One Billion Atheists

Billion Atheists copyWhen I started as an atheist activist 15 or 20 years ago, one thing was clear to most of the atheists I talked to: Every person had to get here on his/her own.

In other words, it was decidedly wrong to proselytize. The thought was that atheism — the good, solid, workable kind — was this conclusion reachable only after much personal introspection and observation. That merely getting people to say “I’m an atheist” was empty and useless. Such an atheism would be no different from religion — a faith position, without proof or grounding, which said “There are no gods” in the same way the religious position was “There are gods.”

I didn’t always argue, but I never agreed. It seemed to me the thought and introspection one person went through was something that could be conveyed to another person, or thousands of them. That you could tell people, “Hey, why not be an atheist? Here’s why you should, and here’s how it should work in your head once you start that way.” You’d convince them of the conclusion, and then backfill with the reasons, the evidence, the mental mechanics of freethought.

We seem to now know this to be the truth, and we’re becoming progressively more confident in our own style of proselytizing and evangelism. We understand the value of getting people free of religion, getting them out from under that yoke, and that if not every person who says “I’m an atheist” fully understands the path they’ve set themselves on, numbers alone can be important. Once you get a critical mass of people arguing publicly — politicking — for the kind of freedom we work toward, that freedom sets up a safe zone into which more and more of us can feel comfortable moving. And it’s within that growing safe zone the greater numbers of us can imagine and discuss and come to more fully understand what it is we’re doing, where we’re going with it and where we should go with it.

Because “I don’t believe in God/gods” is just the first step, isn’t it? Once you reach your own personal understanding that religion is false and silly, that’s when the really cool stuff starts to happen in your head, and — as a result of numbers — in the society around you.

I’d like us to kick it up a notch by setting a numerical goal for the quantity of fellow atheists on Planet Earth: One Billion Atheists By 2025.

One Billion Atheists

Knowing us, you have to know the idea is immediately arguable. Less so these days on the basis of proselytizing than on the actual number presented. As Wikipedia says in the Demographics of Atheism:

Studies on the demographics of atheism have concluded that self-identified atheists comprise anywhere from 2% to 8% of the world’s population, whereas irreligious individuals represent a further 10% to 20%. Several comprehensive global polls on the subject have been conducted by Gallup International: their 2012 poll found that 13% of respondents were “convinced atheists” and their 2015 poll indicated that 11% were “convinced atheists”.

The median of those two polls, 12 percent, already would equal 840 million in today’s 7 billion population. One billion atheists — 14 percent, or only 160 million more — might thus be a somewhat uninspiring goal for the ten year future.

But here’s Wikipedia again, on Irreligion by Country:

Irreligion, which may include deism, agnosticism, ignosticism, antireligion, atheism, skepticism, spiritual but not religious, freethought, antitheism, apatheism, non-belief, pandeism, secular humanism, non-religious theism, pantheism and panentheism, varies in the different countries around the world. About 36% of the world population is estimated to be atheist or not religious.

Wait, 36 percent? That’s 2.5 billion already! So, uh, what would be the point of One Billion Atheists?

Without getting into a lengthy definitional debate on a lot of these terms, it immediately strikes me that many of them are nowhere near what I think of when I say atheism. Deism and pantheism, for instance, seem purely religious positions, and what are we to make of “non-religious theism?” It appears this 36 percent more likely expresses the number of people who don’t go to church rather than the number of, you know, atheists.

I’ve known people who didn’t go to church but who were as religious as any Sunday-go-to-meetin’ Catholic. You might not see them in a suit on the Sabbath, but they carried around a church in their heads, applying it in every moment of daily living.

As atheism in my own mind is defined as “no faith-based beliefs at all” — which rules out not just Jesus-God-in-Heaven, but all the sorts of superstition and vague faiths of daily life — it’s a certainty that the 36 percent is inflated beyond any reasonable expectation of reliability.

Ignoring that and setting up our own definition of atheism, and then aiming for one billion of those seems the wisest course.

Of course I’m not the defining authority of atheism but, as I say above, my own view of the meaning of the word is fairly narrow. It includes not just those who have abandoned formal religion, but those who operate in their daily lives solely on evidence-based reasoning. Atheists of the type I’m thinking about thus give no time to ghosts, afterlives, a Higher Power — but also disdain such concepts as luck, karma, fate, all the daily sorts of faithy and superstiony positions that demand a giving up of reason and an acceptance of folksy woo.

Those are the One Billion Atheists I want us to aim for. I don’t think there are anywhere near one billion of them on Earth. In fact, I’d suspect we’re well less than half the way there.

The definition and counting are something to occupy a much larger discussion than this one. But only by setting the goal — One Billion Atheists by 2025 — will that discussion-toward-clarity really proceed as it should.

So yes, let’s do it.  Set the goal, hammer out the details as we go.

If we find no other fully acceptable way to define One Billion Atheists, identifying one billion who have, in the next ten years, taken thought at least enough to depart their local religion or church might be a workable fallback. Hey, if we can’t perfectly  identify one billion atheists, One Billion Fewer Godders would still mark measurable progress on Planet Earth.

Dismantling Christianity

In his recent Boston address, Richard Dawkins said something that particularly caught my attention. I’ll paraphrase, because I don’t have his exact words:

“I worry that if we dismantle Christianity in the West, we will lose a useful ally in the fight against militant Islam.”

As Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world (!), that is no small worry. An article from NPR states:

“As of 2010, Christianity was by far the world’s largest religion, with an estimated 2.2 billion adherents, nearly a third (31 percent) of all 6.9 billion people on Earth,” the Pew report says. “Islam was second, with 1.6 billion adherents, or 23 percent of the global population.”

Those numbers are predicted to shift in the coming decades, as the world’s population rises to 9.3 billion by the middle of this century. In that time, Pew projects, Islam will grow by 73 percent while Christianity will grow by 35 percent — resulting in 2.8 billion Muslims and 2.9 billion Christians worldwide.

In a letter to Dawkins, much altered from the version I posted here not long back (and then un-posted), I suggested it might be possible to create that “useful ally” within Islam itself.  To set up a back-pressure, a resistance to militancy, right in the Islamic world.

The larger goal of One Billion Atheists could contain within it target numbers for different parts of the world. In the Islamic world, that might start with 50 million. Pitch the idea to individuals within Islam that they do not have to be devout Muslims, that they could instead be Muslim-in-culture but abandon the specifically religious parts of Islam for a more open, reasoning understanding of the real world.

Regarding regional target numbers for One Billion Atheists, I could really get behind aiming for a simple majority of atheists in the United States. Of the 300 million or so people in the U.S., why not get more than half of them living and thinking as active, involved atheists? Not just those who have abandoned church-going, but those who understand the larger issue — that religion itself is dangerous, and better off jettisoned, both in their own minds and in the larger country and world.

Religion vs. Culture

Finally, in the pursuit of One Billion Atheists by 2025, we in the atheist community need to expend some skull-sweat in parsing the difference between religion and culture. Though all religion is culture, not all culture is religion. It’s certainly possible to have a defined culture without it being the least bit religious. In fact, as I argue, we in the atheist world are already creating a culture of atheism, and might as well consciously recognize that and begin formalizing it, fleshing it out, creating the Beta Culture I aim for.

We also need to begin to understand that enlightened cultural values and practices can stand on an equal footing with religious values and practices. You can be a member of a culture and be as stoutly definite about your values and the energy with which you defend them as, say, Sikhs are about defending the practice of carrying ceremonial knives. I’m thinking mainly about how we in the West tend to avoid “imposing our beliefs” on Islamics — backing away from openly opposing Sharia law, for instance (and faint-heartedly failing to defend our own beliefs about human rights), excusing it with “Well, it’s their religion,” when we should be actively saying “No, religion or not, here in this place, you really don’t get to do some of that shit.”



Note to religious people: You have absolutely no reason for worry. Once we get that One Billion, we’ll stop there. Totally.


  • Ann Chapman

    Before embarking on this goal, I suggest consulting psychology and social psychology to find out the best ways of changing minds. And then teaching atheists to use that knowledge to achieve the goal. Otherwise, you will have many atheists using techniques that are obnoxious or at least off-putting even to other atheists. We need to know what works and what doesn’t work when trying to change minds.

    • Hank Fox

      I completely agree! I have some ideas along those lines that, thanks to your input, I’ll put into a near-future blog post.

    • Explorer

      Once you rule out evidence and critical thinking, you are forced to rely on rhetoric… but that just means volume equals truth.

      Remember, a lot of people are just hostile to having their religious worldview challenged. That’s why some want to dismantle science in classrooms and repla it with indocrination.

  • Robert W Ahrens

    I would note that changing minds isn’t a one off thing. It doesn’t happen all at once. It is, for most, a process that often takes years. Something you’ve been propagandized into since childhood doesn’t (for many) get dumped in a week!

    I would note also, that as a part of this process, different techniques used by different atheist groups may not be effective for everybody, but are often effective for somebody. Sometimes, different techniques may work with the same person over different periods of time! Our movement is one with room for different ideas and different ways of doing things. Different techniques may work on different audiences.

    There isn’t just one right way to do things.

  • Frank

    One billion fools is your goal? So sad.

    • cipher

      Do you have any life at all apart from trolling atheist and liberal Christian blogs?

      The irony is that the people whose blogs you troll tolerate you in a way your peers who maintain Christian blogs would never do with someone from the opposing side.

      Of course, you can’t see that. Fundamentalists have no sense of irony.

      • Frank

        What other people do is irrelevant. We are here. I don’t have a blog and therefore don’t have to accept or tolerate anyone on a blog.

        If people are intolerant they are welcome to ban me.

        • cipher

          If people are intolerant they are welcome to ban me.

          As I said – no sense of irony.

  • Agni Ashwin

    I’m waiting for the Million Atheist March.

  • morris98

    If you are interested in increasing atheists then what is the difference between you and the proselytizers. It is almost like a faith. Who cares how many Christians or atheists there are? You are adding a one more conflicting party in the religious wars that are going on for ages. What you want to do is make religions irrelevant. Our western secular system is based on religions. It gives legitimacy to religions and institutionalize them . We got to take that legitimacy away. And that could be achieved by totally separating religions and politics. Religious believers should have no more freedom than those who do not have any religion. And atheists are the ones who should fight for the equality. Why are atheists passively and quietly subsidizing religions? Make it a political issue. You are going to get a lot more mileage than waging a war against believers. You just want equality.

    • Hank Fox

      It’s not a faith.

      From a certain viewpoint, maybe it would be adding one more conflicting party to “religious wars that are going on for ages.” One reason would be to end those religious wars.

      Yes I want to make religions irrelevant, and to totally separate religions and politics. I don’t know how that might be done other than to amp up the number of the non-religious, the anti-religious, demanding less religion in politics.

      I don’t want equality. I want FREEDOM.

      • morris98

        For one thing, you can take up an issue of religions getting tax exempt and you are paying for. That should be explored and challenged its constitutionality. You are naive to think that you would be able to eliminate religions in our free society. They were not able to do so in a totalitarian society. People should be free. Who cares what they believe in so long as we do not shelter and nourish their silly beliefs in the name of ‘freedom of religions’ That is what we do now. .Once we remove that, we will make a good start towards reducing religious wars. If we don’t do that soon those real wars are likely to be here.

        May be atheism is not a faith. But it makes no difference.when you want to convince others. People like faith. Faith is a sort of wishful thinking. You cannot stop them from it. When you buy a lottery ticket, you are doing just that. So let us not entertain this illusion of atheism prevailing.. Yes it may appear to be going up and down. But there always will be some who will be religious. Once you make religions irrelevant, their presence will be unnoticeable.

        • Hank Fox

          Who said anything about wanting to “eliminate religions in a free society”? What I want is a society where we’re MORE free — free to NOT be religious. Which is something we haven’t had — except VERY recently — for at least the past 7,000 years. Atheism is new. I want more of it, more of US.

          “So let us not entertain this illusion of atheism prevailing.” If atheism is growing, that IS prevailing, in my book. I want it to prevail more.

          “Who cares what they believe?” I don’t. But I do care what they do with their beliefs — such as buy things, vote, fight against science and medicine, enslave women and abuse children. I want the rest of us to have the right not to be affected by other people’s stupid choices. We agree that one way to do that might be to attack the tax exemption.

          And again: Atheism is not a faith. No maybe about it.

          • morris98

            “But I do care what they do with their beliefs -”
            I don’t. As long as they are law abiding citizen, and if they are not, they be held accountable to the due process of the law.

            You want atheism to prevail more. Well, that is what Muslims and Christians want . They want their religions to prevail more. I say who cares? I want more law abiding citizens and I want religions to be practiced within the framework of law and none of this concept of “freedom of religions” as a human right. Let us keep freedom going.

            . .

          • Hank Fox

            You DO understand that atheism is not a belief system in the way that Islam and Christianity are, right?

          • morris98

            My honest answer. I do not know. Perhaps it is. To me the creation, how, when why, etc. all is a mystery And I cannot come to any definitive answer other than, I do not know. I like mystery. And I like to remain mystified. There is a kind of pleasure in it. For me it is a door to spirituality. a door to looking for an answer within. I find the definitive answer of atheism a bit arrogant.

          • Kitsune Inari

            You don’t know if you understand or not that atheism is a different type of group that Islam and Christianity are?

          • morris98

            Perhaps I don’t understand the atheism. But am I wrong in saying that atheists are sure that God does not exist? But so are Christians and Muslims, they are sure that God does exist. That is common about both. They both know, I don’t.

          • Kitsune Inari

            Sure, some people who are atheist have reasonable certainty that no deities exist (the undeniable fact that every single piece of evidence available in the universe suggests that we are right certainly helps). Others don’t. Some even claim that there is reasonable doubt regarding what is the answer to that question.

            One definition of the word atheist is “everybody who is not theist” (and the paired definition of theist is “he who claims that one or more deities exist”). Under that paradigm one who doesn’t claim that deities don’t exist is still atheist if they aren’t theist (that’s what we call “soft atheist”). Those like me who do claim that there are no deities we call “hard atheist”.
            Btw, agnosticism is an entirely different beast. Basically the theism axis is about the question “do deities exist?”, whereas the agnosticism axis is about the question “are you sure about what the answer to «do deities exist?» is?”. Definitions of the word “agnostic” are like opinions, everybody has one; myself, I call “agnostic” those who claim that there is at least reasonable doubt about that question. You could even go into “hard agnostics” who say that the answer can’t ever be known and “soft non-agnostics” who don’t claim that there is no reasonable doubt, but I leave that as a thought experiment.
            Personally I am hard-atheist and hard-non-agnostic (yeah, that doesn’t roll easily off the tongue): there is more than enough evidence to be reasonably sure that no deities exist.

            Sure, many theist people claim reasonable certainty (or even absolute certainty, which is not that different) that the Abrahamic deity YHWH exists. The difference between their stance and ours is one of evidence. One of these stances agrees with Reality, the other doesn’t. I’ll let you guess which one is each; you have three tries.

            And… yes, I just remembered that I’m writing this whole rant on a 3 months-old thread that hardly anybody will read. Sigh.

          • Hank Fox

            Heh. Read it. 😀

          • Kitsune Inari

            I see, thank you 😀

          • morris98

            Thank you for the excellent explanation about the issue of faith. I must admit it gets a little too complex for me. Basically I dislike the final answer. Therefore I cannot be in any hard group.

          • Kitsune Inari

            I don’t [care what they do with their beliefs]. As long as they are law abiding citizen

            Then you do care what they do. You care that they do no evil with their beliefs. So do we; but as fair as they don’t, they’re fair game. They have the same freedom and rights everyone has.

          • morris98

            “They have the same freedom and rights everyone has.”
            That is not so. They enjoy more freedom than atheists do. They can squeak and the secular gov.s grease them. And that is what I object. More they squeak, more they get grease.

          • Kitsune Inari

            Sure, you and I agree. I meant that they deserve the same freedom and rights as we do, and that if they get any more (or any less) then something is going wrong.

          • morris98

            Of course they get more. And they are unequal. It depends upon your faith. Budhism does not squeak, gets nothing. Islam squeaks a lot, gets more.

          • Kitsune Inari

            Yeah, that’s what is wrong.

  • Enoch

    One billion self-identified atheists is a good goal, but I would target the unchurched and passively spiritual but not religious first. And I would do it not by pressing atheism, but rationality and critical thinking, and its benefits. I mean, let’s be fair: Russia has lots of atheists, even though it has waned since the rise of Putin’s promotion of Orthodoxy, but it is not a society that embraces skepticism and rationality. The atheists there have fairly irrational opinions. A society dominated by skeptics, though, is one that would be fairly unprecedented.

  • Hank Fox

    The discussion has wandered far from the subject of the post here. There’s a little bit of Christian trolling going on too. I may end up shutting down comments on this post.

    I’m serious about the goal, and I’d rather people address that — positively — than have us caught up in these endless wrangles with irrational people.