I'm going to describe someone to you. This particular person is a chimera, an amalgam, described for illustrative purposes only.
1) This person strongly believes in a certain philosophical and spiritual position.
They have amassed evidence, in accordance with their accepted criteria, to support this position.
2) Opinions that agree with their position are quickly assimilated and used as further evidence, whilst opinions that do the opposite are disregarded, usually in a demeaning and derogatory way.
3) Although they have one main book which describes their position and is often quoted to support their view, there are other texts that they will read, assimilate and occasionally quote from.
4) They participate heavily in on-line fora, message-boards and discussion groups to hone the details of their chosen position, sharing their 'success stories' and gaining satisfaction from reading the experiences of others.
5) They will meet regularly with others who have the same position, although they may well have very little in common with them besides that.
Ladies and Gentlemen, (and some of you will be way ahead of me here, if for no other reason than the obvious title) I present to you, an Atheist.
Obviously, this does not describe every atheist, merely a new, increasingly visible variety of atheist who is becoming incredibly prolific. To provide appropriate context, let me explain that I am an atheist and actually fall into 3 of the behavioural categories shown above, so am not exempt from the observations I'm about to make.
Over the last couple of years, we've witnessed what would appear to be an incredible growth in the Atheism industry. Those in the religion business would call it a 'revival' and it seems like a reasonable term to use.
Atheist websites sprout at an exponential rate, many books have been published and, in the churning ocean of the Internet, there is usually a new atheist campaign being launched somewhere in the world.
These are not necessarily bad things. It's obvious that religion causes many problems in the world. Some would argue it's not the religion itself but man's interpretation of it for his own nefarious and questionable ends that causes the problem. I would respectfully disagree with that opinion. Religion is man-made, usually designed as a control system, and bases itself on the classic "We're right, they're wrong, and we shall defend our God with violence if necessary" method. Witness the murder of abortionists, or the proliferation of suicide bombers if you disbelieve me. When you study religious texts, you will usually find that the more violent and despicable passages are very clear in their instructions. Those who water them down to create a more palatable product are deluding themselves in more ways than one.
So, the explosion of atheism is opening peoples eyes to the inconsistencies and potential dangers of religion. This is good.
Lone atheists who found themselves unable to adequately vocalise their position can now find supporting arguments that help them to understand and clarify why they believe what they believe. This is also good.
Laws and statutes which seek to blur the lines between church and state are being challenged. This is undeniably positive.
But the growing on-line communities and weekly meetings that some atheists participate in are providing something else entirely. What was initially a meeting of minds is becoming a movement; a belief system in its own right with leaders, rules, 'sacred texts' and symbols.
(Yes, I cherry-picked a number of links there, some of them admittedly rather shaky, to make my point. Mea culpa.)
G.K. Chesterton stated, "When people stop believing in God, they don't believe in nothing — they believe in anything". I think there's some truth in those words (particularly when you examine the number of people who believe in alternative medicine, astrology, psychics and other demonstrable nonsense) in that, without religion, some people feel there is a gap in their life that needs to be filled.
Many years ago, as a teenager, I attended church for a brief period (some teenagers drink, some do drugs, I rebelled by going to church. Yes, yes, I know...) I never truly believed in god, but was happy to wallow in the illusion because of the wonderful sense of camaraderie and, dare I say it, superiority. "Look at us, we've seen through all the lies and deceit! We know the truth! We are cleverer than you!"
There is something deeply attractive about being a light-bearer, of being part of something important and vital. The thrill of knowing 'the truth', no matter what you perceive it to be, is a heady brew indeed.
Some Christians have already accused atheism of being a religion and I would suggest they are in a very good position to offer that observation. They recognise the signs and, in all honesty, I have to say that I'm starting to agree with their theory, although it makes me feel very uncomfortable indeed.
I just hope that, in their semi-religious fervour, militant atheists (I loathe that phrase but it feels strangely appropriate in this context) come to a realisation that they are in real danger of turning what should be an empowering, positive world-view into nothing more than just another system of belief.