A Passionate Atheism

The new generation of bold and outspoken atheists, including Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, are making waves in society with numerous media appearances, a welcome change of pace from the media’s previous policy of steadfast refusal to cover freethought and nonbelief. (Some things are slower to change than others – despite Time Newsweek‘s praiseworthy coverage of a debate between Sam Harris and Rick Warren, the conversation was a clear example of the “Gish Gallop”, where the theist throws out as many rapid-fire assertions as possible knowing the atheist will not have time or space to rebut all of them.)

It isn’t yet possible to tell what long-term effects will result from this bold call for reason. I have no doubt that Harris, Dawkins and others will win many new deconverts, but the ripple effects of their speech have not yet finished spreading, and the full impact may not be visible for some years. Nevertheless, it seems clear that some theists are already feeling the heat. Witness a recent column by John Avant, vice president for evangelization at the Southern Baptist North American Mission Board, titled Our real problem:

I just read one of the great evangelistic books of our day — “Letters to a Christian Nation” by Sam Harris. It is an evangelistic masterpiece. Harris has invested years of his life preparing to write this book. He is so passionate about sharing his faith with others that he took the time to write a defense of his faith and publish it for the whole world to read. They are reading it, and it is becoming a national best-seller. Harris is bold. He realizes that everyone is open to talk about faith these days, and so while most of us stay silent, he speaks loudly and clearly to all of the importance of his faith, which he says is intellectually defensible and exclusive.

…I admire Sam Harris. I know that may shock you, but how can you not appreciate the passion he has?

… This is the second passionate book written by an atheist that I have read recently. I am beginning to wonder if atheists are becoming more serious about their faith that leads to nothing than Christians are about their faith that leads to everything.

And while Harris is spreading the good news of atheism with fire and passion, Avant worries that Christianity is losing ground:

… We are not reaching truly unreached people, and most of our churches look more like religious clubs for their members rather than mission forces for Christ’s kingdom. A study by New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary’s Leavell Center for Evangelism and Church Health showed that only 11 percent of SBC churches are healthy and growing… Too many churches reach few if any people other than their own children or those from other churches.

Meanwhile, from 1991-2004 the number of unchurched adults in America rose from 39 million to 79 million. And we are doing worse with young people, with 39 percent of Southern Baptist churches in 2005 reporting baptizing no teens.

Granted, Avant throws in the obligatory attacks on atheism, claiming that “If I really believed what he believed, I would be in despair. I would be living every moment in emptiness and maybe even terror”. He steadfastly ignores the obvious fact that Harris and other atheists do not feel that way, implying that he is mistaken in his understanding of what atheism entails – like the hypothetical scientist who boasts he has mathematically proven that bees cannot fly.

Nevertheless, the evidence suggests that Avant is right to be worried. Consider the following Pew poll, which shows a measurable decline in overall American religious devotion. Even better, the survey concludes that “this change appears to be generational in nature, with each new generation displaying lower levels of religious commitment than the preceding one.” In particular, the generation born since 1977 (my generation – I’m happy to do my part!) has almost four times as many atheists as those born before 1945:

As the polls suggest, this shift has been going on more or less invisibly for some time. Sam Harris and people like him are probably more a symptom of this social change than they are a cause of it. But social changes can be self-catalyzing, with a group’s increasing numbers giving rise to forceful spokespeople and increased political organization that further accelerate its growth. (Notice, too, how many Gen-X and Gen-Y families are abandoning church in favor of more meaningful family and social activities.)

I have one more poll to report on: a Newsweek poll finding that the country is still overwhelmingly Christian, to no one’s surprise. Nevertheless, there is one fact that caught my eye:

The poll further found that 47 percent of respondents felt the country is more accepting of atheists today than before and 49 percent said they personally know an atheist.

It is hard not to notice that the latter figure is almost exactly the same as the proportion of people who say they would vote for an atheist candidate for president. And like the earlier figure, this one too is generational, with younger generations reporting significantly higher percentages who know and accept atheists than older age groups. All this suggests that, in order to grow our ranks and become more accepted, the most important thing we need to do is to simply speak out and make people around us aware of our existence. This should be music to any atheist’s ears!

What could be the cause of this explosive growth? One likely factor cited by one of the earlier polls is the increasing education of the post-war generations. Surveys have consistently found that the more educated a person is, the less likely they are to hold religious beliefs, especially fundamentalist or literalist beliefs.

In addition, I think another important factor is that atheism has nowhere to go but up. Christianity has literally reached saturation point in our society; it has nowhere left to spread to. It is so pervasive that a great number of people are nominally Christian not because they truly believe the religion or know a great deal about it, but because it is the cultural and social default. As a result, there are many frustrated freethinkers who have been brought up within the Christian tradition but are dissatisfied with it and want a better alternative. These people are the “low-hanging fruit”, the ones we can easily win over if we just make them aware of our existence and our mission. Until recently atheism lacked an effective voice in society and the media, and these people were not reached. Now we are beginning to reach them. Who knows how many more potential Sam Harrises and Richard Dawkinses there may still be – people who could become passionate and effective advocates for atheism, if only we can bring the spark to kindle their latent disbelief into a full-blown flame of enthusiasm for rationality and mental freedom?

Atlas Shrugged: Bring Me a New Black Guy
Why Atheism Is a Force for Good
A Christian vs. an Atheist: On God and Government, Part 11
New on the Guardian: Beyond Debating God’s Existence
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.

  • Alex Weaver

    And just think, in another generation or two theists might for the most part stop doing idiotic things like labeling atheism a “faith.”

    I’ve been somewhat lax in terms of monetary donations (something I’ll have to talk over with my wife when I get back from field work) but I have tactfully (usually) but unapologetically stated my position and rebuked insipid theology in general, and creationism in particular, almost any time either came up.

    As for future generations, I can’t imagine my daughter growing up with a religious belief, in a home where the father is an atheist and the mother clings to the shreds of a nominally Catholic upbringing solely out of a past feeling of community and an ongoing (pathologically intense, frankly) fear of death, even though I’m making no effort to “indoctrinate” her with a positive lack of god-belief. I’m already making a point of giving her explanations for things–not just how they work, but when I tell her not to do something, I explain why: “Joey, NO! Don’t touch the stove dial! If you turn the gas on but we don’t run the stove it could cause an explosion, and if it’s running and no one’s watching it could start a fire.” “Joey, NO! Don’t pull leaves off that plant; it needs them or else it’ll die.” Etc. I’m trying to model the idea that people should have good reasons for the demands they make and orders they give, and should be able and willing to articulate them. I’d have brought this up in the atheist parenting thread if I hadn’t gotten sidetracked rebuking insipid theology. x.x

  • Terrence

    DITTO. As David Mills wrote, “I’ve always found it intriguing that Christians attempt to slander atheism by calling it a religion. They seem to be saying, Look, you atheists are just as irrational as we are!”

    What could be the cause of this explosive growth?

    Easy- 2 or 3 thousand years ago you’d have to be an idiot to be an atheist. God was everywhere, and none too concerned about the effect on our free will. Parting oceans, turning wives into salt and sticks into serpents, talking out of burning bushes, engraving rules on stones, raining food out of the sky, resurrecting people, resurrecting Himself, and on and on. As Ebon has remarked elsewhere, today about the best He can do is appearing in vague likeness on a sticky bun.

  • Darren

    The first quote seems to be a thinly-veiled attempt to defuse atheism by repeatedly referring to it as a faith, and imply that it should be treated as another religion, i.e. ignored. Perhaps it views it as more of a threat than he is prepared to admit?

  • anti-nonsense

    I think many theists do indeed see the mere existence of atheists as a “threat” to their beliefs. Which makes me wonder how strong their beliefs really are, and if a lot of them are desperately clinging to old beliefs out of fear and they don’t really believe, deeply, what they claim to believe. Maybe they attack us because they are insecure in their own position. Just a thought.

  • Josh

    Not to pick, but I believe Newsweek mediated the debate and published it. Time covered the debate between Richard Dawkins and Francis Collins.

    I find myself defending atheism and science more with every book I read. Just the other day I had a very long phone conversation with my oldest brother about evolution. He acknowledged it happens but he doesn’t think it accounts for everything (“There’s GOT to be more to it than that.”). I think it is only because he hasn’t read up on it. I too once shared his opinion. During this last year I told my whole family I’m an atheist. They still love me but of course they think I’m wrong. Occasionally I’ll bring it up out of hope of furthering their understanding. If there’s one thing I can’t stand it is being misunderstood, and atheism is definitely no exception.

  • Polly

    I wish I could see into the future. I’m quite certain these trends indicate a coming era when the Default Position will be the cultural/societal default as well. Looking at Europe and Canada, I may live to see it in the West, but definitely not in the world as a whole.

    anti-nonsense: “I think many theists do indeed see the mere existence of atheists as a “threat” to their beliefs.”

    HA! True, but what about the billions of other theists who are oh-so-close to the “truth” by acknowledging the existence of SOME deity? They (fundamentalists) blithely condemn to Hell far greater numbers of other theists than there are atheists in the world.
    You’d think that that would give them pause, but amazingly it doesn’t! Billions in HELL doesn’t even phase most of them. Which is why I cannot understand the Xian-Jewish(Israel) political partnerships. Xians believe the conservative Jews they work with in politics and culture are GOING TO HELL while at the very same time, supporting them as the Chosen People of God and even proclaiming God’s favor on them and also on those who help the state of Israel. How awful! (the Hell part I mean)
    Even Islam has some of this; it accords “people of the Book” at least some facade of respect. But, if Hell is real, what difference does it make if you’re close but “out”?

  • John Craig

    I’m only 18 years old, part of that “since 1977″ age group. I grew up in a highly religious family. My father is an Elder, my mother ordained as a “Prophet”. It goes without saying that breaking away from childhood indoctrination, and beliefs that I held as truth and sacred, isn’t exactly easy. Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, two individuals that are intelligent and passionate, are paving the way for individuals such as myself that seek to liberate ourselves from the chains of religious thinking. As the years pass by, I can only hope that one day I’ll truly be as free from religion as my parents are free to express their own. I fully agree with Josh’s dislike for being misunderstood. It’s part of why it’s so difficult for me to sit down and discuss my feelings with my family. As bit of an aside, I do enjoy reading this ‘blog’, as well as Ebon Musings.

  • Javaman

    Great post! I am a high school psychology teacher. Part of my course involves teaching evolutionary psychology (my choice). Three weeks ago, the New York Times Magazine ran a cover story, “Why We Believe.” It was all about how societies artifically create belief in dieties which can be easily explained by the architecture of the brain. When I proposed reproducing and distributing this article in my class, my principal denied me because he did not want to upset religious parents in the district. It only takes one nut job to create an uproar.
    My school has an after-school bible club on school property, sponsored by a teacher who teaches the bible (yes, this is allowed). I am thinking of proposing to my principal an after-school atheist club. I think I know what the answer is going to be. If we want to reach the next generation and expand our atheist footprint within society, young people, whose beliefs systems are forming, need to be reached. Number two–the strange phenomena that I experience in class when I talk about atheism (in a scientific challenge to religion), I find that the vast majority of kids are atheists, and they need a role model to validate their secret beliefs and come out of the closet. I am happy to report that flipping that switch is relatively easy. I know that Ebonmusings has frequently discussed organizing atheists. This I believe should be our next direction–reaching the high school population.

  • Polly

    Isn’t it ironic that while fundies are complaining about persecution in schools, Javaman can’t distribute scientific articles in a SCIENCE class? That just produced a really odd image in my imagination.

    Still, I wonder…this is all well and good, but are we going to end up becoming the Evil Atheist Conspirators that Ebon joked about on his parent site. The last thing the world needs to become is a mission field for yet more proselytizers. I don’t think we should push for Atheism (capital A), per se, but for reason, rationality, and fearless inquiry. The evils of religion are not god-belief itself but the side effects of irrationality that go along with it.

    I do think the Bible should be taught in schools – in literature or ancient philosophy classes. Only becuase many classic works refer to it so much. I regret not knowing more about the Greco-Roman Pantheon and other myths when I come across such references in literature and poetry.
    (Okay, I’m talking too much today. Tomorrow, I’m switching to decaf)

  • http://atheistself.blogspot.com David W.

    Javaman, BEST of luck with your after school atheism club concept. I really hope that turns out. I think the best shot we have right now for being accepted by the majority of the nation is for people to realize how many of us there really are. In my state, Kansas, “no religion” is the second largest group, second on to Catholic and larger than Baptist. 15x the number of Jews (as a religion). But I doubt anyone would guess that. If we can spread the idea that we actually exist, we will be making some ground.

  • CJ

    I know this has been said many times before elsewhere on here (not sure where), but one of the most effective ways to spread atheism is to tell people to read the entire Bible, not just the parts covered in Sunday School. I imagine religion has become too complacent to withstand the backlash that would result from all the Christians and Jews in the world suddenly finding out about such lovely stories as the rape and dismemberment of a concubine in Judges 19.

  • http://blog.dmcleish.id.au Shishberg

    Christianity has literally reached saturation point in our society; it has nowhere left to spread to. It is so pervasive that a great number of people are nominally Christian not because they truly believe the religion or know a great deal about it, but because it is the cultural and social default.

    Just to go off on a complete and utter tangent for a second… It’s interesting that, in American society, the Christian “mission” is essentially done – there are very few people who haven’t heard of Jesus, and almost everyone who’s ever going to believe in him already do. If they really want every church to be “healthy and growing”, their only real options are to

    • send missionaries to unsaturated countries,
    • have children and raise them as Christians, or
    • call other churches “lost” and poach members from them.

    I can’t help but think that this explains a lot.

  • Korey

    John Avant: “If I really believed what he believed, I would be in despair. I would be living every moment in emptiness and maybe even terror”.

    This quote really says a lot about some religious believers. Belief for them is a desperate flight from fear. They seek to fill up their own emptiness with a belief in god. Belief assuages their terror in the face of an incomprehensible universe.

  • James Bradbury

    So if extremist is becomming more commonplace and church numbers are falling is it fair to say that belief is polarising?

    Is this an effect of the moderates getting fed up and leaving the churches, leaving no one to stand up and say, “That’s outrageous!” when the remaining fundies float some new abomination on the sea of church ears?

    It seems like there’s a positive feedback mechanism going on.

    1. Fundies step a little over the line of average church opinion.
    2. Moderates leave church in disgust.
    3. Average church opinion swings towards fundy.
    4. Goto 1.

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

    So if extremist is becomming more commonplace and church numbers are falling is it fair to say that belief is polarising?

    I think that is exactly the case. I wrote a post last summer, “Receding Waters“, about the growth of ultra-conservative American megachurches – a disturbing trend, but one that can be better appreciated when placed in context, namely that the overall number of Christians as a share of America’s population is declining, while the number of nonbelievers is increasing.

    This trend is visible not just in religion, but in politics as well: more and more, the true believers are retreating into their own private world and pulling up the drawbridge behind them, even as the society around them becomes more liberal and more secular. I think the increasingly strong evidence that their views have failed is persuading the fundamentalists to become more insular and only to talk to each other, but the rest of us can see quite clearly what they would prefer not to acknowledge.

  • Bill D. Johnston

    If atheists are so passionate about their disbelief, then they should be honest and characterize it as more than an absence of belief.
    Said position is redefinition of terms and is a cop out.

  • Jenyfer

    At first I thought being passionate about my atheism seems like being passionate about by lack of belief in unicorns.

    But actually, given the inherent authoritarian aspects of most conceptions of God, I think the idea of a Supreme Daddy-figure is psychologically and morally crippling–and that being against it might be worth some passion.

  • AtheistCrusader

    I don’t think you understand atheism beyond perhaps it’s dictionary definition, Mr. Johnston. On Atheism as a “Faith”, I sent this to a co-worker yesterday, in a longer discussion about the merits (or rather lack of such) of Intelligent Design:

    “Growing up, my parents never really talked about religion. My father was a Catholic, and my mother was a Protestant. My father was frustrated with the Catholic church over the baptism of my brother and I, due to the fact that my mother was Protestant, so the subject just never really came up. It’s not that I was trained as a child to mistrust, or disbelieve in religion of any sort, just that no one really told me about it. I had some idea that some kids went to church and some believed in this ‘god’ thing that didn’t really make any sense to me, but beyond that I had no exposure to it. So as far back as Kindergarten, when we would say the Pledge Of Allegiance, I can clearly recall never saying ‘under god’. I was just quiet when other kids said it. A rational decision of my own, that far back. No one ever noticed. I can still tell you which corner of the room the flag hung in, I remember having to use wooden clothes pins to scrape crayon off the metal fronts of desks as punishment for drawing on the desk, the quick voice of my slow-moving teacher, my green, ‘Husky’ pencil, etc. I still retain it all with pretty good detail. Imagine my surprise to find out as a Teenager, that the Pledge as I said it, was actually its original form! (Pre-1956)

    At this time, no one ever told me not to believe in god, to my knowledge. No one ever told me that I should believe either, so I applied my own limited reasoning powers, and found this concept of ‘god’ unimportant, or the stuff of mythology. Around that time I had read a lot of Greek, Roman, and Norse mythology, and I considered that they could not all be true at the same time, and that no apparent evidence existed to support any of them as true, so I discarded them all as entertainment, not fact, and moved on. As a kid, I tried to read the entire library of my elementary school. A-Z, nonfiction, to fiction. I made a pretty good dent in it too. Like a lot of parents worry their kids play too much video games, as a kid my parents worried that I read too much.

    Today, I am not “hostile” to the possibility of a supreme being that created everything around us. I just don’t see any evidence of it. I don’t need it to help explain the world around me. I classify Religion like you might classify the supernatural, like tarot cards, or UFO’s, or maybe even a faith that might seem silly to you, like Scientology, or Norse Mythology. I don’t believe the supernatural is impossible, but I consider it highly improbable, or unsupported by any evidence I can see in the world around me.”

    In summary, a lack of faith (I would say ‘blind faith’ but you would probably take it as a insult, when I do not mean it as such) is not a faith of it’s own. Two sentences:

    I do not believe your god exists.
    I believe your god does not exist.

    Do these two sentences say the same thing to you?

  • AtheistCrusader

    Wow, I just realized I responded to an ancient thread. Sorry.

  • Bob

    Atheism is a faith like not collecting stamps is a hobby. :)

  • posterelli

    Keep in mind that Atheism is the only consistent answer to the mythologies that exist.
    Atheism says that they are all wrong, but the religions say they are correct, meaning no other is correct.
    Thus Atheism would be the most logical choice.