Have a look at this interview with Boston University religion professor Stephen Prothero. It contains a number of interesting nuggets, but this is the part that jumped out at me:
Baer: Proselytizing atheists like Dawkins have carved out a niche within a largely religious public sphere. Would a less emotional, less evangelistic atheism be capable of maintaining even this degree of influence?
Prothero: I feel quite certain that a less emotional and less evangelistic atheism would garner far more influence. Atheism has a brand problem. Lots of the people who do not believe in God refuse to call themselves atheists. Why? Because they don’t want to be associated with proselytizers.
Where is the evidence to support this canard?
There is, after all, an obvious data point against what Prothero is saying. Rampant hostility towards nonbelievers long predates the arrival of the New Atheists. This hostility is the result of mindless religious bigotry. More precisely, it is the result of the commonly held belief that atheists have no foundation for morality. It is not a response to anything atheists have actually done.
The public opinion polls do not record any backlash against nonbelievers in the last few years. In fact, the numbers are slowly but surely going in the right direction. From where does Prothero derive his certainty that a more understated approach would put atheists in a better position? A more likely scenario is that an understated approach would sell fewer books and produce less public conversation.
As for nonbelievers eschewing the term “atheist,” I very much doubt that has much to do with distaste for “prostletyzers.” Another possible explanation is that people do not want to associate themselves with a social group that is despised in many parts of the country. Yet another is that the term “atheist” tends to imply, somewhat unfairly in my view, a level of certainty that many people do not feel.
I honestly do not know what people like Prothero think atheists should be doing. If Dawkins and the rest are tarnishing the brand by being so outspoken, then what is the more sensible strategy that would put the shine back on?
Are atheists better off today than we were prior to the publication of the New Atheist books? It looks to me like the answer is an obvious yes.