Atheists are artists, philanthropists, scientists, teachers, and public servants. The command to love your neighbor needs no divine imprimatur. Yet many of us who live without religion remain reluctant to identify as what we are. Atheism is too “extreme” or “confrontational,” as we’ve heard from students at club fairs or introductory meetings. Our generation is the least religious that this country has seen, with 26 percent of young American adults identifying with no religion. But only three percent of us will take the extra step to identify as atheists.
For some, this is for principled, philosophical reasons: Some of us are agnostic, and some even hold religious beliefs but feel estranged from the institutions identified with them. Yet there remains a gap, a group of young people whose worldview does not include a deity but whose discomfort with the notion of atheism keeps them silent.
This doesn’t make much sense. As long as atheists abdicate from defining ourselves, we will be defined by those who see absence from the religious community as absence from our political and social communities. No belief system has a monopoly on reason, dialogue, and concern for the public good. These values drove Martin Luther King, Jr. as much as they drove A. Philip Randolph, an atheist and key organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, or W.E.B. Du Bois, a skeptic and freethinker whose writings helped frame the civil rights movement. Fifty years after the march, 50 years after Du Bois’ death, our generation can be even more open about our identities as we fight for broader definitions of justice and equality. Those of us who have been given the opportunity to confront those challenges must do so without fear that our lack of religious commitment will undermine our shared values.
Our generation is not only the most secular in this country’s history, but it is also the most diverse, and the variety and intersectionality of our individual identities is central to who we are as a collective. If we are to forge a community out of these various parts, we must learn to embrace and engage with our differences, to determine which disagreements matter and which ones make us stronger. The first step, though, is to recognize this, and for those whose identities are in the minority to confidently make our voices heard.