t distinguish the private from the public … regretting that there is a “free exercise” clause is alarming to me.

              1. Ophelia: I have thought about the Amish quite a bit. I’ve spent time working with Mennonites and I have very mixed feelings.

                They are but one of 1000’s of different kinds of tribal social systems fighting the totalitarian effects of “progress”.

                Part of me finds them disgusting. I would never raise my daughters to live like theirs.

                It is very hard for me to know where the line is between abuse, imprisonment and self determination and freedom.

                You don’t know either.

                There is no easy answer. It seems like you may think there is.

        3. That is a lame line of reasoning. It was popular some years ago but has basically lost its appeal. Turns out, there is no relationship between religious diversity and religiosity (anywhere beyond American shores). In fact, there are examples to the contrary: Spain, under the Franco dictatorship with essentially no denomination tolerated apart from the Catholics, was much more religious than it is today.

        4. it boomed. Its everywhere. Why? Because the USA is a secular state,

          Sweden is a secular state.

          Not much religion there…

          wonder why that is?

          I guess they must actively supress it?

          no, they don’t.

          well then, they must actively interfere in the “marketplace of ideas”.


          I leave it to you to figure out why religion has declined in many SECULAR european nations.

              1. Yes there is a LONG history of religious repression in Sweden.

                The cultural identity and traditions of the nation are highly interwoven with religion.

                When the Norse systems of belief were replaced by Christian ones, there was a blending and appropriation.

                It is very common for non believing Swedes to baptize their children and they don’t think of themselves as “atheists” … they are all like Sam Harris is now, they are not defined by what they are not, but by what they are.

              2. there is a LONG history of religious repression in Sweden.

                I have to agree that this is not what happened here in Sweden (say), and that the suggestion that religious diversity means religiosity is lame.

                It is true that religion became less powerful in Sweden of old with the state church, which was a way to moderate the power of the churches. One church got a controlled monopoly, the others were outed.

                But in more enlightened times a lot of sects and cults happened. At the same time the philosopher Hedenius broke the back of swedish religion by behaving like a “New Atheist”; with some help of the press. (There is nothing new in the gnu!)

                It is very common for non believing Swedes to baptize their children and they don’t think of themselves as “atheists” …

                The separation between state and church is as late as 2000, it wasn’t until 2009 marriage was sufficiently separated to allow same sex marriage, and until 1996 children were “born into the church”.

                The number of baptized are currently decreasing with 3 % every year, now ~ 60 % of the children are baptized. The exponential decrease will eventually be normalized to secular levels, whatever they are.

                As a hint, 1972 ~ 95 % of the population were members of the state church, 2009 ~ 70 % of the population are members of the Church of Sweden. The number of churches went from something like ~ 2000 to 1000 over a few years in the early 2000, because so few were attending that they didn’t fulfill the criteria of services every week. In actuality, ~ 4 % of the population attend services, and ~ 2 % do so regularly.

                [If ~ 2 % of swedes are US equivalent religious (attending services regularly?), then ~ 20 % or 10 times more are declared atheists.]

              3. According to Phil Zuckerman in his excellent book, “Society without God'” even some of those who attend church and others who identify as “Christian” laugh at the idea of believing in an afterlife or even God. It seems that they are Christian in name only, and instead atheists who merely have no reason to embrace that term because Christianity in Sweden is an entirely different monster than it is in the US. (And the US version can indeed be monstrous).

          1. I think religion has fallen so hard in EU exactly because it was imposed on people. To be Swedish meant, being “Lutheran” … To be Irish, meant being Catholic … but to be American means being American.

            This has not been easy for American … it was not at all a simple matter to create a secular state from a people who burned the state house in Mary Land. We still struggle with it. Kennedy in 60’s, Rommney in the 00’s … Fox news and ground zero mosque.

            Which is why I said what I said to Dr. Coyne … it is exactly America’s protection of religion though its secular commitment … that has allowed it to be such a beacon. The shining city on the hill is not crowned nor under a cross … it is a beacon that commits itself to a set of ideas, the first of which is a right to religious liberty and expression.

            There are reasons to defend the secular tradition against the predations of atheism, because atheism is about God … not about human rights.

            1. No you are wrong. Read the 2004 book “sacred and secular”, or research done by investigator Greg Paul. Religiosity is related inversely closely-in Eruope, the US, Canada, and developing world- to “existential security”- a reliable social safety net. Once that is in place, the clutch is no longer needed. It somehow magically vanishes.

              1. Yes, and that correlates well with what happened in Sweden too. Hedenius could only get to it because a) the press were free b) freedom of speech existed c) people were receptive (educated _and_ secure in the then social democrat safety netted Sweden).

            2. Are you atheist? If so, your own atheism may indeed be about “God”, but you are incorrect to say atheism in general is about “God”.

              I had not believed in gods or other supernatural forces for years, and believed religions as silly, yet did not even think about myself as an atheist – didn’t think about magic & mysticism at all. Until I ran up against some theists trying to stop the education of students about science, and then seeing some theists continually trying to pass laws that would make all people subject to the views of their particular religion.

              It was then that I became atheist – my atheism and that of the other atheists I know is not “about “God”” – it is about opposing the efforts of those who believe in gods to stifle the freedoms of other people because of their beliefs in the supernatural.

    2. right secular and religious are like yin and yang, they are the space that each other isn’t. Once the world was thought of as religious … religion and the state were the same.

      Along came the enlightenment. After much struggle the idea of secular life and religious life – became normalized and hardwired into our system of law.

      1. right secular and religious are like yin and yang, they are the space that each other isn’t.


        you really do fail at analogies.

      2. Look, stop this nonsense.
        That hypothesis was debunked years ago.
        The “relationship” between religious diversity and religiosity is mythical.
        In the UK, France or Spain, there are evangelical churches. No one gets in the way of their proselytizing. They are in effect as secular as the US. And in none of those nations have they been able to attrack people abadoning the state churches of the past.
        To the contrary, the most religious nation in Europe is Italy with church attendance rates on par with the US. And it has no freemarket for religion. RCC is virtually the only church there.
        Stop parroting that line OK? It only shows your ignorance.

  9. Its like the sloppy intellectual and basically negative social habits of atheism made it so their house had to be condemned … not even Sam Harris, will keep his bed there anymore …

    Surveying this wreck … and knowing that the party is just getting started, some one noticed that no one was really using the mansion built by secular thinking … so someone with a facebook acct. got the bright idea to tell all the guys with darwin fish to reconstitute the party in the dignified address of the secular people.

    Who, upon returning, are mortified. There is a loud music, trash everywhere and a big sign that says, Eradicate Religion” hung from the portico.

    So much for “secularism”.

    Meanwhile deep in the south Albert Mohler is rubbing his hands together … yes, yes, this is perfect. Soon we will be thrown to the lions, and the glory days of the church will return.

    It is not good that the address of the the “secular society” has become a crash pad for child soldiers of atheism. Some of our greatest traditions were started in Secular’s house. Don’t trash it.

    1. Meanwhile deep in the south Albert Mohler is rubbing his hands together … yes, yes, this is perfect. Soon we will be thrown to the lions, and the glory days of the church will return.

      you’re delusional.

      time to hit the showers, I think.

      1. He is too delusional!

        No clue where he’s coming from, but it sure ain’t any reality I’m familiar with.

        StateReligionVIC, may I make a suggestion? Lay off the analogies. They’re not your forte. Maybe you’d make more sense if you just wrote what you mean.



        1. I seldom disagree with Ichthyic & Ben Goren, but in this case I find SRVIC to be putting forth much better stated arguments…

          1. I have to disagree Diane. StateReligionVIC has repeatedly shown his ignorance in matters relating to US and even some European history, made horrible nonsensical analogies (Jesusesque parables?) which are at times impossible to decipher but still make no sense even if they are decipherable, and seems to think that he alone knows what “secular” means.

            He also knows nothing about the Secular Student Alliance. From wiki:
            The Secular Student Alliance (SSA), founded in May 2000, is an independent, democratically structured organization in the U.S. that aims to serve the needs of :freethinking high school and college students.
            The SSA was formed “to organize, unite, educate and serve students and student communities that promote the ideals of scientific and critical inquiry, democracy, secularism, and human based ethics”.

            To avoid more possible confusion for

            1. sorry, my previous reply was somehow cut off. To finish:

              To avoid more possible confusion for SRVIC, freethought is defined as: “a philosophical viewpoint that holds that opinions should be formed on the basis of science, logic, and reason, and should not be influenced by authority, tradition, or any other dogma.”
              This definition pretty much excludes any religions.

              So yeah, as far as I know the Secular Student Alliance is an atheist group. They are necessary since many college campuses are inundated by group like the Campus Crusade for Christ, because Christianity is the majority position in the US, and because Christians are often the enemy of education in the US.

              Perhaps SRVIC cannot empathize with atheists in America because the situation in Australia is not even slightly comparable.

              1. I don’t think this has anything to do with empathizing with atheists in the US. I think it concerns the inexact use of a term that has traditionally stood for something other than atheism in the US (and other countries). See GCM’s post at # 15.

              2. From
                of or pertaining to worldly things or to things that are not regarded as religious, spiritual, or sacred; temporal: secular interests.
                not pertaining to or connected with religion.

                Seems pretty clear to me. And these are certainly the definitions the SSA are using, thus they are using the word correctly.

  10. No doubt the books of the “new” atheists helped, but I think Internet chatrooms and messge boards might deserve even more of the credit. I was 30 years old before I ever heard anyone say they didn’t believe in god. Today’s kids see religious beliefs attacked almost constantly, thanks to the net.

    1. I think Internet chatrooms and messge boards might deserve even more of the credit.

      that’s a good point.

      instant communication and verification of facts provided by the internet has ruined many previously relatively unchallenged arguments put forward by the religious.

      from “the banana” to the cosmological argument to the ontological argument.

      ready and immediate access to easy refutations of nonsense has put religious apologetics on the ropes.

      1. I was going to say the same thing. I think the internet had more to do with it than anything. Without the internet, those gnu Atheists books would not have mattered. What would have happened, had their been an internet at the time of Mark Twain, Thomas Paine, Robert Ingersoll, or even Bertrand Russel. I’d have to think that the same thing would have happened then.

        As I look back at my childhood, growing up in a small town in the Midwest and going to private school. I had absolutely no exposure to anything even remotely counter to what I believed. The closest I got was, those pesky liberal Methodists.

        Compare that to now, where any kid with the internet now will take a look at you tube. And if they were like me, and thought they were sure of what they believed, they would have been drawn to videos by people they agreed with. But simply by doing that, they would be subjected to comments by people who disagreed. And if they were like me, they would have looked at the reply videos, because sure they could not know what they were talking about! Suddenly, someone like me would have been exposed to the other side. Granted it would not have changed me immediately, but as someone who was very rational even then, it would have started me questioning much sooner than I did.

        One of my favorite podcasts is “The Atheist Experience”, if you listen to the episode 695 from 2 weeks ago, the first caller they had was a youth pastor. And his intro went something like this. “The kids in our youth group have been listening to your podcasts. And while we think its funny, you [the hosts] just don’t understand why you are wrong.” They then had a very good conversation until they had phone issues, in which they very politely dismantled his point.

        That is what is causing the huge change. We have to reach kids while their brain is still developing. Only so many will change their mind once they get into their 30’s. But the internet is the best way to continue to reach people. Because even though internet arguments often feel very counter productive. They do make people think differently!

        1. Yep. One of the best things about the net is that, if nothing else, it makes people aware that arguments and opinions counter to what they’re raised with exist. I think this is why you see a lot of net-hate from imams and rabbis and priests – they know people are out there with not only contrary viewpoints, but rational, well-considered viewpoints which threaten to take their flocks away.

    2. + 4

      And–apparently, so far anyway–it fomented the secular, democratic, nearly bloodless revolution in Egypt. Though Egypt was already +/- secular, and we hope fervantly it stays that way…

    3. I’m rather less confident the Internet deserves much credit for the underlying change. The GSS data indicate a long-term demographic (by birth cohort) shift to increasing irreligiosity has been on a logistic curve since before RFC-821 defined email (never mind the WWW), and likely well before RFC-1.

      I suspect the current rise in secularist groups is more a result of the concentration in the (college-age) population finally reaching levels high enough to facilitate a crystallization-like cascade; in which case, this rapid rise will soon (say, on the order of a decade) drop from a circa 3-year logistic curve constant to the 27-year logistic curve constant of the underlying social shift.

      That said, even while it may be incidental to the underlying social shift, the internet may well have facilitated the organizing process for the clubs.

  11. I like to think this wave is now self sustaining: we won’t need any more Gnu Atheist books to keep it going.

    Optimistic naivety. There have been many times in the past when freethought of one character or another surged in popularity, and then fell back. Robert Ingersoll was hugely popular in his time, but little known (other than to freethinkers) today.

    All movements require maintenance education. There are always potential new recruits, and there should be a regular influx of new members. Finally, existing members do not have perfect memories. Gnu atheist books have been hugely successful – in that much I agree with you – but there are still many people who do not know that there are many characteristics commonly attributed to god, which result in logical contradictions; they define provably false gods. Many people do not know there are many characteristics commonly attributed to gods which can be scientifically shown to be extremely unlikely – Victor Stenger’s book, God: The failed Hypothesis is about this. Many people do not know that most religions have had a substantial negative effect on the morality of our society. Gnu atheist books are still needed to spread these ideas.

    1. Optimistic naivety.


      In fact, I would encourage the exact opposite line:

      it’s when you think the tide is turning in your favor, that is the time to put on the MOST pressure.

      I can haz mor Gnu Atheist books plz?

        1. We must remain aware of all the other times when people seriously thought religion was just going fade into the background because people had become to well educated, science had advanced so very far, and empiricism, reason and logic would replace religious thought. It didn’t happen after the Enlightenment,it didn’t happen, as llewelly (almost a palindrome 🙂 notes, with Robert Ingersoll, and it certainly didn’t happen as predicted during the post-hippie/youth-“revolution” era of the 70’s. (This era was of course just a prelude the rise of the extreme Christian Right in the 80’s.

          We must keep the pressure on. There are still far too many people who are ignorant about religion and the damage that it can do, not to mention the obvious falsity of all religions.

          I say the more atheist books, blogs, movies, documentaries, organizations – both local and global – newspapers, activism, etc. the better.

  12. My answer was to be polite to opponents but never water down their beliefs for public consumption.

    You know, the thing I’ve realized about politeness through my thoughts and discussions on the “tone issue” is that there isn’t and can’t be one definition that everyone agrees on.

    The experience of something as “impolite” or “offensive” is a psychological phenomenon, based on the evaluation of a given argument as being too provocative or forceful for a given subject material. It’s subjective, and changes based on how much you agree with the argument being put forth.

    For example, I used to think that Dawkins was overly sassy and disrespectful in his arguments, and that he should tone it down. Now, I’m at a loss to say what it is I ever found so malicious about his tone. PZ Myers I still have a problem with on occasion, but I have less of a problem now than I did when I first started reading atheist blogs. The reason for this transformation is that I understand now that the logic that these and other atheists employ really is sound, and that makes the difference between hearing their tone as “rude” versus “entirely appropriate for the circumstance.”

    As someone who’s very concerned about being able to convince others, the theory that what “politeness” is varies from person to person seems a lot more useful than any “set” definition. I agree with not watering down arguments, but changing how you present them, or exactly which parts you present when you know how your audience is going to respond is, in my opinion, just smart application of rhetorical principles.

    I’d love to hear what other people think about this.

    1. I’d say this is insightful. I blog on belief and then post it on my Facebook page. My blogs of late have become more and more charitable in tone but yesterday I was accused of being no different than an Evangelical Christian because I am out on my atheism. It angered me because the accusation seemed so out of proportion to what I wrote. I understand however that for some the mere mention of atheism is a fierce political act and the repeated interest in it is practically a crusade.

      1. That – accusing someone of being the opposite of what they are – is a strategy. A cheap, low, intellectually dishonest tactic.

        They’re trying to shame you into keeping quiet, and since they’ve got no actual arguments to support their side, they’ve got to stoop to this level.

        It’s an indication of their desperation.

        1. Yeah, I see that now but yesterday I was pissed. The guy making the accusation isn’t even a religious believer but rather someone who simply thinks my interest in and commentary on atheism / belief is boorish. It seems he holds this belief because he doesn’t see any issue with religion.

          1. Sounds like someone who has never suffered the psychological torment of religion and/or is unaware of the harm that it does, not only to individuals (often permanently), but also to society as a whole.

        2. It’s interesting that you can claim to know so much about a person’s psychology from so short a description.

          I recently posted this video to my Facebook page, with the comment “well done.” No one said anything negative about it on FB, but two of my friends told me via other means of communication that they didn’t like it. They said, politely, that I was being intolerant and close-minded. Knowing these friends, and gleaning information from the discussion I had with them afterwards, I think I know somewhat what led them to think this way.

          Neither of them are used to the hypocrisy and illogicity of religion being attacked so pointedly. Neither of them see Christian beliefs as being as pernicious as I (and most of the people here) do. They don’t see how clear the logic is, and so the attack on Christianity seems overdone – it seems rude and intolerant. I understand that. I guarantee you if you’d shown me this video, say, 2 or 3 years ago, I would have felt the same way.

          This is what I mean about “rudeness” being a subjective emotional reaction based on one’s opinion of an argument. Certainly, my friends are wrong. However, I can also assure you that they are not strategizing to discredit me. They are not trying to shame me into shutting up. They are having an honest emotional reaction that many people have in similar situations, and that is prompting, unfortunately, bad arguments and bad things said about my character.

          To many people, those two things seem to be evidence enough that persons such as my friends are “projecting” or “strategizing” ways to defeat me. Except, negative evaluations of character and angry rebuttals are exactly what you expect a person to make who is faced with an impolite and vituperative collocutor. To my friends, when I am an impolite and vituperative collocutor, they will simply treat me as such – no “special plan to discredit Tim” necessary. That is the explanation that seems to conform to Ockham’s razor.

          So I’m wondering, based on what evidence do you conclude – from Chuck’s original comment – that his acquaintances aren’t just treating him as they would any other impolite person? How do you know that they are actively engaged in a scheme to shut him up, not because he’s being impolite, but because his opinions should be silenced?

          1. Wowbagger may not have enough information to conclude that what he describes is what was going in in Chuck’s case.

            But what he describes is an oft-used tactic.

    2. + 2

      Seems like just good common sense, and Jerry’s short statement on advice sums it up nicely. That simply stating “I am an atheist” is considered blasphemy by many is not our problem; and usually it works better to not supply more ammunition in the form of emotion, anger, cussing, etc. Wish I were better at doing what I say…

      1. What I’m asking is if there is a religious test to join the “Secular Student Alliance” … if the purpose of the organization is to “mock religion” … or if “secular” simply means “atheist” … then one can not be A Christian and a person who is part of a “secular alliance” … can they?

        I’m happy to see people gather and discuss the benefits of not having a stamp collection.

        But in our country “secular” is used in statute. It is a legal term that defines our institutions and their character.

        If secular is taken to mean “atheist” the religious have every right to object to the use of the idea – as it now deals with matters of religious conviction (ie it has an opinion on God).

        1. Eh…sorry to break it to you, but words sometimes have more than one meaning.
          Or is that concept way above your head?

        2. Learn the mantra, JFGI.

          If you bother to read their website you will notice the following:

          Section 2: PURPOSE – The underlying purpose of the Secular Student Alliance is to bring about a society in which the ideals of scientific rationality, secularism, and Humanism flourish. Whereas many other organizations already exist to spread these values to adult populations, the SSA focuses on fostering these values among high school and college students.
          The Secular Student Alliance specifically seeks to organize, unite, educate and serve students and student communities that promote the ideals of scientific rationality, secularism, and Humanism.

          Reading further will tell you:

          Article II – Membership

          Section 1: QUALIFICATIONS – Any individual who is in agreement with the purpose of the Secular Student Alliance is eligible for membership.

          StateReligionVIC, your comments seem like so much concern trolling.

          1. oh, my bad, I thought that Dr. Coyne was talking about the growth in SSA groups as evidence of increasing ATHEISM.

            Now that you’ve shown me the bylaws of the SSA … I can see that the SSA has nothing to do with “atheism” and that growth in SSA groups is not evidence for growth in Student Atheism … thanks … for clearing that up.

            1. No, I answered the question that you were too *something* (lazy?) to do yourself. You are spending time making poorly argued, half-cocked allegations all without doing your due diligence first. I made no argument in favor of or opposing your point of view, though perhaps you can divine my view if you are perceptive. What I am telling you is stop wasting our time and do your own Google work before speculating.

            1. yeah, people could do that, but it is easier to call me dumb, a troll, on meds etc … and JC’s post does more than imply! It says X proves Y.

              # of SSA groups evidence for Atheism … yet “atheism” not part of SSA group’s own stated aims. It is like a group of smokers calling themselves a health club …

              1. I think you (& I and many others, on both sides) have already stated what it is we think, and that further back-and-forth only adds more heat than light…

                When it becomes about “winning,” rather than discussing, only flaming can result…sigh.

        3. Funnily enough, it’s more often than not the religious themselves who take (or consciously present to their flocks) “secular” as “atheist” and then proceed to have the knee-jerk reactions we’re all familiar with.

          Most reasonable people, atheist and theist alike, are intelligent enough to understand that secularism does not equate either to atheism (just as most intelligent people also realise that “Christian” doesn’t equal “misogynist theocrat”). Obviously it often works in reverse because nonreligious people, having been on the receiving end of religious ignorance, mistrust and even outright hatred, have a natural interest in a secular society – a society that neither impinges upon NOR elevates religious belief.

          That’s all any secularist wants to see, regardless of their beliefs – a state which guarantees freedom of faith while not elevating it unfairly.

          Secularism is only fair – but apparently not fair enough for some believers, who want nothing more than their sectarianism to inform & enforce public policy. When that occurs, secular activists appear.

          1. I completely agree.

            Which is why I am concerned with the appropriation of “secular” to mean:


            but NOT

            etc …

            It seems plain to me that these groups are consciously espousing one thing, but calling it by something that has a better “brand” … “Secularism” … and the end result of this will be an end point which serves religion’s interests a degradation of the meaning and importance of the idea of “secular”

        4. From
          of or pertaining to worldly things or to things that are not regarded as religious, spiritual, or sacred; temporal.
          not pertaining to or connected with religion

          These definitions are consistent with the manner in which they are used by the SSA.”Secular” may mean something different in Australia, but many misunderstandings could have been avoided if you had attempted to find out what it means in the US. We are 2 countries separated by a common language after all.

          More on the SSA:
          The Secular Student Alliance (SSA), founded in May 2000, is an independent, democratically structured organization in the U.S. that aims to serve the needs of freethinking high school and college students.

          a philosophical viewpoint that holds that opinions should be formed on the basis of science, logic, and reason, and should not be influenced by authority, tradition, or any other dogma.
          This pretty much rules out religion, so yeah, the SSA seems to be an atheist student group. Perhaps they chose the name because of the negative connotations of the word atheism. Well, that and the fact that secular is an accurate term. US universities tend to be overrun by Christian groups like The Campus Crusade for Christ. Nonbelievers often feel the need for forming our own groups here in the US. Maybe it’s different in Australia, but don’t you think it’s more than a little presumptuous to judge US groups by Australian standards?

  13. It is good to see that the SSA is on the rise, and it looks like it comes about with frank discussion, and by being “out there” others with similar ideas can have the confidence to come out as well. Social acceptance is a big driver of the “coming out-iness” or “staying in-iness” of people, so the more the merrier.

    Hopefully OT: I came across this Steve Pinker lecture on RSA Animate yesterday, about language as a window into human nature. In it he describes how we use different forms of veiled language depending on the relationship we hold or wish to hold with the other party. It got me to thinking that it may be instructive for understanding what motivates an accomodationalist, which is they want to pretend to stay friends with the faithful. To them this friendship is more important than intellectual integrity, so the science is veiled so the faithful can pretend and interpret it as supporting their superstitions and myths. Gnus, on the other hand, value intellectual integrity more than the pretend friendship with the faithful, so the language is more to the point; less veiling.

  14. I take StateReligionVic’s main point to be that if the Secular Student Alliance is an atheist organization, then it is misnamed. In this he is correct. “Secular” does not mean anti-religious or atheist. It means “Belonging to the world and its affairs as distinguished from the Church and religion; civil, lay;…Not concerned with religious subjects or devoted to the service of religion” (NSOED).

    Several years ago, in the sort of letter to the editor that fundamentalist Christians are wont to write, a local minister and public school principal (yes, you read that right) wrote, among other historical whoppers, that the American Founding Fathers had not intended to found a secular society. I replied that, as anyone vaguely familiar with history would know, they intended precisely that. Being intimately familiar with the dreadful history of religious disputation in Europe and, especially, Britain, they wanted to make sure theirs was a secular, not religious, government. As George Washington wrote, “Of all the animosities which have existed among mankind, those which are caused by a difference of sentiments in religion appear to be the most inveterate and distressing.”

    But secular did not mean anti-religious. The religious views of the Founders varied considerably, though tending toward Unitarian, desist, and anti-clerical; but they meant to get religion out of government, and so they did.

    It is the religious, such as my poorly informed minister and public school principal, who have sought to change or obscure the meaning of the word secular; they should not be indulged or encouraged in their efforts at obfuscation.

    1. Yes, exactly, but “we” are encouraging exactly this as the thread shows.

      Jerry lauds the “growth of student atheism” … but the “growth” is # of “Secular Alliances” … the groups use this branding BECAUSE the atheist brand is junk. Harris, who has done more for atheism this decade says so himself …

      These alliances look like this:

      Atheism’s Child Soldiers

      See the branding. PZ is handed a The Secular Student Alliance T shirt which displays a Jesus Fish with Legs … which is great and funny and all, its just not what a Secular Society should do … take religious symbols and mock them.

      Would it be OK if the ROTC club pinned Jesus Fish on cadets?

      No, but when we do it, for mockery and free speech … its cool.

      1. Pointing out the stupidity of christian theology certainly would be appropriate behavior for any secular group.

        I think that is what you are trying to state but your ellipses keep getting in the way.

        1. no it really would not be an appropriate thing for a city council, or congress or the regents of a university to do.

          Our republic is secular – and that means that it does not formulate policy on religious doctrines. It must recognize them and protect them.

          Similarly, the only reason that ID is not part of the biology curriculum is because it is “religious doctrine” and therefore state funded schools may not teach it … any more than they can teach CCD.

          1. Oh, so you weren’t actually pointing out the stupidity of christian theology after all. So then it is more likely that your use of ellipses is to provide a hiding place to scurry to.

            You may not have noticed but, student groups function differently and for different purposes than the US state and federal governments.

            Recognizing and protecting christianity is indeed what US governments are doing but, you should realize that is a bug not a feature. The founding fathers didn’t want religion and government to mix for very obvious and good reasons. You should know this because US governments favor christianity above all other superstitions – that is incorrect procedure for a secular society.

            ID isn’t taught in schools because its cdesign proponentsists got their collective asses kicked in theory and procedure.

      2. So what exactly is the problem here?
        Are there any preteens in that picture? No. Is anyone threatened with violence (including hellfire?) No.
        Is this a captive audience? No.
        So they shouldn’t be doing it because you don’t ridicule, Mr Troll?

        “Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions. Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them; and no man ever had a distinct idea of the trinity. It is the mere Abracadabra of the mountebanks calling themselves the priests of Jesus.”
        — Thomas Jefferson

        1. What I’m saying is that if these people intend to establish “Atheist Student Alliances” they should call them by that name. If Christians are not welcome because they are dumb, and because the very fact that they believe as they do disqualifies them from belonging to a “secular” alliance … then that alliance isn’t “secular” … they’re a 100% atheist organization that wants to call itself “secular”.

          1. The only one who is dumb is you.
            “Secular” according to Merriam Webster:
            1 a : of or relating to the worldly or temporal
            b : not overtly or specifically religious
            c : not ecclesiastical or clerical
            The students are secular in the sense 1b. It is not an “atheist” alliance because some may call themselves something else. “Secular” laws, state etc. are so because they are not run or devised by churches. Students using the word secular as an appellation will not be undercutting the regular meaning of the word.
            But I think I have discovered a new species of concern trolls today: semantic concern trolls.

    2. How is this definition not anti-religious?

      “Belonging to the world and its affairs as distinguished from the Church and religion; civil, lay;…Not concerned with religious subjects or devoted to the service of religion”

      Particularly the second half of the definition? It may not be a synonym for atheism, but based on this definition, the Secular Student Alliance is not misusing the term as SRVIC is suggesting.

    3. But secular did not mean anti-religious.

      it DOES mean A-religious though, as in without religion.

      it is, therefore atheistic by inclusion.

      playing this idiotic semantic game will get you nowhere.

      and Sam Harris’ diatribe about the word the very word atheism was likewise extremely ill thought out and inane for him.

      MANY people made great arguments against his position on it at the time.

      guess what?

      that’s the point of being a skeptic; nobody is immune to having their arguments be shredded if they are ridiculous, and this one IS ridiculous.

      1. It think Harris wasn’t talking about the word so much as the thought process and what the word represents … as you demonstrate, it makes for a pretty unpleasant and belligerent person who’s main desire is to tell others what they don’t belive in … that growth in “atheism” is demonstrated by an increase in a group that does not use the word “atheism” says so much.

    4. Actually, the smarter sort of minority religions sometimes support secularism since it will protect their rights, whereas a state religion usually will not. I do have friends in fundie sects who don’t seem to realise that supporting a state role of “religion” in general is not likely to support their particular splinter very well.

      However, in a place like the USA, where nearly all public policies and politicians bow to religion in all matters, secularism is usually about opposing the influence of religion. And that’s primarily going to attract freethinkers and atheists.

  15. These kids grew up in an era when the biggest event associated with religious belief was the 9-11 attack on the twin towers and pentagon. My guess is that this fact has more to do with the rise in atheism than any book. In fact, it probably has something to do with all the books.

  16. The aim of a secular state is surely not to protect religions or religious sects in themselves, but to protect believers, sectarians and non-believers from one another and from themselves, that is to say, to protect what used to be called the commonwealth. I do think that it is immensely important to assert secular principles as strongly as possible – so that the religious do not have the kind of influence over others’ lives as they do, say, in Britain because of all those bishops in the House of Lords, and so that sharia law is not admitted as a part of the law of the land, as Rowan Williams once woolily suggested. And, yes, it is surely also important that atheists do not put themselves in the position of becoming a mere sect, on a level with religious sects, of becoming a mere pressure group like those sects. The distinction between the secular (and inclusive)and the more narrow holding of an atheistical position is surely an important one, and one that it is worth keeping in mind.

    1. you make a good distinction here, and I agree. It is hard however to protect “believers” without identifying, and therefore protecting their “beliefs”.

      I support Jerry’s aims to argue that religion and science are incompatible. I think he presses these points well, and he often accused of being uncivil when he is the model of civility and intellect.

      However, his right to say what he says exists in a framework of law and rights which does make a specific issue out of protecting “religious expression” … this makes the boundary a tense and complicated place.

      When he was asked “should we be more militant” … as he wrote – that to me was flag for a conversation the difference between policy and opinion … about the use of power and about the use of speech.

      1. Troll, you are not just confused about different meanings of “secular”.
        You are confused about “militant” as well.

      2. I don’t see that espousing secular principles involves any positive protection of anything at all, and certainly not of religion; rather, they are negative and aimed at discouraging squabbles among believers from becoming politicised and a danger to the commonwealth, and at preventing any undue influence from religion on the laws of the land and the policies of the state. I am certainly not advocating protecting believers, except from themselves and one another.

        1. That is what I’m trying to argue is the problem. The secular principle can be viewed as a positive protection of liberty and freedoms … but it is not valued for these reasons by many of atheist persuasion.

          Because atheists don’t value religious belief, they don’t celebrate the fact that our laws were written with special attention to recognizing and protecting their rights as having special status.

          1. I certainly do not see why religions should have special status, or why the state should be in the business of ‘protecting’ some supposed ‘right’ to special status – but anyway which laws (and whose laws) are you referring to? To those exempting religious organisations from taxation, or to those that keep a bevy of bishops in the House of Lords and makes the British sovereign the head of the Anglican church? Or what? The whole thrust of the attempt to make society more secular is surely to reduce and if possible nullify such ‘rights’ – and this of course is why the religiously-minded (try the present Pope, or Tony Blair) are as vociferous against secular principles as they are against atheism.

          2. If I’ve misunderstood what you were trying to say, forgive me. Your last sentence is pretty woozy, and I am not sure whether you are saying that the ‘special status’ is one afforded to religious belief or to the rights of atheists. If you mean the latter, then what are these rights and why do they have special status?

              1. So you do mean religion, and not atheists… I think… Do you think, though, that the special status afforded to religion should be preserved? And if so, why?

              2. That is no answer, and you know it. Mere evasiveness is a childish ploy, and that tactic has quite a bit to do with the more personal criticisms that have been made against you.

            1. Religion involves a person’s right to live according to their conscience and conviction.



              I say my rights to freedom of expression include bashing your brains out with a rock.

              should the government interfere with my freedom of expression?

              OF COURSE IT SHOULD.


  17. I hope Dr. Coyne now realizes the horrible consequences of Gnu Atheism. Obviously, the number of secular student alliance groups would be 5, 10, or even 20-fold higher if the strident militant atheists had been silent.

    Thanks for setting the cause back!

  18. The motive of a troll like statereligionvic is rather straightforward: to cause aggravation. He first tries to do this by conflating the different meanings of the word “secular”. Once he is exposed by a simple checking of the word in the dictionary, does he disappear with his tail between his legs? Of course not. He comes back and tries his hand at something new.
    I can’t help feeling bad for him at some level. This is just pathetic.

      1. Well, you were not wrong about civility, just hypocritical. All I “assume” is that you either do not possess the basic ability to check a word in a dictionary or failing that, civility is something you expect to receive but not give. And no, no one agreed with you that people who are not religious should stop calling themselves “secular”.

      2. You have a valid point that “secular” as a word is not the same as nonreligious – at least under some common definitions – and thus the “secular student alliance” might not be the ideal name for a group that is aimed at the non religious. Then again their aims are not hidden and consistent with at least some definitions of the word “secular”.
        It’s not even clear to me that they would exclude the sort of politically secular religious individuals you seem to be worried about (those like Barry Lynn).
        As for your point that secularism means protecting religious beliefs themselves I think you need to be clearer. Do you mean protected from mocking?

        1. People who hold office and who work for public institutions have to take care not to create “tests” or to discriminate against people based on their religious identity.

          They do this by applying a “secular” principle. Jerry for instance teaches evolution, because it is not a religious concept. ID on the other hand IS a religious concept, so school board can’t require it to be taught, or purchase books that contain it.

          There is a difference between personal speech (mockery, ridicule, argument) and belief (atheism, Humanism) and public policy and institutional conduct and norms.

          By redefining “secular” which I view as statement of policy to mean “atheist” which I view as an opinion about God, it makes it much harder to function in a pluralist and tolerant society, because it essentially polarizes what should be a neutral space.

          So when groups of atheist students rally under the flag of “secular” … but don’t do it to affirm religious freedom, they are really doing harm to a much more important social good: namely the neutral space in which people with different religious beliefs agree to share.

          1. You have not answered my question. Nobody is suggesting that government should have a policy of mocking religious beliefs. The question is about the private sphere. Are you suggesting that religious beliefs need protection from private criticism/mocking?

            1. no, religious beliefs do not deserve legislative protection from mockery.

              However, the whole “Tom Johnson” affair was a false accusation that “atheists mock religion” in offensive ways.

              However, just as you’ve seen people on this thread hurl insult after insult at me, the SSA groups – being as they are, really just groups dedicated to advancing atheism – rather than advancing anything which has as its goal the protection of religious freedom … will do the same kind of “brand damage” to the idea of what “secular” means just as they have damaged what “atheism” means, because atheism is defined by what it is not, not what it is.

              1. That the name of the secular student alliance is not perfect under every dictionary definition is a trivial point. Continually hammering on at that point is just being pedantic on your part. It’s like complaining that a Christian religious group calls themselves “The Good
                News Society”. The aims of the SSA are not hidden and I doubt they ban pro-secular religious peope from joining.

              2. no, religious beliefs do not deserve legislative protection from mockery.

                finally! you actually have said something accurate.

                Now all you have to do is retract your inane freedom of speech diatribes you posted earlier, where you said the constitution means the government protects religion.

                you’re clear now that this isn’t the case, right?

                no, strike that, you know what? don’t even bother.

                just leave.

                you’re nothing but a tiresome bore.

          2. No one had to redefine secular for it to be shown that it is an accurate term for the SSA to use. You were the one insisting on your definition and your definition alone. Myself and others have provided you dictionary definitions of “secular,” and they are absolutely consistent with how they are used by the SSA. Secular in these contexts has ABSOLUTELY nothing to do with protecting religion. Religion and our government overdo that on their own quite well. Religion needs to lose some of it’s protection and special treatment. It does not need further help from the SSA. The Campus Crusade for Christ and various other religious groups do their own thing. They generally want nothing to do with us “evil” nonbelievers in America.

            Here are a couple of links that you could very well have found on your own:



            It would have saved you, your pathological pendantry, and other commenters here much trouble.

      3. numerous people here have agreed that my points are valid.

        ONE person agreed with ONE point you made about secularism vs atheism.

        frankly, I don’t really think they understood what you were saying, but then, I don’t even think YOU understand what you are saying.

        go back to your own blog, your gibberish is annoying.

    1. Good article, drives home the point that the SSA is a club for atheists.

      It would be like gay groups calling themselves “dance clubs” … and not having the courage to actually say that the were for the promotion of “homosexuality” … that’s how pathetic this is. A group of atheists who don’t want to identify as atheists, and because “secular” has a good name … why not take it for a ride.

      The problem is, as this thread shows, its not going to be gassed up and returned in the condition you found it.

      it is going to be full of vomit and empty bottles and other crap … RIP Secular Ideals … we knew you when.

      1. Have you paid no attention to our responses to your comments Mr. StateReligion?

        You keep using that word secular. I do not think it means what you think it means.

        And, yes, we now own the word. Next step world domination.

  19. In a secular society is to be expected that people wishing to take part in public debate should do so using arguments that are based on reason and evidence, and that it is the well-being of your fellow citizens that is important.

    I cannot see how the aims of the SSA are in anyway contradictory to that position.

    Taking that view of what makes a secular society it is also clear that most of Western Europe is far more secular than the US, despite having crosses on their flags (like that matters) or having an established religion.

  20. Let’s get serious here and use the online etymology dictionary to render the proper meaning of secular.

    Late 13c., “living in the world, not belonging to a religious order,” also “belonging to the state,”

    So, for 7 centuries it seems this word has been associated with a negative claim relative to religion much like atheism is a negative claim relative to belief.

    Those complaining that the SSA is not friendly to religious orders do not understand the meaning of the word.

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