Sunday sermon: Atheism in the WaPo

A pair of stories in Saturday's Washington Post would have us believe that atheism is on the rise in America and in Europe. And despite the popularity of the subject here on ScienceBlogs, the culture of science barely rates a mention in either story. Also missing are much in the way of quantitative evidence to back up the main thesis, but there are some hints that the recent proliferation of "New Atheist" literature may be responsible for whatever growth in atheism there really is.

The Post's story on the situation in Europe is headlined " In Europe and U.S., Nonbelievers Are Increasingly Vocal" while the U.S. story runs under "In America, Nonbelievers Find Strength in Numbers." In both cases, real numbers are rare. Instead we get less concrete observations like

"Born Again Atheist," "Happy Heathen" and other anti-religious T-shirts and bumper stickers are increasingly seen on the streets. Groups such as the Skeptics in the Pub in London, which recently met to discuss this topic, "God: The Failed Hypothesis," are now finding that they need bigger rooms to accommodate those who find them online.

In the U.S. story, however, we are told that "The budget of the Council for Secular Humanism has climbed 40 percent in the past two years, approaching $8 million this year."

The recent spate of atheist books from Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens, meanwhile, seems to have found a large readership:

In the past two years, five books touting atheism have hit the bestseller lists, outselling such religious tomes as Pope Benedict XVI's book on Jesus, and popular Christian novelist Tim LaHaye's latest book, "Kingdom Come," according to Nielsen BookScan.

Representatives of atheist and humanist groups say the books probably haven't converted many religious people. But, said Lori Lipman Brown, a lobbyist for the Secular Coalition for America, which represents eight atheist or humanist organizations, the books "tremendously increase the visibility of nontheist rights."

Just how many atheists/agnostics there actually are in the U.S. of A. is, of course, hard to pin down and the reporters of both stories do a pretty good job exploring the semantic and philosophical difficulties involved. Comments left on the WaPo website highlight the problem, which is evident in the form of the usual confused distinctions between non-belief in god and belief in the non-existence of god.

For me, though, the most interesting part of the coverage was the absence of any overt link between the culture of science and atheism, something that seems to guarantee any ScienceBlog post an increase in traffic. All we get is a single reference from the head of the Council for Secular Humanism to the humanist principles of "science, reason and secularism."

Is this not an oversight? Is not the ever-broadening ability of science to explain that which was once the purview of theologians the primary impetus behind the emergence and growth of atheism? The logical corollary would be that the failure of atheism to grow beyond its fractional popularity can be tied to decreasing enthusiasm for the fruits of science in recent history.

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Is not the ever-broadening ability of science to explain that which was once the purview of theologians the primary impetus behind the emergence and growth of atheism?

Oh, I doubt it. Some effect? Sure. But I suspect strongly that the growth of atheism has been overstated recently. I can't "prove" that, by the way, any more than someone can prove the opposite. I believe that it has become more acceptable to speak of atheism, but that's not the same thing as growth.

Along the same line, I think that the influence of Dawkins, Harris, and even (yes) Myers is often grossly overstated. They've made an impact on some of what is sometimes called "the chattering class," but that's not the same thing as actually changing much of anything in broader society. Their fervent adherents on various ScienceBlogs seem to espouse the "great man" theory of history, where individuals of exceptional insight and ability can seize history by the throat and change it. I've never found that very convincing. I'm no historian, but as I understand it. the "great man" theory is not much accepted among historians, for whatever that's worth.

What I believe is often missed is that there is a great mass of people who simply don't invest any amount of energy in these issues. They're occupied with raising their children, doing their jobs, paying their mortgages. And no, I'm not talking about "idiots" or "drones" or anything like that. If I think of my friends and relatives, we're talking people who are about 100% university-educated, intelligent, and accomplished. It's just easy to miss the reality that not everyone who's intelligent shares your pet peeve or cause.

This is not to say that such folks would put up with creationism in biology class for their kids. They wouldn't. Mind you, I'm from Canada, where this is less of an issue than in the US. But barring such ignorant initiatives, many people just won't divert themselves from those issues which are more important to them. I know several people who would call themselves religious who simply can't be bothered with fervent debate about whether religion is silly and atheism is the only intellectually respectable position - they have their faith which has meaning for them, and they're quite content to let others do as they see fit. Only if (as has happened in the US to an alarming degree) idiosyncratic faith becomes a driver of public policy would they get upset. And then, the upset would be at bad public policy.

I'm an atheist of more than 35 years standing, by the way, and I'm in a minority among my relatives and friends. There's never been a single strained moment as a result.

The logical corollary would be that the failure of atheism to grow beyond its fractional popularity can be tied to decreasing enthusiasm for the fruits of science in recent history.

Don't buy it. Again, you're taking the approach that most (all?) people analyze the situation in the way that you do ... and it just ain't so as far as I can see.

By Scott Belyea (not verified) on 16 Sep 2007 #permalink

It may very well be that the number of atheists in the U.S. hasn't really increased, but that the atheists that were already here simply feel more comfortable or inspired to be open. The whole "Out Campaign" idea at work either consciously or unconsciously.

Another possibility is that the number of atheists has increased but not the number of non-religious. It could be that, with the advent of authors and outspoken atheists like Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, Harris and the like, the non-religious are beginning to explore what it means to be non-religious. They may finally be applying some inquiry and critique of their position and have now self-defined as "atheists" where they mightn't have a few years ago.

Or, there might be any combination of the above or other possibilities. There is, however, a perception that atheism is gaining strength in numbers. And that perception has some theists worried.

"the failure of atheism to grow beyond its fractional popularity can be tied to decreasing enthusiasm for the fruits of science in recent history."

Massively financed lobbying and well-planned public relations campaigns from advocacy organizations swimming in cash could have something to do with it as well.

In the U.S. story, however, we are told that "The budget of the Council for Secular Humanism has climbed 40 percent in the past two years, approaching $8 million this year."

Wow! Eight million dollars? There must be a secularist juggernaut bearing down on the poor, persecuted Christians! Why, that's over two and a half cents per American!

Out of curiosity I went to the Right Wing Watch where I learned that the situation is even worse than i thought. The Heritage Foundation has to scrape by on only $52m in revenue, with a paltry $123m in assets! How will Conservative Christianity survive?

Family Research Council - $10m revenue
CATO Institute: $13m revenue
American Family Association: $14m revenue
Alliance Defense Fund: $15m revenue
Focus On The Family: $137m revenue
FOTF Action: $24m revenue

There's more, a LOT more... I think the dominionists were most happy to get the bald eagle off the endangered species list so they could put themselves on it. But they hardly deserve to be there.

In spite of all that cash, eventually the side supported by the facts will win the day. Emphasis on "eventually".

I'd be surprised if the percentage of atheists has changed much in just a few years, merely because a few books have been published. OTOH, those books may well have changed the social environment in a way that makes it seem more acceptable, or more urgent, for atheists to be "out and proud". That could be what we're seeing, and if so it's a good thing. It means that the pretensions of religion will receive more scrutiny.

It was a book - The Demon-Haunted World - that solidified my realization that I was no longer a Christian. Couple more years went by before I told anyone.

Even if we had a really good method to measure where people are on the
atheist/agnostic/weak-theist/strong-theist/fundamentalist scale, I think it would be hard to agree on where the dividing line is. I think we have many more agnostics then atheists, and more weak-theists still. It is possible that the recent publicity has recruited some of those near that inexact boundary to become true atheists. I doubt it has had any effect on the more highly populated center and right parts of the distribution.

Atheists need a good Ontological Argument. It could go something like this:

We define the Natural Universe as a perfect Universe encompassing all of reality.

Now, a perfect Universe would be less perfect if it depended on a Creator for existence.

And, it would be a less perfect Universe if we didn't live in it.

And, it's pretty clear that the Universe exists in some form.

And, it's pretty clear that we live in it.

Therefore, there is no Creator for the Natural Universe.

Well, it's no sillier than Anselm's.

Or how about this:
Nothing is better than life in Heaven.
A Universe without a God is better than Nothing.
Therefore, a Universe without a God is better than life in Heaven.

Maybe you liked the "ham sandwich" version better...

On the question of where to draw the line, there's this thought.

Christians say that to be saved, you must believe that Christ died for your sins. If you do that, you'll do a variety of other things out of love for Christ. But the road to Salvation is narrow, like the razor's edge, and Many are called, but few are chosen. So, really it is only the very pious that can be called Christians (and some kids - the good really do die young). All which means that the vast majority of people are atheists, from the Christian perspective. Fortunately, the real Christians all know that it isn't theirs to decide if someone else is Christian or not - and therefore no true Christian will make any attempt at all to count the number of Christians. A count can be made in Heaven, which can be waited for rapturously. Only those of lesser faith (for example, none at all) would ask people and report the results.

So what is the score from the atheist's perspective? Is it just as narrow? Do you really have to believe that God does not exist? What if you really hadn't thought about it, one way or the other? That would at least be faithless...

We can resolve this with a parable. It's called the parable of the two scientists. The question is, if you had an isolated black hole and filled it with electrons by firing them one at a time directly into it, would it eventually explode? One scientist says, "Yes. The electromagnetic force is easily 10^30th times larger than gravity, and will dominate." Another scientist says, "No, General Relativity says that nothing can escape a black hole, except through the quantum tunneling of Hawing Radiation." Are both people true scientists?

Find yourself trapped in a black hole? Here's how to try to escape. Think really small. If you think small enough, perhaps you'll escape. Really small. So small as to be Nothing. Because Nothing can escape a black hole.