In the dark days of 1940, the pre-Vichy French government was warned by its generals "In three weeks England will have her neck wrung like a chicken." After the Battle of Britain, Winston Churchill growled his response: "Some chicken; some neck!" Today, the bestselling books of 'The New Atheism' are disparaged, by those who desperately wish to downplay their impact, as "Only preaching to the choir."
Some choir! Only?!
As far as subjective impressions allow and in the admitted absence of rigorous data, I am persuaded that the religiosity of America is greatly exaggerated. Our choir is a lot larger than many people realise. Religious people still outnumber atheists, but not by the margin they hoped and we feared. I base this not only on conversations during my book tour and the book tours of my colleagues Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, but on widespread informal surveys of the World Wide Web. Not our own site, whose contributors are obviously biased, but, for example, Amazon, and YouTube whose denizens are reassuringly young. Moreover, even if the religious have the numbers, we have the arguments, we have history on our side, and we are walking with a new spring in our step – you can hear the gentle patter of our feet on every side.
Our choir is large, but much of it remains in the closet. Our repertoire may include the best tunes, but too many of us are mouthing the words sotto voce with head bowed and eyes lowered. It follows that a major part of our consciousness-raising effort should be aimed, not at converting the religious but at encouraging the non-religious to admit it – to themselves, to their families, and to the world. This is the purpose of the OUT campaign.
Before I go any further, I must forestall one major risk of misunderstanding. The obvious comparison with the gay community is vulnerable to going too far: to 'outing' as a transitive verb whose object might be an unfortunate individual not yet – or not ever – ready to confide in the world. Our OUT campaign will have nothing, repeat nothing to do with outing in that active sense. If a closet atheist wants to come out, that is her decision to make, and nobody else's. What we can do is provide support and encouragement to those who willingly decide to out themselves. This may seem trivial to people in parts of Europe, or in regions of the United States dominated by urban intellectuals where support and encouragement is unnecessary. It is anything but trivial to people in other areas of the United States, and even more so in parts of the Islamic world where apostasy is, by Koranic authority, punishable by death.
The OUT campaign has potentially as many sides to it as you can think of words to precede "out". "Come OUT" has pride of place and is the one I have so far dealt with. Related to it is "Reach OUT" in friendship and solidarity towards those who have come out, or who are contemplating that step which, depending on their family or home town prejudices, may require courage. Join, or found local support groups and on-line forums. Speak OUT, to show waverers they are not alone. Organize conferences or campus events. Attend rallies and marches. Write letters to the local newspaper. Lobby politicians, at local and national level. The more people come out and are known to have done so, the easier will it be for others to follow.
Stand OUT and organize activities and events in your local area. Join an existing local neighbourhood atheist organization, or start one. Put a bumper sticker on your car. Wear a T-shirt. Wear Josh's red A if you like it as much as I do, otherwise design your own or find one on a website such as http://www.cafepress.com/buy/atheist; or wear no shirt at all, but please don't carp at the very idea of standing up to be counted with other atheists. I admit, I sympathize with those sceptics on this site who fear that we are engendering a quasi-religious conformity of our own. Whether we like it or not, I'm afraid we have to swallow this small amount of pride if we are to have an influence on the real world, otherwise we'll never overcome the 'herding cats' problem. If in doubt, read PZ Myers's exuberant hortation at http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2007/07/come_out.php.
"Keep" OUT worried me at first, because it sounds unfriendly and exclusive, like the Barcelona Travel Agent whose travel poster, in well-meant English, read "Go Away!" "Keep OUT" here means, of course, keep religion out of science classes, and similar expressions of the US constitutional separation between church and state (Britain has no such separation, unfortunately). As yet another delightful T-shirt put it, "Don't pray in our school, and I won't think in your church." Lobby your local school board. Quote Christopher Hitchens: "Mr Jefferson, build up that wall."
Chill OUT (exhort others to do so). Atheists are not devils with horns and a tail, they are ordinary nice people. Demonstrate this by example. The nice woman next door may be an atheist. So may the doctor, librarian, computer operator, taxi driver, hairdresser, talk show host, singer, conductor, comedian. Atheists are just people with a different interpretation of cosmic origins, nothing to be alarmed about.
What other OUTs might we imagine? Well, suggest your own. Vote OUT representatives who discriminate against the non-religious, the way George Bush Senior is alleged to have done when he described atheists as non-citizens of a nation "under God". Politicians follow where the votes are. They can only count atheists who are OUT. Some atheists are defeatist in thinking we'll never be effective simply because we're not a majority. But it doesn't matter that we're not a majority. To be effective, all we have to be is recognizable to legislators as a big enough minority. Atheists are more numerous than religious Jews, yet they wield a tiny fraction of the political power, apparently because they have never got their act together in the way the Jewish lobby so brilliantly has: the famous 'herding cats' problem again. And the argument applies not just to politicians but to advertisers, the media, merchants across the board. Anyone who wants to sell us anything caters to demographics. We need to stand up and be counted, so that the demographically savvy culture will come to reflect our tastes and our views. That in turn makes it easier for the next generation of atheists. Fill OUT 'Atheist' on any form that asks for your personal details, especially the next census form.
Break OUT! Some might like to throw 'coming OUT' parties where they joyously celebrate the courage of those who have decided to put behind them the habits of a lifetime, or the habits of their ancestors, embrace a realistic and superstition-free life and Break OUT into the real world. Break OUT of religious conformity and, in celebration of your new found freedom, Break OUT the champagne.