Dissertation Abstracts

The Members of Atheist Organizations in Germany and the United States of America: Participation in a Freethought-Secularist Movement

Author: Mastiaux, Björn , mastiaux@phil.uni-duesseldorf.de
Department: Social Sciences / Sociology
University: Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf, Germany
Supervisor: Prof. Dr. Michael Baurmann
Year of completion: 2013
Language of dissertation: German

Keywords: Social Movements , Participation , Atheism , Secularism
Areas of Research: Religion , Social Classes and Social Movements , Participation, Organizational Democracy and Self-Management


The thesis is the result of an exploratory study on so-called “atheist” or “secularist” organizations. Even though these associations have existed in Germany as well as in the United States in their current form since the second half of the past century, they have been notably under-researched both by the sociology of religion and by the sociology of social movements. Their aim is, on the one hand, to provide nonreligious persons a community of like-minded people and, on the other, to take action for the separation of church and state and for legal rights of nonreligious and religiously unaffiliated citizens. The literary and media phenomenon of “new atheism” has increased attention for the atheist or secular parts of Western populations in general. This study, though, deals with the much smaller group of “organized atheists” and asks: who are the members of a certain kind of atheist and secularist organizations in Germany and the United States?

It is also argued that the organizations under consideration are part of a wider social movement of freethought and secularism. Criteria for the identification of a social movement - such as the existence of a network of individual and collective actors who share a common identity and who are involved in a political or cultural conflict via non-institutionalized means - are met. In that context the landscape(s) of freethought-secularist organizations and associations in the two countries and their historical developments are documented comprehensively. After an overview of the existent research on organized atheism and of theoretical explanations for participation in social movements, which served as “sensitizing concepts”, the delineation of the study and the account of its results ensue.

The data in this study are qualitative interviews which were conducted with roughly sixty members of six local atheist organizations in Germany (two organizations) and the United States (four organizations). They served as basis for the construction of a typology of these organizations’ membership. Firstly, the wide range of positions and experiences of the members regarding their religious / nonreligious backgrounds and biographies, regarding the process of joining, and regarding their activities in the organizations are explored. Secondly, in an effort to reduce the variety of cases that has become apparent at that point, eight characteristic types of members are identified on the basis of certain recurring narrative and action patterns (“motives”): The motive of political conflict unites the “Political Fighter” and the “Indignant”, the motive of belonging unites the “Collectivist” and the “Alienated”, the motive of philosophical and religious knowledge unites the “Intellectual Enlightener” and the “Silent Intellectual”, while finally the motive of identification with the organization is central to the “Dissociate” as well as to the “Euphoric”. These types show the face of organized atheism to be very diverse and to be much more than and different from the caricature of “militant atheists” that has dominated public perception of the movement in recent years (in much of whatever little notice it has received).