Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Atheists frustrated by fewer followers

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CHURCHES that are experiencing declining attendance can take heart -- they aren't alone. Atheists in Manitoba are having trouble increasing their membership, too.

This bit of news came to my attention last month, when the Free Press carried a small item about a public meeting sponsored by the Manitoba Humanist Association, a group of about 30 people who, among other things, deplore efforts to "explain the world in supernatural terms, and to look outside nature for salvation." They were bringing in August Berkshire, president of Minnesota Atheists, to talk about how to attract more people to atheism.

I don't know about you, but the idea that atheism needs to be promoted at first seemed counter-intuitive to me. After all, the most recent census showed that 4.8 million Canadians -- 40 per cent of them under the age of 24 -- have no religion. That's roughly the same number of Canadians who identified themselves as Anglican and United Church members combined.

With all those people leaving the church, atheism in Canada should be doing fine. Just call a meeting, open the door and wait for all the new non-believers to flow in.

But that's not what's happening. Although many Canadians say they don't have a religion, they aren't signing up to be atheists -- they still believe in God.

That's what the Canadian opinion research company Angus Reid found in 2000; 84 per cent of Canadians surveyed by the pollster said they believed in God, with only 14 per cent saying they did not. (Two per cent weren't sure.)

For Barry Hammond of the Manitoba Humanist Association, the lack of growth in atheism is puzzling, yet understandable. Puzzling, because he believes that atheism is reasonable alternative for all those who say they are no longer interested in religion. But he also finds it to be understandable. "It's not socially acceptable to say you don't believe in God," he says.

Lack of involvement in social issues might also be working against Canadian atheists, he thinks. Although many atheists give money to feed the hungry or alleviate poverty, they don't have an atheist equivalent to organizations like the Anglican Primate's World Relief and Development Fund, the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace, Canadian Lutheran World Relief or the Mennonite Central Committee, to name a few.

Another reason for the lack of increase might be that "people just don't like going to meetings," he says, adding that atheists can sometimes be a pretty serious bunch.

Finally, atheists aren't, well, very evangelical about their beliefs -- no door-to-door proselytizing for them.

And that's where Minnesotan August Berkshire comes in. He was invited to Winnipeg to talk about how to be more aggressive about promoting atheism.

In Minnesota, he speaks to high school students about atheism, writes letters to the editor and seeks to be involved in community issues. His organization has its own radio show, and he has a vanity licence plate on his car that says: "Atheist."

But even if atheists in Manitoba adopted some of Berkshire's strategies, would it work? It doesn't appear so. Although many Canadians have stopped going to religious services, they don't want to stop believing in God or the supernatural. As an Anglican leader humorously put it: "It's not that people are leaving the church, they just aren't coming."

And what about all those young people who say they don't believe in anything? University of Lethbridge sociologist Reginald Bibby has studied Canadian attitudes towards religion for a number of years, with a special focus on youth. He finds that as young people grow older they often return to the religion of their upbringing, usually for the various rites of passage such as weddings, baptisms and confirmation of children, and for funerals.

In other words, despite the statistics, it's an uphill battle for atheists.

People need to believe in something, or someone. They hope there's more to life than what they can see. They want their lives to have some meaning.

What they don't seem to want to do is go to religious services and meetings.

Or, apparently, to non-religious ones, either.

John Longhurst has been involved in communications and media relations with church-related non-profit groups for more than 20 years. He can be reached at

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 9, 2003 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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