The atheist community has grown much more visible and audible in the past few years. I don't know whether it would be accurate to say that it has actually grown considerably. Over and over one hears from people who had been atheist for a long time, but never spoke up about it, and felt alone. Then came Richard Dawkins.I know that it's customary to mention a couple of other famous authors along with Dawkins, but I don't feel like it. I think those other guys are a bit silly, especially the younger one with his warmed-over Utilitarianismand his spirituality, and I also think that the other guys are basically riding in Dawkins' wake, that Dawkins is still the only "new" atheist who is both an intellectual heavyweight, and popular. [PS, 29. November 2015: Unfortunately, I had not read any of Dawkins' atheistic writing before I wrote this, and I simply assumed, based on having read some of his work on biology, that his writing on religion would be just as good. In the meantime I've read some of his writing on religion, and there's nothing remotely heavyweight about any of it. Sorry.]
As with any group with mass visibility, there are some dopes among the suddenly-visible large mass of atheists. These include a few popular authors and many simple-minded people repeating memes such as that the Old Testament was written by illiterate Bronze Age shepherds [PS, 13. December 2016: When I first posted this, in 2010, I didn't realize that it was Dawkins himself who had started the "Bronze Age Goat herders" meme. (I don't know whether Dawkins has ever actually asserted that the Bible was written by illiterates.)], (This meme is morphing from Broze Age to Neolithic and even Paeleolithic.) and, for example, the certainty that Jesus never existed. That last meme even has a couple of very popular websites all to itself.
People on all sides -- not all of them, just the dumb ones, but Lord there are a lot of dumb ones on all sides -- seem to come to conclusions about ancient history based on metaphysical preconceptions. They believe in God, they were raised Christian, and so they believe that Jesus existed. Or they don't believe in God, they were raised atheist, or, very often, they had unhappy Christian childhoods, and so they believe Jesus never existed. Each side repeats its talking points ad nauseum and does not investigate the matter, and also does not examine the soundness of its talking points. I often quarrel with the other atheists just because I feel a sort of duty to try to clean up our side of the street. What's the point of rejecting all that traditional religious dogma only to embrace a whole cartload of equally-unsound, equally-unexamined atheist myth? "If Jesus existed, why didn't any ancient authors write about him?" Well, Sparky, some ancient authors did write about him. The writings of some of them are referred to as the New Testament, those of some others are called New Testament apochrypha. "Okay, but they were all believers. Why don't we have any eyewitness accounts of him from non-Christian authors?" Do you think there were several daily newspapers in Jerusalem back then, and that every day's news is preserved on microfilm? so that we can go through all the records of the crucifixions and palm-frond-covered donkey parades? There was next to no non-Christian historical record of Pontius Pilate, the governor of the whole province, until an inscription was unearthed a few decades ago which makes it seem like that, yeah, Pilate did exist. That's the governor of the whole province. If you think that it's somehow suspicious that there's no surviving official record of the arrest, trial or execution of a convicted traitor who had all of twelve, count 'em twelve followers, you don't know much about the state of our knowledge of things in Judea 2,000 years ago.
"Well, the existence or non-existence of Jesus can never be proven anyway, so why bother to even look into such ancient matters?" Let me take the second part first. Why? Because milk has no bones. That's why. And as to the first part, to assert that it could never be proven that a Jesus of Nazareth was a wandering preacher who was executed for treason on Pilate's orders reveals ignorance of how much our knowledge of the ancient world around the Mediterranean, and east of there, is increasing. I mentioned that inscription they found a few decades ago mentioning Pilate. One example of a huge amount of finds since the late 19th century which continue to expand our knowledge. There are the Dead Sea Scrolls.There is the Nag Hammadi library.There are the Oxyrhynchus Papyri,about 100 volumes of them published so far and still going. [CORRECTION, 18. July 2015: 80 volumes and counting, as of 2014, containing 5253 papyri] Not to mention Menander,the ancient Greek author of comic plays, of whose work before the 20th century we possessed only fragments, brief quotations in the work of other authors, and now, BOOM! chaka-laka-laka we've got several nearly-complete plays. Just a few of the highlights from the list of manymany ancient things archaeologists keep digging up and deciphering between Morocco and Afghanistan. It's not impossible that proof of Jesus' existence could be found. Yes, many phony non-proofs have been foisted, the most recent being the notorious "James ossuary" publicized by that awful man who's not really an archaeologist but makes a jackass of himself on TV. But the fakes are no indication that real proof could never be found.
What would be real proof? Well, for example, a letter by Pilate to a friend could do the trick. "I had a strange day today. The Sanhedrin brought me a man, Jesus, from Nazareth, a village to the north of here in Herod's territory, who seemed as harmless as a newborn puppy, but they insisted that he was very dangerous. I spoke to him personally because I gathered that, although from a family of commoners, he was fluent in several languages, an unusual combination in these parts. I greeted him in my rusty Aramaic, he responded in very polished Greek and Latin and offered to converse with me in whatever language I wished. And so we conversed in Greek. As gentle as a lamb, and he spoke no overt treason, just religious tales of symbolic dreams and a world other than the Earth. I was charmed by him and gave him several opportunities to contest the charges against him, of blasphemy against his own people and treason against ours, and yet he refused to say the few words which would have released him from suspicion. I truly think he wanted to be executed, the poor strange fool. To be some sort of sacrifice to atone for the sins of mankind. I gave him one more chance: one of the local people's holy days is approaching. Four criminals, including this Jesus, were awaiting execution. I called for the city's people to gather before the prison, had the four condemned men led before them and said that in honor of the upcoming holy day, one of these men, whomever they chose, would be pardoned and freed. The rabble chose a murderer and screamed for the blood of this Jesus. Strange. And so Jesus was nailed to a cross. I gather he's dead already, after just a few hours. Usually men last a day or longer on the cross. A strange and melancholy day."
I have no doubt that some such letters have already been faked. That doesn't mean that a real one will never be found. And of course it wouldn't have to include all the details of my imaginary letter. One fraction of all of that would suffice to turn ancient history all topsy-turvy, if found in a letter proven to be genuine.
And to me such a thing would be great, not because I tie metaphysical preconceptions to ideas of history, but because I don't. And also because the Jesus-never-existed crowd really annoys me. Such a find would please me greatly out of sheer spite for them. My esprit de corps with other atheists does not outweigh my dislike of stupidity. On the contrary, my atheism is but a subset of my disdain for stupidity. My atheism isn't so fragile that such a thing as a genuine letter from Pilate confirming Jesus' existence would ruffle it in the least.