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Ranks of atheists grow, get organized

Long defined by what they are not, nonbelievers increasingly try to define what they are.

By G. Jeffrey MacDonaldCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / July 16, 2009



Chelmsford, Mass.

Valerie Celeste Coffey is a woman on a mission. For six years, her small group of local atheists has gathered to exchange bemused stories about the things Christians do in worship and swap tips for raising confident skeptics.

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But on a recent Wednesday evening here at the Java Room cafe, Ms. Coffey said the time had come to take the meetings in hand.

"I don't think this group has a vision," said Coffey, a freelance editor who lives in nearby Boxborough, Mass. "We need to figure out what our values are."

Ten days later, something unprecedented happened: The group met over Sunday brunch for a structured discussion with preplanned topics.

The ranks of nonbelievers are on the rise, research suggests, and as they seek out each other online and in small groups, they are increasingly looking to do more than just vent.

Some are adopting rituals themselves, from de-baptisms to wedding ceremonies, as a way to cement ties among members. Others are organizing science-related outings or enrolling in community-service programs. Nationwide, atheists' groups are now treading, sometimes gingerly, into unfamiliar territory.

"This is the transition moment right now," says Dale McGowan, author of "Parenting Beyond Belief: On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids Without Religion." "Some groups are really diving in [to foster a robust sense of community], and some of them are holding their noses and standing on the diving board. They're not quite sure what to do."

Some 15 percent of Americans claim no religious affiliation, up from 8.2 percent in 1990, according to Trinity College's American Religious Identification Survey, released in March. Also, the American Humanist Association claims 20,000 financial supporters. That marks a doubling from five years ago, says spokeswoman Karen Frantz.

Moreover, signs point to non-believers seeking fellowship as never before. During the first five months of 2009, 95 new atheist groups have formed through meetup.com, bringing the US total to 372. That's up from 59 in 2005, says Blair Scott, director of national affiliates for American Atheists, a networking and advocacy organization. Known parenting groups for nonbelievers have proliferated from just one in 2005 to 33 in 2009, adds Mr. McGowan, the author.

The intersection of the two trends is evident across the United States. For example, the North Alabama Freethought Association, which has grown from 50 members in 2006 to 350 today, drew 30 people to a camping event in May and runs regular outings to visit caves or other science-related sites.

"It used to be that these atheist groups ... met almost in hiding," says American Atheists spokesman David Silverman. "Now they're doing a lot more stands at town parties, a lot more trash pickups, a lot more blood donations – a lot more stuff that gets their group out and noticed."

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