The Twilight of Atheism
"Their place has largely been taken by the new unit of social integration, the organization," Drucker wrote. "Where community was fate, organization is voluntary membership." In the old days, community was defined by where you lived. It was part of the inherited order of things, something that you were born into. Now, it has to be createdand the agency that creates this community is increasingly the voluntary organization. Christian churches are strategically placed to create and foster community. The community churches have proved especially effective in this role, and have grown immensely in consequence.
But what of atheism? The former Soviet Union realized the importance of creating a sense of community. Having eliminated religion from the public life of the nation, Soviet planners recognized the importance of creating rituals and events, which fostered social cohesion and a sense of identity. Thus the Saturday just before Easter was celebrated as Communist Saturday. Other holidays included May Day, Victory Day (May 9), Constitution Day (October 7), and Revolution Day (November 7-8). The Soviets devised additional rituals as counterparts to the Christian rites of baptism and confirmationfor example, the "family event" to mark the birth of a new child, or the ceremony to mark admission to the Communist Party.
The nearest thing in the West to this Soviet model is found in Canada, which seems to think that a sense of community identity can only be created by eliminating any religious presence in the public arena. In the United States, atheism spawns organizations; it does not create community. The state chapters and national convention of American Atheists, coupled with this organization's atheist equivalent of creeds, certainly did something to create a sense of shared identity. Yet the community thus created seems to be based solely on distaste for religion. It doesn't even have a good organizational base and lacks charismatic leadershipa fatal weakness, to which we now turn.
Atheist thinkers are more than happy to appear on the nation's chat shows to promote their latest books. But they have failed to communicate a compelling vision of atheism that is capable of drawing and holding large numbers of people.
Atheists widely discuss this comprehensive failure of leadership within their circles. Howard Thompson, sometime editor of the Texas Atheist, is undoubtedly one of the most able and reflective atheists in the United States. Thompson has criticized the movement for its lack of direction: "Atheism in America is poorly defined with little organization," he wrote in an op-ed piece. "We have less social and cultural infrastructure than even the smallest religious groups. . . . Atheism desperately needs effective public voices."
And why has this failed to happen? Thompson lays much of the blame at the feet of O'Hair, whom he regards as the movement's greatest liability. He believes her organization has failed to learn from her mistakes and persists in depicting her as a hero, even a martyr, for the atheist cause.
For 30 years O'Hair was the most visible atheist. What O'Hair did and said was atheism to the public, and it was nasty. The disappearance of the O'Hairs in September 1995 gave hope that more positive atheist initiatives might develop. That's why atheists should worry about the revival of her American Atheists under the leadership of Ellen Johnson, who assumed the office of president in a questionable board of directors meeting. Johnson is also a die-hard O'Hair fan who continues to present her as an atheist heroine. What atheism doesn't need is a continuation of O'Hair's negativity; her style and limited vision stifled positive atheist growth.