I'm pretty new to the continent.
I touched down in Los Angeles only six weeks ago and started North on my Biblical Morality tour. Most of my time has been spent speaking at secular organizations and student groups, and I've been surprised at just how active the atheist/secular community is in the USA and Canada.
But nowhere was this more obvious than when I attended my first conference about atheism, the Midwest Freethought Conference in Omaha, Nebraska.
Of course, the speakers were educated, articulate and rousing. American Atheists' Amanda Knief and AJ Johnson each spoke on getting active in the community and on the political stage; PZ Myers presented on the chemistry that is life -- most of which hurt my brain to absorb -- and Jerry DeWitt of Recovering From Religion, a former evangelical preacher, gave a rousing "sermon" on atheism and secular values ("Can I get a Dar-win!").
But I was particularly struck by the members of the audience. Those not explicitly active, but active enough to attend a conference. These people genuinely astonished me.
This was the first time on my tour that I could just sit, listen and be part of the audience. So I struck up conversations with people who had come from all neighboring states. Each had their own story of how they removed religion from their lives and each was at a different stage in their "conversion;" some were still entirely closeted, for the sake of her job, for the sake of his ailing mother; some were 'out' to their friends and family, but no-one else; others were "loud and proud," out atheists.
But one factor seemed to be common to all stories: Atheists hadn't really been involved in the conversion of these atheists! They only sought out atheist and secular groups after they had become atheists of their own volition.
Perhaps the most moving story was that of a former Nazarene Christian. She suffered depression some years ago and was told it was Satan infiltrating her body. He was able to do this because her faith just wasn't quite strong enough to keep him at bay. Initially, she was so convinced of this that she refused to take the doctor-recommended and much-needed medication to restore her chemical imbalances, fearing it would only mean she had given up on prayer.
After much thought, and not a small number of arguments with counselors and ministers, this woman quietly but absolutely dropped her faith -- at a faith-based retreat. She stayed closeted to everyone for a few years and only came out recently.
And then, because she had been so reveling in the wonder of freedom of thought, the liberty that is self-determination and the braingasm that is science, this woman actually gave blood so she could afford the $50 ticket to the conference.
The moral of this story is that atheists aren't trying to change people. People are changing themselves, and they're turning into atheists.
It seems to me that atheists need only to facilitate this self-conversion by offering knowledge in many different ways, having support networks for those severely affected by religion, helping clergy who have similarly self-converted to atheism and reaching out closeted atheists, telling them they're not alone, and they have friends waiting to meet them.