The importance of us, atheists and secularists, identifying ourselves as such and having visibility cannot be overemphasized. The goals of having public policies based on evidence as opposed to political and religious ideologies are never going to be met if politicians continue to ignore us, as they always have. This has always been attributed to our low numbers in the polls. But finally, there could be light at the end of the tunnel.
A new poll called "The Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism" featured in the Washington Post gives us some interesting perspectives on how things have unfolded and where we are headed. (All the while remembering some of the data like the percentage of atheists in Saudi Arabia are implausible and need to be taken with a grain of salt.)
A sociologist consulted by the papers opines that the trend is not due to more people becoming atheists, but more people being comfortable identifying as such. This is a hard question and the likely answer is that it is a combination of both. Looking at the Gallup poll which indicates increased tolerance of atheists fitting overall patterns of increased tolerance of groups formerly rejected for office by the public, even though we are still the most disliked minority, it is not surprising that some non-believers may now be feeling more comfortable “coming out”.
The article also credits the books written by the New Atheists and the Out Campaign sponsored by the Richard Dawkins Foundation as factors helping atheists finally feeling empowered to talk openly about their beliefs (or lack thereof). I think part of the credit should also go to the campaigns by the United Coalition of Reason and the Secular Student Alliance.
Could this all be a coincidence? Secularization is a complex process and all of these factor may have been only partially responsible for the trends that we see today, that are corroborated in various polls. For a more in depth examination of the roots of this process, the works of Greg Paul and Phil Zuckermann are wonderful resources. Nonetheless, I do not believe the role of the increased visibility we have had can be simply dismissed.
What positively DOESN'T get any credit for this welcome development is the old attitude of remaining silent about the way we think, not criticizing religion, and instead just trying to work some segments of believers to achieve common goals. While the course of events over the last few years may be considered by Paul Kurtz as a "strategic blunder as well as a philosophical and ethical one", reality tells us otherwise. Despite all the claims that the tactics used by New Atheists are going to make people not like us, as it happens, more and more young people are leaning towards us.