Tipping the Scales

“The book (The End of Faith) has spent nearly 20 weeks on bestseller lists… Presale orders of ‘Letter to a Christian Nation’ earned the book a spot among Amazon.com’s top 10 a month before its Sept. 19 publication. It debuted at No. 7 on the bestsellers’ list and is now in its sixth printing with 110,000 copies in print and a mammoth $200,000 ad campaign behind it.”

—Gina Piccalo, “Oh, dear God – it’s him again“, The Los Angeles Times, 2 October 2006

In a recent post, “The Quiet Revolution Progresses“, I wrote the following:

The most visible sign of this quiet revolution – the tip of the iceberg, so to speak – is the publication, in recent months, of several prominent and widely discussed mainstream books making the case for atheism. Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers, Sam Harris’ The End of Faith, Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell, and soon, Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion are at the forefront of this advance… But even more encouraging is their success, both critical and commercial.

These remarks seem to have anticipated a tidal wave, as the success of these recent pro-atheist books has been considerable and has even begun to attract attention from the mainstream media. Here is a recent story from Reuters, Is God dead? Atheism finds a market in U.S:

A fresh wave of atheistic books has hit the market this autumn, some climbing onto best-seller lists in what proponents see as a backlash against the way religion is entwined in politics….

Publishers Weekly said the business has seen “a striking number of impassioned critiques of religion — any religion, but Christianity in particular,” a probably inevitable development given “the super-soaking of American politics and culture with religion in recent years.”

And a headline that made me laugh, Anti-God book is Christmas bestseller:

An unlikeliest bestseller in the run up to Christmas is a book which claims to prove God doesn’t exist, it was revealed today.

The God Delusion is being reprinted every two days and is the number one bestseller on Amazon.co.uk, after selling more than 70,000 copies.

…[Richard Dawkins] said: “Another similar book, Letters to a Christian nation, by Sam Harris, is doing very well in America and these two books are possibly a symptom of a shifting in the cultural tectonic plates, with religion playing less of a part in our lives.

“I am very hopeful that the tide may be beginning to turn from the stranglehold that Christianity has had on our culture…”

Nor is the trailblazing success of these books only a matter of publishers’ sales figures, with no effect on the wider world. On the contrary, to judge by recent local headlines, atheist groups are springing up like wildflowers after rain. From a recent news article, Atheism no longer a ‘dirty word’:

When Richard Golden put the word out that he was starting a group for atheists in Walnut Creek, about a dozen people showed up.

Two years later, 80 are dues-paying members and several more drop in on twice-monthly meetings to chew on everything from particle physics to court cases.

Horrified by escalating religious violence and alarmed by the Bush administration’s “faith-based initiatives,” which make government money available to religious organizations, atheists are coming out of the closet — and organizing.

“Local groups are springing up all over the place,” said Ellen Johnson, president of American Atheists. Active groups have grown by about 90 percent over the past six years, she said.

In the past few years, groups affiliated with American Atheists have taken root in Walnut Creek, Berkeley, San Francisco, Davis and Silicon Valley. East Bay Atheists has grown to more than 300 members.

California membership in the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a group of atheists and agnostics that monitors the separation of church and state, increased from 900 to 1,200 in one year. Nationally, it grew from 5,000 in 2004 to 6,400 members by the beginning of 2006, said co-founder Annie Laurie Gaylor.

The question might be asked: Do pieces of good news like this represent a comparative increase in atheism? Are our numbers and organization growing as compared to the rest of society, or is it simply the case that people in general are becoming more politically active, and every group is growing equally?

To judge by another recent story, Evangelicals Fear the Loss of Their Teenagers, the answer is that the former is the case.

Despite their packed megachurches, their political clout and their increasing visibility on the national stage, evangelical Christian leaders are warning one another that their teenagers are abandoning the faith in droves.

At an unusual series of leadership meetings in 44 cities this fall, more than 6,000 pastors are hearing dire forecasts from some of the biggest names in the conservative evangelical movement.

Their alarm has been stoked by a highly suspect claim that if current trends continue, only 4 percent of teenagers will be “Bible-believing Christians” as adults. That would be a sharp decline compared with 35 percent of the current generation of baby boomers, and before that, 65 percent of the World War II generation.

While some critics say the statistics are greatly exaggerated (one evangelical magazine for youth ministers dubbed it “the 4 percent panic attack”), there is widespread consensus among evangelical leaders that they risk losing their teenagers.

…The board of the National Association of Evangelicals, an umbrella group representing 60 denominations and dozens of ministries, passed a resolution this year deploring “the epidemic of young people leaving the evangelical church.”

Despite their organization and vast resources, religious groups seem to be unable to stem the tide of people leaving the church. I wrote previously about other evidence for this, including a 2004 study which concluded that Protestants would make up less than 50% of America’s population for the first time ever by the end of the decade. There is also similar evidence from other directions, including Europe, where the Catholic church is struggling to fill available clergy posts.

We must be careful not to exaggerate the significance of these events. In America, at least, atheists are still widely outnumbered by conventionally religious people, and these stories represent at best a few pinches of sand added to the scale on our side. Nevertheless, they may well be the grains of sand that presage a much larger slide in the near future, and lead to a much more dramatic tipping of the scales.

I do not think it is too optimistic to hope that the resurgence of the religious right, which has awakened many people to the dangers of excessive and unrestrained faith, may lead to a counter-reformation of atheism. People have seen for themselves the results of untrammeled religious fundamentalism, and they do not seem to like what they have seen. There is no better time for us nonbelievers to organize and to promote our message as a positive alternative. If we can succeed at this, the backlash may well be wide enough not just to sweep the religious right out of power, but to create a strong and thriving atheist community that will work to promote progress in society and serve as a check on any similar regrowth of fundamentalism in the future. We once had something like this, in the “golden age of freethought” led by Robert Ingersoll that invigorated America in the late 1800s. I do not think it is too much to hope that we can ignite a similar movement again. That would truly be a tremendous and heartening accomplishment, and a great thing indeed to see.

And the wave set in motion has not crested yet. I leave you, readers, with the following excerpt from another story titled Atheist author fights back:

Harris’ book is a fast read, filled with arguments you’ve heard before, though presented with admirable and engaging passion…. you have to give the author credit for bringing up such a taboo topic in today’s climate. And even if he’s preaching to the choir, he says, the effort is worthwhile. He has received praise, he says, from “people in the reddest of red states who often said they’d never met anyone who openly doubts the perfect truth of the Bible… people expressing relief to know that they’re not alone in the universe.”

They’ll have more company soon. Christopher Hitchens’ title God is Not Great is expected in 2007.

Keep one eye on the sky for frogs and locusts – and another, dare I say it, on that holy arbiter of the publishing businesses: the best-seller list.

You Got Your Ideology in My Atheism!
New on the Guardian: Beyond Debating God’s Existence
On the Importance of Firebrand Atheism
Atlas Shrugged: The Craft of Not Acting
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://thegreenbelt.blogspot.com The Ridger

    Well, nothing will make you decide to join a group faster than realizing you’re about to be legislated out of existence.

  • Freeyourmind

    Ridger I think you touch on a deeper point and that is a lot of the “closet” Atheists are starting to realize just how dire the situation is in regards to the US. Bush and his “faith based” initiatives are more than just crossing the line, they’re running past it. The founding fathers would be ashamed.

    Overall this is very good news. As it was quoted in The God Delusion, the number of Atheists in the US is much more substantial than we are led to believe. We have nobody to blame but ourselves if we don’t take action to fight for what’s morally right. Glad to see the movement making strides, albeit small.

  • Chris

    I have to warn against over-optimism here, especially regarding iconoclasm by the young. Iconoclasm is *always* more popular among the young. Then they get older, their hormone levels shift and most of them line up behind the nearest shepherd. If you try to use the beliefs of the young as a prediction of the direction of society, you’d be predicting a major shift in beliefs in *every* generation, and you’d very frequently be disappointed.

    I think it’s quite likely the grip of religion *is* starting to weaken – without being able to terrorize people with the threat of execution or lynching for heresy, all they have left is the supernatural terrorism of the concept of hell – but it may be several generations or even centuries before the majority of people feel truly free to examine and even change their beliefs without someone killing or torturing them for it, let alone without being harassed, ostracized or condemned.

  • Christopher

    What did I tell you? The clergy are panicking! They know that the younger generation isn’t as religious as the ones before them, making their conversion programs more difficult to implement.

    We are only generations away from a godless society and there is little these fundies can do about it.

  • stillwaters

    Chris makes a good point. Weren’t all these babyboomers, who are now running the country, the hippies of yesteryear? Maybe that’s simplistic, but I’ve always wondered what happened to all those hippies. I realize there are many still around, but were the vast majority just … faking it?

    On the other hand, however, I have nevered wavered in my nonbelief. I first had my doubts and finally lost any god-belief when I was a teenager. As I have grown older, I have actually grown more sure of my atheism, and have been one for over twenty years now. I figure, once an atheist, always an atheist. Can anyone really go back to illusion after they’ve been enlightened?

    And I do agree that we shouldn’t get overly optimistic. But, there have been so many downers lately, it just feels ~good~ to be optimistic about our future.

  • Christpher

    The hippe movement was one doomed to failure because it set high goals for itself (world peace, equal distribution of resources, etc…) but never became organized. Instead, they wasted their time smoking dope and mellowing out while the societal mainstream still dictated policy (for the most part).

    Atheism, on the other hand, IS starting to become organized. Granted, its start-up is kinda rocky, but we are actually going somewhere rather than wasting our valuable time.

  • andrea

    I believe it’s basically a built in problem with most religons. How long can you say “yep, he’s coming back any minute” and not have it happen for 2000+ years without losing people?

  • Alex Weaver

    Yeah, after waiting 2000 years on a “brb” you’d expect that people would become a bit cynical. Most aren’t, unfortunately.

    As for me…one of the things that’s always frustrated me is the view many people have that equates deviation from or defiance of societal norms with “the brashness of youth” or something else like that. In particular, I get the feeling that my mother views my atheism as “just a phase,” although she hasn’t specifically said it like that, and although, so far, it’s lasted from when I was 13-14ish for over seven years.

    On that note, one of the things I’ve noticed is that when I was growing up, people habitually told me that once I was at the point in life they were I would see things their way. I cannot think of a single case where this prediction was accurate. Anyone else have this experience?

  • Christopher

    Yes, ever since high school people have told me that one day I realize how I “scorned wisdom” and will “remember my rebelion against god with regret.”

    Load of shit! I’ve turned my back on superstitions and am never going back!

  • Alex Weaver

    I would hardly call my rejection of religion a “rebellion”; there wasn’t nearly enough resistance. And the appropriate response to that kind of sentiment is “I do indeed remember it with regret. Specifically, I regret waiting so long.” ^.^

  • bassmanpete

    The older I get (now 62) the stronger my atheism becomes. Believers have faith because of fear & ego – fear that they’ll face punishment in a supposed afterlife; and ego because they can’t accept that they will one day cease to exist. I would say to them that when you die it’s just like it was before you were born – so get used to it.

    It just makes me wonder where the human race could be today if all those billions of man-hours spent ‘praising god’ had been put to good use! Let’s for a minute assume there is a god, wouldn’t you think that he/she/it would prefer that we went out & appreciated & enjoyed the world that has been given to us rather than spend hours trying to suck up to to him/her/it in a church/synagogue/mosque or whatever then going out & cutting down forests for wood-chips, harpooning whales for ‘scientific research’, fighting with each other over whose belief is the ‘right’ one, etc, etc.

    That’s my rant for today. Over & out.

  • http://stephenfrug.blogspot.com Stephen Frug

    Damn. Hitchens is about to join our side?

    Maybe I need to re-think my position…

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    Hitchens has always been an atheist, as far as I’m aware. I still intend to read his book debunking Mother Teresa’s supposed acts of charity, even though I fully expect the factual arguments to be mixed with a generous helping of polemic.

  • Brett

    I’ve heard similar things to Iranians I talk to. They’ve been beaten over the head with the Quran by Mullahs all their lives, and have seen the outside world on illicit satellite dishes and the internet that many are turning away from hard-core Islam, at least privately. Many drink, have sex, etc. It’s still literally dangerous to apostacize in the Dar al-Islam, so it’s a step in the right direction.

  • Joe Hardwick

    I’m with Chris. The tone of optimism is unrealistic. The west has been on this psycho-crack for some 2000 years. The youth is finally getting access to alternative “world views,” but reversion is probable.Most people don’t even know about the Enlightenment. Try to find an unabridged copy of Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary. Betcha can’t do it. As I said in another post, I think most of you guys make a mistake in equating religion with theism. Religion is where people turn to meet very real needs, and Gods don’t have to be at the center of a religion. However, “No-God” cannot be to focus of one. Seems like Englishmen getting together for “no-tea.” Athiests, Agnostics and Poetic Pagans (for lack of a better term)could form a religion that would eventually exterminate the supernatural, if they shifted the focus from the childish theological issues to the real essence of religion.

  • Alex Weaver

    So, Joe, what exactly do you think the “real essence of religion” is then, if gods aren’t really relevant to it? (Or am I misreading it)

  • Joe Hardwick

    Gods have to do with the content of thought, whereas what I referred to as “the real essence of religion” has to do with the attitude with which any content might be thought.
    The experience of the sacred is an important part of that.
    “If I can build on James’ definition of belief as “the mental state or function of cognizing reality,” I think a critical role of religion is to influence “the mental state or function of cognizing significance.” More to the point, to give a social definition of the significant; to make us feel, rather than just think, the importance of something. Belief isn’t a discreet quality that is either there or not. Objects of thought have different opacities of belief, and are more are less real. And those things are more real that have greater significance to us. Or, those things are more real that we “realize” the significance of.
    Another function of what I consider the essence of religion is the sense of the social group as a group, rather than a collection of individuals. This is why I said, in another post, that religion and politics are coextensive. Now, you may deny this function. Many people think that the “need to belong” is a sign of weakness. I believe that man is naturally gregarious and is driven and bound to tribes by a psychological organ that is as functional to its purpose as the heart or lungs are to the body. We want to be among others who “believe as we believe, who love the things we love and hate the things we hate.” [loosely how Isocrates describes “those people who are more truly Helas”] So, I see it as a collection of the modi operandi of the human psyche’s fundamental property of gregariousness and the means by which the group defines – and induces the experience of – the sacred.
    There was another discussion on this blog where someone said that certain ancients didn’t have any religion, and Ebon said he wasn’t sure that he agreed. Again, I think the difficulty of untangling the question is best resolved by separating the content of thought from the attitude with which it is thought. The ancients who had no word for it had no occasion for one…they didn’t have non-religion.
    The question of whether religion is inherently superstitious really comes down to whether the pronouncement and experience of anything (be it a principle, or whatever) as sacred requires a supernatural justification. If it does, then the religious are addicted to the superstition, and can never escape it. The only way you can abolish the old lies is to listen to Ebon’s Tempter, and come staggering out of the woods with a far off stare in your eyes, talking about “I have been to the mountain,” proceeding to replace one set of lies with another. Obviously, I don’t think things need to be contrary to reason and experience to warrant a declaration of sanctity, reverence or whatever you wish to call it.
    Is Nothing Sacred?
    “Reason and free enquiry are the only effectual agents against error. Give a loose to them, they will support the true religion, by bringing every false one to their tribunal, to the test of their investigation. They are the natural enemies of error, and of error only.”….Thomas Jefferson
    Our right to do that warrants a declaration of the sacred, and I feel a moral imperative to pronounce it so. The world has not seen religiously devout Liberty fanatics. Lovers of Reason are like the scattered members of some broken tribe and too often in the war for social consciousness they look like Antony riding out alone to face Octavian’s legions.
    Anyway, it looks like you are making me work again, Alex…shame on you. ;)

  • Peter Fahy

    I have had an excellent atheistic year. I have read Paine’s Age of Reason three times, End of Faith by Harris and even Treatise On the Gods by Mencken, amongst many others. I must say that the biggest dogma in nearly all the atheist literature, apart from Harris, is the inabilty to consider metaphysics without God. The Greeks managed it and so do the Buddhists. The either/or thinking of Western atheists strikes me as lacking in real imagination- ie strong on logic and impoverished on vision. Dawkins (quite brilliant otherwise) doesn’t see that Big Bang theory is as big a leap of faith as creationism. After the Big Bang moment the rest of Evolutionism is just process and dodgy at that. Maybe this is why Harris’ book with its familiar arguments is so seductive, as it is colored by the author’s abilty to grasp a greater reality. Creationism or Evolutionism? Give me a break. It’s the old two party system again.