Pharyngula

Growing godlessness

A new poll seems to be showing that the efforts of those ferocious agitating atheists are working — either that, or the corruption of the theocratic right is driving more people into our arms. Daylight Atheism reports that atheists are at 25% of the American population, which isn’t quite right: the numbers include atheists and agnostics at 18%, with another 6% preferring not to say. It would be more accurate to say that about one in four Americans is a freethinker of some sort…and I suspect that that is an underestimate. There are many who affiliate themselves with a church for reasons of tradition and the lack of other social outlets, but don’t really believe in this weird personal god others favor.

The article in The Nation on this subject is interesting and positive, although I also see a little timidity in its efforts to find much to criticize in the “New Atheists” (I also object to the title…this “New” nonsense is inaccurate and tends to minimize the fact that atheism has a long and worthy intellectual history). This part is right on, though.

The great success of the New Atheists is to have reached them [unbelieving citizens], both speaking to and for them. These writers are devoted, with sledgehammer force and angry urgency, to “breaking the spell” cast by the religious ascendancy, to overcoming a situation in which every other area of life can be critically analyzed while admittedly irrational religious faith is made central to American life but exempted from serious discussion.

Comments

  1. #1 Onymous
    September 3, 2007

    I’m extremely skeptical about pretty much any poll with a significant atheist/agnostic response.
    the site says it corresponds with the 2001 ARIS poll, but if you check http://www.census.gov/prod/2004pubs/04statab/pop.pdf (page 56)
    the vast majority of the 14 percent described themselves as no religion, and the article also mentions that “non-religious” was included in the pew study as well.
    the atheists account for only 0.3% in the ARIS poll

    I personally have known enough people to know that non-religious and atheist (even agnostic) are pretty fucking far away from each other.

    so if that poll is valid it means that Dawkins et al have managed to convince some 27 million people (ignoring the extra millions it would take to get from 14% to 18%) to admit to themselves or in public that what they actually are is agnostic/atheist. BUT did not cause ANY decrease of the 5.4% of “prefer not to answer” crowd from ARIS ’01.

    Seems like a lot to hope for.

    Seems like if they’ve had that much effect on the acceptability of atheism the % that chose not to answer IF ATHEIST would have decrease not increased (although that may just be a limit to statistical accuracy due to poll size)

    I wonder what the numbers would be if the classic high-school “I’m spiritual but not religious” was an option. As I suspect there may be a bias towards calling yourself agnostic because the affirmative answer strikes people as (in context) meaning “I’m a total god-bag that subscribes to a specific dogma”

  2. #2 Anton Mates
    September 3, 2007

    Wow, that’s cheering news. I agree that the “New Atheist” label doesn’t make much sense until someone explains how they’re new…so far as I can see, the only novel feature is the society surrounding them, which is less inclined to shun/ridicule/burn them than in past times.

    I thought they were pretty mild in their criticism of the authors, though. All they really said about Dawkins and Dennett is that they covered too much ground in their books–which is amusing, when you also consider the common “You can’t evaluate religious claims until you explore every nook and cranny of theology” objection.

    Suburban New Jersey, Lucy? Somehow I wouldn’t expect that to be a tremendously pious place, being within a stone’s throw of New York and all. But come to think of it, my only friend from New Jersey comes from a fundamentalist Christian family. Huh.

    Have you looked at the New Jersey Humanist Network?

  3. #3 John Pieret
    September 3, 2007

    Assuming, of course, that the poll is accurate, congratulations! Even if it is just the effect of people re-labeling themselves it is a significant change that could have profound effects on politics when politicians start crunching demographic numbers.

    I don’t get why the “New Atheist” business bothers you, however. Either Dawkins/Harris/Hitchens/PZ are doing something new in terms of tactics/debate/etc. or you can’t attribute this change to the actions of the “ferocious agitating atheists.” If it’s the same-old, same-old, then you have to look to some other cause for this shift; if it’s not the same-old, same-old, then the modifier “new” seems appropriate.

  4. #4 woozy
    September 3, 2007

    the numbers include atheists and agnostics at 18%, with another 6% preferring not to say. It would be more accurate to say that about one in four Americans is a freethinker of some sort…

    Well, assuming all atheists and agnostics and “mind your own business” are freethinkers… But would it really be fair to say believers are never freethinkers?

    If we claim “mind your own business” to “our” side, I wonder if we can claim some form of “religious atheist”. New-agers, unitarians, those who “believe” in a personal diety, diests (are there any still?), etc. PZ and Dawkins may yet convince me of the errors of my atheist-apologetic stance, but I think it’s *really* important to show (and I sincerely believe this is true) that a vast number of believers have a very rational and abstract belief and thus have a *lot* more in common with “our” side than with the fundamentalist literalist physical intervention *anti*-natural and anti-scientific believing wackos who, despite their claims that America is a christian country are a slim minority.

  5. #5 Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    September 3, 2007

    Honestly, I don’t know what to make of any specific poll. Preferably you would have a consistent and representable set of questions to monitor trends. What we could do now is some metastatistical analysis, which is fraught with difficulties.

    But yes, the framers position doesn’t look good.

    this “New” nonsense is inaccurate

    OTOH, New Atheism looks active so it nicely frames…, oh.

    Well, what about “Active Auld Atheism” or A3 then?

  6. #6 John Pieret
    September 3, 2007

    … the atheism of today is very much the atheism of yesteryear. The only difference between now and then is that the outspoken atheists can get a lot more air time than they could before thanks to the internet.

    It was all bound to happen once the internet was invented by Al Gore? Well, okay … if you don’t want to credit Dawkins/Harris/Hitchens and their books at all …

  7. #7 David Marjanovi?
    September 3, 2007

    (and maybe in some Christian circles?),

    No atheists raise their children to consider themselves Christian. I suppose the difference is that Christian is not an ethnicity.

    Concerning the holidays, though, millions celebrate kurisumasu, the Japanese festival of love and rampant consumerism. =8-)

  8. #8 David Marjanovi?
    September 3, 2007

    (and maybe in some Christian circles?),

    No atheists raise their children to consider themselves Christian. I suppose the difference is that Christian is not an ethnicity.

    Concerning the holidays, though, millions celebrate kurisumasu, the Japanese festival of love and rampant consumerism. =8-)

  9. #9 dustbubble
    September 3, 2007

    lucy a #3. Blimey, pet. I didn’t know it was such an isssue over there. Tell you what, soon as you can, get yself over to anywhere in northern europe, enroll in college, get a job slinging beer to the halfwit locals, whatever. Within 6 months you’ll be pining for the retardo fundamentalist fjords of Nujoizy. Because over here you’ll just be….normal.

    Happy. But normal.

    Nobody gives that sh8 a second thought. We mean it, maaan. Doesn’t exist. You WHAT?! A Magic Man done it? Get the f….

    If you’re not too sure, well France is awfully nice, and you can always go and sit in a cathedral or something till the urge passes.
    Really. Nobody believes in any of it. Not even the Italians. Or the Greeks. Or the Turks.
    It’s just youse Septics, and about 52% of the Iranians.
    And some beardy guys in caves up the Khyber.

    Sorry if this is coming off a bit manic and Dawkinsy, but…

    d.

  10. #10 Murkanen
    September 3, 2007

    “It was all bound to happen once the internet was invented by Al Gore?”

    1. You’re doing worse than taking a quote out of context, you are paraphrasing a quote that was taken out of context.

    2. I never brought Al Gore into this for a very good reason, he has dick-all to do with the topic.

    “Well, okay … if you don’t want to credit Dawkins/Harris/Hitchens and their books at all …”

    I had a fairly large rebuttal typed out but decided that it wasn’t worth posting when I realized you completely ignored what I wrote. This is the second time you have done this in response to a single sentence so I’m not sure if it’s because you honestly don’t understand what I wrote, or if you are just being deliberately obtuse.

  11. #11 Charles Bailey
    September 3, 2007

    On Sunday, I was on the last ever Heaven and Earth show on the BBC which, for nine years has been a gentle dale in the noisy world of modern television – pleasurable, tranquil, receptive, candid and at times profoundly revealing of the place of religion in today’s world.

    Not a programme for the rowdy and brash God bashers, obviously, in particular Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, who really are perilously close to losing their flawlessly rational heads as they fulminate like demented fire-and-brimstone preachers. Such men know it all, they don’t listen, and presume to judge people they won’t ever understand.

    Radio 4’s John Humphrys has taken on the fanatic atheists in a new book about faith and the human urge to believe. Some aspects of our nature are not susceptible to scientific enquiry, cannot be dissected, categorised and validated in terms that would satisfy the “rational” disbelievers, whose intellect is colossal but imagination puny.

    There are no experiments and tests to explain love, empathy, longing, the agony and ecstasy of the heart, the wild and wonderful creativity of the brain, that thing that happens to you when a full moon appears above the sea and is reflected in it. Sorry, but knowing the science of why the moon shines is irrelevant to the experience. Faith is the light of the moon above and that light in the sea, reality and spirituality, both making you tremblingly conscious of forces vast and beyond words. Impertinent scientists cannot know what they speak of.

    I agree with Dawkins, the quieter A C Grayling, and with humanists that religion can and does disable human aspiration and will; it can and does lead worshippers of various go s to a violent hatred of “outsiders”; it can and does debase women; it can and does create a religious autocracy; it can and does encourage appalling behaviour.

    Since 9/11 Islam, Judaism and Christianity have become dangerously politicised. Too many people today have developed an intensified religious identity. I also believe strongly that public spaces and institutions should be wholly secular. An established church, state-funded faith schools and increasing encroachment of religion into politics are bad for us all. Sixty years ago, the inspirational leaders of liberated India established a secular constitution without which the country would have been ripped apart by its many competing, received religions. The gods had to keep to their place in free India, but they remain vital to individuals and communities.

    Having faith makes me humble and self-questioning, unlike the unbelievers who know they are always right. As Humphrys writes: “I have fallen into the habit of asking almost everyone I meet if they believe in God. And here is an interesting thing: it was only the atheists who seemed absolutely certain.”

    To these zealots, believers are mostly naive or stupid. We are also inflammable, easily led, malevolent, sadomasochistic and a threat to the future of the planet. In his book The God Delusion, Dawkins proclaims that faith instruction to the young is worse than paedophile abuse. John Cornwell, the Cambridge ethicist who has just penned an elegant riposte to the Dawkins’ rant, points out that this was the imagery used by Nazis too, for whom their country was a healthy body invaded by multiplying, Jewish bacilli.

    The hysterical imagery is objectionable. But much worse is the dishonesty. Militant atheists have never accepted that evil comes out of their camp as well as ours, and good does too. Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot and Mao were driven to genocide not by religion but cold, cruel power. None of these men feared God.

    The churches kept alive resistance to dictatorships in South American republics at the worst of times; Apartheid used Christianity to justify racism, but formidable opposition came from within the church; Gandhi and Martin Luther King found strength to fight for what was right through God; faith gives Muslims hope in many of the most hopeless of states, and for millions across the globe it may be the only defence against the spread of gross and dehumanising materialism. Of the most awesome creations made my man, most were inspired by God – the pyramids, the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, the temples of India, St Paul’s Cathedral and the works of Michelangelo.

    Fundamentalist atheists want to replace old religions with their own. To them all previous prophets were false. Their fervour makes them as blind and uncompromising as those following the religions they detest. Science gave them no immunity – they too are infected by the virus of faith. Only, they would say, theirs is the only true path, and all other roads lead to damnation. Of course.
    -Yasmin Alibhai-Brown

  12. #12 Hey Skipper
    September 4, 2007

    Onymous is on to something.

    Harris and Hitchens (having not read Dawkins’ latest, I can’t say for sure) do not make any atheist claims, but, rather are anti-theists.

    There is a vast difference, and one that both highlights a rare deficiency in English — the lack of a properly descriptive word — as well as discriminating their arguments from traditional atheist arguments.

    Anti-theism has nothing to say about the existence or characteristics of a supreme being, other than to emphasize that no other human institution can claim to know what G-d is, or thinks, or desires.

    IOW, G-d != religion; the force of their arguments is to demolish religious certainty, not to take any specific position whatsoever on G-d.

    If polls were to ask something along the lines of “Do you believe that your religion correctly represents G-d, and others do not?” I’ll bet the number of negatives would be much higher than 25%.

    There is no need to abolish religion, only religious certainty.

  13. #13 MartinC
    September 4, 2007

    Charles Bailey, that article by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is so full of Fiskable points its difficult to know where to start.
    “Fundamentalist atheists?”
    “Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot and Mao were in “their”(Dawkins and Hitchens’) camp”
    “Having faith makes me humble and self-questioning, unlike the unbelievers who know they are always right.”
    “Dawkins rant”
    Theres too many more to go on. Its pretty much standard fare argument from religious ‘moderates’ and shows the paucity of their reasoning skills. No attempt is made to confront the actual arguments of Dawkins etc, simply ad hominem comparison to Nazis and fatuous claims that we will never understand the personal experience of nature.
    Its a typical British ‘Arts versus Science’ argument. There is a huge divide between these two disciplines due to the nature of British higher education where there is very little chance of a person who studies literature or history at University having studied anything of a scientific nature after the age of about 14. This provokes a fierce defensive attitude where they posit that there is no great truth to be gained from science, only from the humanities, hence the intense hatred for Dawkins whose success has exposed their hollowness of the argument.

  14. #14 Anton Mates
    September 4, 2007

    But I see that John Cornwell really did make the analogy which Yasmin described. Apparently Dawkins’ likening a particular idea or worldview to a disease is equivalent to the Nazis’ likening a particular group of people to one.

    I’ll do Cornwell the kindness of assuming he’s just trying to score rhetorical points there; if he actually believed what he wrote, I’d want to keep small children and animals away from him.

  15. #15 Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    September 4, 2007

    John Pieret

    As I understand it, the “framers” are interested in science education rather than godlessness.

    True, but they propose that A3 tactics are alienating in general. That is now a problematic claim.

    Agitating Ancient Atheists?

    Right, Ancient Ancestry Atheism, and you got it.

    So, um, framers… could be Frakking Futile Framing? I can see the movie: Media Star Trek, The Mooney Generation: First Courtiers, where we meet the Nis-borg collective: “Reframing is futile”.

  16. #16 John Pieret
    September 4, 2007

    Murkanen:

    I’m not sure if it’s because you honestly don’t understand what I wrote, or if you are just being deliberately obtuse.

    Gee, I would’ve thought the reference to Al Gore inventing the internet might have tipped you off to the fact that I was being humorous. Can we start a fund to buy you a sense of humor … or, given all the angst over being called a “New Atheist,” a sense of proportion?

    But if you want me to address your original comment:

    New ideas and changes to an ideology do deserve the “new” title, yes.

    So, what? … you’re now the arbiter of English usage who rules by dictat? Demonstrate that the usage of new/neo in English is limited to substantial changes in ideas/ideology as you claim. I’ve already given a couple of examples of where the usage was applied where there were no such substantial changes.

    However, there have always been outspoken atheists (Mencken comes to mind) and the atheism of today is very much the atheism of yesteryear. The only difference between now and then is that the outspoken atheists can get a lot more air time than they could before thanks to the internet.

    The internet is, what?, a decade and a half old? Why would this effect happen only now? Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens have just published books within the last two years that have garnered a great deal of attention in the regular media, largely, according to the media itself, due to the difference in “tone” these books had. PZ says that there has been a “change in tactics” and has regularly exhorted atheists to have a new aggressive attitude, contrary to the “old” attitude the “framers” want everyone to stick to.

    But if you want to say that atheists have always and uniformly been aggressive and you’re just being noticed now for the first time, be my guest. But why would you be surprised when everyone else, noticing you for the first time, thinks you’re something new?

    miko:

    The difference between now and, say, 17th century English atheists, is that we are much, much more polite and less insulting toward religious beliefs.

    Ah, so you are the new polite atheists?

    Torbjörn:

    True, but they propose that A3 tactics are alienating in general. That is now a problematic claim.

    Not necessarily. As has been noted, this may just be people relabeling themselves to reflect what they already believed, while the aggressive rhetoric still alienates the majority. That’s not necessarily a bad thing for atheists — think of parallels to the civil rights movement (though you may need to come up with a Martin Luther King figure somehow). Even if atheists can shed the disapproval/distrust of the majority, that does not automatically mean science education will flourish, so the framers may still have legitimate concerns.

  17. #17 Peter Ashby
    September 4, 2007

    Yasmin Alibhai-Brown:
    “There are no experiments and tests to explain love, empathy, longing, the agony and ecstasy of the heart, the wild and wonderful creativity of the brain, that thing that happens to you when a full moon appears above the sea and is reflected in it. Sorry, but knowing the science of why the moon shines is irrelevant to the experience. ”

    This is simply the old last refuge of the dualist argument that science cannot explain the ‘subjective’, whatever that might be, take aim at it and it morphs and slides away from you.

    Yasmin can be good when she is on race and how to be an intelligent, liberal, independent moslem woman but she is just like the usual arts graduate suspect on things like this, displaying her manifest ignorance and willful misunderstandings for all to see. This is the sort of thing that drives Dawkins up the wall. I saw them on a tv panel together once and RD wiped the floor with her.

  18. #18 Murkanen
    September 4, 2007

    “Demonstrate that the usage of new/neo in English is limited to substantial changes in ideas/ideology as you claim.”

    I never used the descriptor “substantial” in the sentence you quoted, nor did I use anything that could be misconstrued to mean substantial.

    “The internet is, what?, a decade and a half old?”

    It’s about that old, yes. I’m curious why you feel its age is relevant to its usefulness as a communication tool for atheists, agnostics, and similar folks.

    “Why would this effect happen only now?”

    You are making the assumption that this effect is only a recent development within the last 2-3 years. The numbers have steadily been growing, albeit slowly, over a number of years and it’s only recently been getting any worthwhile attention from the main news networks because the numbers have grown to an unprecedented level within the US.

    “Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens have just published books within the last two years that have garnered a great deal of attention in the regular media, largely, according to the media itself, due to the difference in “tone” these books had.”

    And yet there are quotes from Thomas Jefferson, Paine, Franklin going on and on about how religion is a sore upon the world, not to mention Mencken’s own words on the subject (and O’Hair, and Ingersoll). The tone hasn’t changed one iota, they’re just paying attention more now than they did before. A similar example of the news paying attention to things they would have ignored in the past, once again thanks to the internet, a random political spoof (I love Obama, etc) wouldn’t have made national news where as last week or the week before it was mentioned on several networks.

    “PZ says that there has been a “change in tactics” and has regularly exhorted atheists to have a new aggressive attitude, contrary to the “old” attitude the “framers” want everyone to stick to.”

    The attitudes aren’t new, just the amount of exposure they are getting is new (relatively speaking). It used to be done via books once every few years (Hitchens, Harris, Dawkins), on a program that’s shown off and on (Carl Sagan, Joesph Campbell), or a random court case (O’Hair, pledge of allegiance guy). Now the exposure can be hourly, if not more so, because of blogs, Youtube, website communities, Slashdot, Fark, Digg, and similar things.

    “But if you want to say that atheists have always and uniformly been aggressive and you’re just being noticed now for the first time, be my guest.”

    That’d be as ridiculous for me to say as to claim that all Christians are young earth creationists (which, surprise surprise, is why I never said it). The attitudes among atheists runs the full gambit between “meh” to “Nuke them from orbit, it’s the only way to be sure.” It always has and, most likely, always will.

    “But why would you be surprised when everyone else, noticing you for the first time, thinks you’re something new?”

    I’m not surprised that people think it’s something new. People put blinders on when they notice things they aren’t comfortable with and refuse to take them off until the blinders won’t ‘protect’ them from it anymore, which is precisely what happened with the growing exposure (and acceptance) of atheism. People put the blinders on and now that they’ve taken them off they are shocked, shocked I tell you, to find that the numbers “jumped” from nearly nothing (when the blinders were put on) to more than 1/10th the population (when they were removed).

  19. #19 Lucy
    September 4, 2007

    dustbubble #39

    But if it hadn’t been manic and Dawkinsy, I wouldn’t have just accidentally snorted soda through my nose and spent the last five minutes cleaning it off my keyboard…….

    Don’t worry, my pity parties don’t last forever….how could they, as long as the Belligerent Babbling Blasphemers are around?

  20. #20 Murkanen
    September 4, 2007

    “When all else fails, quibble.”

    You honestly think it’s quibbling to say “You’re arguing against something I never said”? That’s… rather bizarre of you.

    “So, demonstrate that the usage of neo/new is limited only to cases where there are changes in ideas/ideology.”

    That’s sorta the whole point of labeling something as being a neo, or new, version of the original namesake. If it hasn’t changed from the original ideology, idea, belief or what not then it isn’t new and doesn’t need to be called such to differentiate it from the original*.

    *: If I recall correctly, it’s also used to differentiate periods of time where an old idea or style (be it in writing or art) falls out of favour/goes away for a number of years and then makes a resurgence at a later point. Even taking that into account, however, the use of the phrase “new atheist” still wouldn’t be justified.

    That said, isn’t the onus on you to provide counterexamples of things being called “neo” or “new” that don’t have any changes to the original ideology/idea/whatever?

    “Ah, good. Can you point me to those “numbers,” I’d like to see them … particularly the ones showing steady growth in the U.S.”

    I’ll get the specific polling information from the Psychology of Religion professor on Thursday and post it here (or I can post it to your blog if you’d prefer). I can understand the want for proof (to quote Twain “There’s lies, damn lies, and statistics”), but it isn’t really illogical to note the growth has been gradual when compared to the idea that atheists/agnostics stayed at a flat 6% of the population until 2005/2006 and then miraculously tripled that number (if not more) in a span of two years because they heard about Dawkins’ book on the Colbert Report/Good Morning America/[insert program of your choice here].

  21. #21 John Pieret
    September 5, 2007

    That’s sorta the whole point of labeling something as being a neo, or new, version of the original namesake. If it hasn’t changed from the original ideology, idea, belief or what not then it isn’t new and doesn’t need to be called such to differentiate it from the original*.

    Whoa! … “or what not”? You appeared to have been limiting it before to ideas or ideology. I’m saying that the “whatnot” can include such things as tactics, technique and other non-substantial factors that still justify the neo/new usage (which is, after all, defined by usage). You’ll have to define that “whatnot” now.

    And don’t think that I accept that there has been no change in tactics by the advocates of atheism because of the scant examples you gave (a number of whom weren’t even atheists), it’s just that it’s a chump game to get bogged down in arguing details about who did this, and how and what it means. If you want to believe there has been no recent change at all, I’m content to let your fellow atheists evaluate your contention.

    … but it isn’t really illogical to note the growth has been gradual when compared to the idea that atheists/agnostics stayed at a flat 6% of the population until 2005/2006 and then miraculously tripled that number (if not more) in a span of two years because they heard about Dawkins’ book on the Colbert Report/Good Morning America/[insert program of your choice here].

    Huh? A sudden jump in poll numbers can just be assumed to reflect gradual change? I have my own ideas about what the numbers mean but I’d like to see you defend that idea.

    Anyway, I would like to see the numbers and post them where most convenient to you. I think I can remember to check back … as long as we’re only talking 24 hours …

  22. #22 Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    September 7, 2007

    John Pieret:

    As has been noted, this may just be people relabeling themselves

    And this affects my claim how? If there is no observable effect, alienation is a problematic claim.

  23. #23 Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    September 7, 2007

    John Pieret:

    Obviously we now go around in a circle.

    I demand evidence for alienation and notes that data is consistent with a strong positive effect.

    You argue that there can be negative effects but have no data. We could look into this claim when you have data, but as for now I have lost interest in this discussion.

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