The nice thing about being an agnostic is feeling comfortable saying “I don’t know” when there’s not enough evidence to say yes or no.
I mention this because I want to be clear that I mean no criticism by saying that I don’t know if Ophelia is right about the positive effects of New Atheism. She’s picking up on a study which yet again demonstrates that Americans overstate their church attendance. The latest is based on a study comparing churches’ attendance figures with people’s self-reported church attendance. Earlier demonstrations of this effect included researchers counting cars in parking lots in one county (in Ohio, IIRC) on Sundays, and have always found that people say they go to church more often than they do.
Ophelia seems to accept, as I do, the researchers’ explanation that this overstating of church attendance reflects Americans’ equation of church attendance with religiosity with moral stature and respectability. People say they attend church not because they necessarily do, but because they want to identify themselves as the sort of people who go to church (respectable, moral, religious, possibly a bit conservative, respectful of traditions and values, and so forth).
Ophelia says that this points up a positive benefits of New/Extreme/Affirmative/gnu atheism; to wit, it shows “how gnu atheism can Help”:
gnu atheism … is relentlessly pointing out that religious belief is not altogether intellectually respectable. That means that religion no longer offers such a desirable kind of identity. It means the identity aspect is more mixed.
She quotes Shankar Vedantam’s report on the research:
When you ask Americans about their religious beliefs, it’s like asking them whether they are good people, or asking whether they are patriots.
Yes, but now it’s also getting to be like asking them whether they believe in Santa Claus. It’s getting to be like asking them if they’re somewhat too credulous for a grown-up.
This is followed by vigorous back-patting which I omit lest you’ve already overdosed on sugar and saccharine from candy canes today.
The problem for me is that, despite all of the claims that gnu atheism has done this and is doing that, no actual evidence has (ever, to my knowledge) been advanced that gnu atheism has had any effect whatsoever on public perceptions of religion.
This point is separate from a conversation about whether reducing religions’ perceived importance to society is a valid goal (it probably is!). But there’s a long-standing dispute about how the gnus’ arguments and tactics and tone actually influence people’s perceptions of religion, of atheism, and of science, and simply asserting various positive effects as having already happened without offering data to back them up seems illegitimate. But I don’t know, maybe not.
If she’d said that these effects might well follow, I’d have no real argument. They might (and also might not, I don’t know). The initial claim that gnus have already rendered religion “not altogether intellectually respectable” strikes me as the weak point in this argument, though. Religion hasn’t been intellectually respectable (as I understand the term) since the 1940s or ’50s, probably since the ’20s, and quite likely not since the late 19th century or even earlier (this was central to the tensions of the Scopes era, for instance, and fundamentalism rose out of a backlash against scientific and technological hegemony in late 19th century America, as well as an effort to co-opt scientific language and respectability in service of that backlash). Indeed, the appeal of religion is often given by both fundamentalists and by liberal and moderate theologians as its counterbalance (or even opposition) to a perceived excess intellectualism in the broader society.
Absent some sort of evidence that religion is less intellectually respectable now than it was 10 years ago, this first step in Ophelia’s logical chain fails, and the conclusions go with it. And the paragraph above suggests that intellectual respectability has not been necessary or sufficient for its social desirability in America’s past, so the second link strikes me as dubious and unproven as well.
Maybe the evidence is there. If it is, I don’t know what it shows. Smallish psychology experiments could probably give some useful data to test the hypothesis (assuming they bring in a representative demographic: levels of education have a strong effect on religiosity, so college students alone would not be a representative experimental sample). If they’ve been done, I don’t know the results. Maybe someone did that experiment, and some other people confirmed it independently. If so, I don’t know about it. The result isn’t utterly implausible, and I’m not saying it’s false. I’m saying I don’t know, and I tend not to trust people who confidently assert empirically measurable facts without actually offering data to support the claim.