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Quick: What name comes to mind when I say the word “atheist”?
I’m guessing most of you think of Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris.

What name comes to mind when I say “Christian”?
Knowing the audience that reads this blog, maybe you thought of James Dobson, Jerry Falwell, or Pat Robertson.

There are (obviously) many differences between the groups of people, but let me mention one I never hear much about:

The most well-known atheists in our country today are individuals. They’re not attached to any one specific organization. They might support or advise groups, or attend their conferences, but they are not specifically associated with them.

The well-known Christians, on the other hand, go hand in hand with their organizations. Focus on the Family. The Moral Majority. The 700 Club. Even the famous pastors like Rick Warren and Joel Osteen are associated with their large churches (Saddleback and Lakewood, respectively).

You don’t hear about many Christians who are out there on their own. But the atheists always seem to stand alone, a lone voice in the crowd.

The problem with this is that 50 years from now, the individuals may well be gone. But the Christian organizations will still be around and they will be prospering. They have enough of an infrastructure that someone is ready to take over when the leader leaves. And people will still send money to the Christian organizations they’ve come to know so well though the work of the Christian leaders who were synonymous with the groups they led.

Will the secular organizations still be going strong 50 years from now?

We seem to be past the heyday (if I may use that word) of American Atheists, when it was the go-to organization for all things non-religious and had a vocal leader in Madalyn Murray O’Hair. Despite what you may think of her, American Atheists would not be where it is today without the donors who started giving money to the group thanks to her celebrity.

It’s certainly nice that there are now more secular groups than ever before, but none have the size or budget anywhere near that of the larger Christian groups. There are plenty of reasons for this, the least of which is the relative populations of Christians compared to atheists in this country. There are also plenty of stereotypes against non-religious people. I could go on… but I don’t think this point is in question.

Most secular groups also don’t have the well-known leaders. This might be the biggest problem in trying to sustain our groups in the future.

I know many of the heads of these groups–they’re great people and wonderful at their jobs. But they’re not household names.

The only secular groups I can think of where the organization is relatively large and its leader is well-known are the Center For Inquiry (headed by Paul Kurtz) and Americans United for Separation of Church and State (headed by Barry Lynn). But AU is not a non-religious group (and his official title is Reverend Barry Lynn), and I’ve rarely run across Christians who had heard of Paul Kurtz. Hell, many younger atheists I know haven’t either.

I’m not sure what the solution is to this problem. But we all need to be supporting the organizations we do have. It would also be nice if the media would call on more of our secular leaders when they needed a soundbyte or panelist.

Maybe with the “New Atheism” wave, this will happen more often.

[tags]atheist, atheism, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Madalyn Murray O’Hair, Christian, James Dobson, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Focus on the Family, Moral Majority, The 700 Club, Rick Warren, Joel Osteen, Saddleback, Lakewood, American Atheists, Center For Inquiry, Paul Kurtz, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Barry Lynn, New Atheism[/tags]