Since being established in 1963, American Atheists has been an active champion of the nation’s non-believers, striving to counterbalance the influence of religious groups and improve public perceptions of atheists. In pursuit of these goals, the organization has effectively employed a three-pronged strategy: tenaciously engaging in litigation, using media to educate the public, and fostering a long-term community of non-believers. While the difference between reality and its ideal vision of America remains stark, American Atheists has successfully shaped the public sphere over the last few decades and with its focused efforts, continues to reinforce the wall of separation between church and state, one brick at a time.
The group’s most visible and targeted efforts lie squarely within the judicial arena. Indeed, American Atheists is no stranger to litigation, born as it was out of the landmark case Murray v. Curlett that challenged prayer recitation in schools. Since then, the organization has focused its efforts on cases that highlight violations of the “establishment” and “free exercise” clauses of the First Amendment. Most recently they won a suit to remove large crosses that commemorate fallen officers from a Utah state highway, and they are currently engaged in a suit to prevent the “World Trade Center cross” from being memorialized. Typically, American Atheists brings up the suit itself or joins other cases by sharing its legal expertise and providing amicus curiae briefs for the Court. The string of successes the group has enjoyed over the past few years has been the result of a deliberate shift in legal strategy due to the conservative make-up of the current Supreme Court. Wary of establishing harmful legal precedents through losses, American Atheists selectively engages in litigation, choosing to pursue only those cases where the facts tilt in their favor. With each victory, American Atheists defends the civil liberties of atheists, but also serves the legal community by further clarifying the “Lemon test” and the definition of what constitutes “excessive [government] entanglements with religion.”
While litigation remains the most pugnacious tactic of American Atheists, the organization is primarily engaged in another struggle: educating the public about atheism and removing the social animus against non-believers. Here, the group uses various forms of media. They publish the American Atheist magazine, produce a television show called Atheist Viewpoint, maintain an extensive online presence on their website, blogs, and Facebook, send representatives on cable news shows to debate, erect billboards across the nation, and host rallies like the Reason Rally. The primary target of these efforts is what the group calls the “closeted atheist,” the person who sits in the pews and prays because of social pressure, but deep down rejects faith. The organization believes that over 50 million Americans fit this demographic and would conceivably “come out” if properly persuaded. Thus, American Atheists uses its wide array of publications and media outlets within the framework of an overall strategy to bring “closeted atheists” to the tipping point. Sometimes that strategy involves attacking the “logical inconsistencies of religion,” showing how “ridiculous” certain religious practices are and shaming people into dropping them. The American Atheist website in particular contains a detailed list of “Biblical inaccuracies” or problems with Islam, and takes issue with every major religion. Other times, the strategy involves debates, disavowing ad hominem tactics in favor of logical suasion. In either case, American Atheists is not content to simply present the merits of its view; the group believes that in order to be successful its media campaign must push the envelope, and engage the public sphere in a more compelling, if often controversial manner.
Mirroring the strategies of its religious counterparts, American Atheists also works on a long-term plan to foster a community of non-believers. The reason for this is simple: one of the main impediments preventing “closeted atheists” from coming out is a fear of social isolation. Thus, the organization tries to address this problem in a variety of ways. Conventions like the Reason Rally are high-profile, big-tent events, which unite American Atheists’ members and ignite its base. However, the organization also works at the grassroots level to help cultivate the next generation of atheists. Eager to spread the message of atheism among the youth, American Atheists provides scholarships to young activists, supports atheist clubs in high schools, and helps publicize summer science camps for children. The overall result of these efforts is a growing coalition of inter-related groups that serves as a network, creating an infrastructure for atheists within the public sphere. While this framework pales in comparison to those of religious organizations, it is growing stronger by the day and forging a sense of common identity and purpose among atheists in America.
Ultimately, the success of American Atheists’ efforts depends largely upon the metric one chooses to use. Have they convinced all 50 million closeted atheists to take a stand? Absolutely not. However, the group has advanced the cause of atheists in the public sphere in ways that would seem inconceivable even thirty years ago and continues to march forwards with a fiery zeal. Indeed, the real potential for American Atheists and the atheist movement as a whole lies in the future, with the youth. In the final analysis, by investing in scholarships and science camps, school clubs and public speakers, American Atheists has laid the foundations for an America where religiosity no longer stands as a de facto test of citizenship, a country where we truly practice the gospel we preach—E Pluribus Unum; out of many, one.
To explore our interactive overview of American Atheists, please click the following link: Exploring American Atheists
American Atheists’ most tangible effect on the public sphere lies squarely in the realm of litigation. Since its founding, the group has worked to within the legal system to ensure true separation between church and state. With their efforts, American Atheists has helped the legal community by helping clarify the judicial doctrine known as the Lemon Test. The Lemon Test, established by the Supreme Court in Lemon v. Kurtzman, helps decide what government actions violate the establishment clause of the Constitution.
1) The government’s action must have a secular purpose
2) The government’s action must not have the primary effect of either advancing or inhibiting religion
3) The government’s action must not result in “excessive government entanglement” with religion.
Clearly the language of the Lemon Test is filled with ambiguities. When does the government advance or inhibit religion? What exactly constitutes an “excessive government entanglement” with religion? However flawed the test may seem, the Supreme Court uses this as the standard for all “establishment clause” cases. American Atheists often employs the Lemon Test in their arguments, and by winning cases, sets legal precedent that further clarifies which government actions are unconstitutional. These cases can then be used as precedent for future litigation by private citizens, and as whole, helps reinforce the separation between church and state.
The following multimedia exploration of American Atheists follows a series of interviews with Blair Scott, the communications director for the organization, conducted by Anand Raghuraman and Lauren Blazing.
To explore our interview with Mr. Scott, please click the following link: Exploring American Atheists
American Sociological Review, 2006
American Atheists works to reduce the stigma against non-theists by fostering a visible community. The efforts of their organization and others with similar goals, however, have not yet paid off in full. The period 1958 to 1999 was marked a significant increase in political acceptance of many minority groups, as shown by the willingness of voters to elect members of each group to the presidency. Despite these increases, atheists remained the least politically accepted group and showed the second lowest increase in acceptance (after highly accepted Catholics) from 1978 to 1999.
Blair Scott, communications director for American Atheists, suggests that this lack of acceptance is due to the low number of publicly visible atheists. Currently, only one member of the U.S. Congress is openly atheist, and while several celebrities including Lance Armstrong and Billy Joel identify as atheists, their non-theist convictions are not a central part of their public personas. American Atheists is trying to change that by encouraging atheists to speak up about their beliefs. According to Mr. Scott, an increase in the number of publicly visible atheists would lead to wider acceptance based on the pairing of atheism with likable, responsable people in the minds of the American public.