THE CURRENT COLLECTIVE membership of American Atheists, the American Humanist Association, and the Freedom from Religion Foundation is less than 25,000 members. That number includes people like me who are members of more than one of these organizations.
In 2003 the total annual revenue generated by American Atheists, the American Humanist Association, the Institute for Humanist Studies, and the Freedom from Religion Foundation was less than $3 million. Compare that figure with the $8 million brought in by the Traditional Family Values Coalition that same year, the more than $15 million Jerry Falwell Ministries earned, or the more than $100 million brought in by Focus on the Family.
So what's my point? Humanists need more than good ideas and great intellect to compete with the behemoth of the religious right for the interest and attention of the American public. With the exception of money, what the Humanist movement needs more than anything is a positive, uplifting message and the highest quality of public relations as can be afforded. The last thing the movement needs is more bad publicity, which it unfortunately never ceases to elicit.
Who is to blame for Humanism's image problem? The media? The religious right? Yes, but they're only half the answer. The other half is that too many atheists see the freethought and Humanist movement as a revolution, an oppurtunity to wage war on religion. As a result, an epidemic of antipathy has battered an otherwise inspiring veneer.
Many outsiders--both nonbelievers and believers--who might otherwise find a naturalistic, secular perspective or philosophy of life worth exploring, see the fanciful crusade of many atheists to "save" humanity from the "scourge" of religion in the same light they view religious fanatics who zealously seek converts. As scholar and atheist Dylan Evans writes: "There seems to be a widespread tendency among people of all creeds and none to think the world would be a better place if everyone agreed with them." Evans goes on to add that, just as religious fundamentalists do, secular fundamentalists "seem to want to convert the whole world to their own point of view."
As one leader in the freethought community (who spoke on condition of anonymity) pointed out to me, "Our biggest problem in the Humanist movement ... is keeping atheists who just want to complain about people of faith out of our organization.... They join and then get upset that we aren't focused on bashing religion." Alister McGrath, author and professor of historical theology at Oxford University, writes that "atheism spawns organizations; it does not create community ... the community thus created seems to be based solely on distaste for religion."
While such observations overlook the positive aspects of Humanism and the affirmative work of such organizations as the American Humanist Association, McGrath nonetheless diagnoses the movement's most serious internal malady, identifying the contagion that has spread throughout the larger freethought community and must be inoculated from within.
Perpetuating the caricature of the misanthropic atheist, several writers not only spew vitriol in the face of believers but also actively advocate the use of ridicule and slander in dealing with them. In the preface of his book Atheism: A Reader, S. T. Joshi writes: "Even ridicule of religion is an entirely valid enterprise" Complementing this notion, Eddie Tabash, in an article on the American Atheists website, writes that the future of Humanism relies on its members' ability to bash the beliefs of others: "Establishing the social acceptability of ridiculing the absurdities of religious claims is an integral part of gaining acceptance for secular humanism."
Dr. Timothy Shortell provides another example. Not long after becoming chair of Brooklyn …