Atheists get noticed
There has always been a social stigma attached to being an atheist greater than that of belonging to even the wackiest of religions. Consider George Bush Sr.'s statement
"I don't know that atheists should be considered citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God."How are such statements possible?
It is not just ignorance, or bigotry or anti-intellectualism, although there is plenty of that and to spare at work here. It is a political calculation that atheists don't matter. And today there is some truth to that. There is not a single openly atheist politician in the US at a national, state, or even, as far as I know, a local level.
Although even in the bible-thumping USA the non-religious make up on some calculations up to 10% of the population, much more numerous than many major religious groups, they are largely invisible and tend to keep their views to themselves because discussing or even mentioning one's atheism in public is considered rude. It is an assault on the right of the superstitious to their beliefs. One superstition can tolerate another far better than it can the rejection of all superstitions.
A number of prominent atheists in the US and elsewhere such as Steven Weinberg, Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers have finally started to come all the way out of the closet and rehash the debates that were decisively won by reason in the 19th century. It is a shame that we have to waste so much time going back over these old arguments, but clearly the majority has been left behind and need to take the class again.
One major obstacle that we face is that many people who are in private non-believers, are in public hypocritical in order to get ahead or to get along. Against this tendency, PZ Myers has an excellent discussion of what's wrong with the argument that criticizing religion hurts the pro-evolution case. "While utility in the short term is nice, I'm not in favor of losing to superstition in the long run." This self-censorship of atheists has to stop. If we are to have any hope of reestablishing a reality-based world view, it is long past time to get out of the closet.