The Menace of Hipster Atheists

Over on One News Now, Peter Heck is very concerned, in a column entitled “As Atheism Rises, America Declines”. Like the Catholic apologists I wrote about earlier this week, Heck has noticed that atheists are making demographic gains – but his diagnosis of the cause leaves something to be desired:

A prosperous society built upon the back of the very values espoused in the Judeo-Christian worldview inevitably yields to satisfaction, complacency and arrogance – the belief that our material possessions, our comforts, our good fortune are all the result of our own hands.

Yes, and so what? Aren’t they?

Contra the Christians who seem to believe that these things just dropped out of the sky, our comforts are the product of human hands. When we survive disasters largely unscathed, it’s not because we have a dome of divine protection; it’s because we invested in resilient infrastructure. When we cure diseases, it’s not by anointing with holy oil; it’s because we did the hard work of scientific research ourselves. When we create new inventions that make our lives better, it’s always human beings who conceived the ideas and brought them to fruition. No god did any of these things for us. It’s no surprise that people become less religious as it becomes more apparent that religion has no connection to prosperity.

Soon it’s more than just not “needing” God for our provision. Man rebels against Him, and is offended by the mere suggestion of His authority.

As I’ve said many times, if God actually descended from the clouds and told us how he wanted us to live, we’d be having a very different debate. But that never happens in real life. What this actually means is that Heck and others like him want to claim divine authority for themselves – some human beings pretending to speak for God in order to boss other human beings around – and they get offended when, in our increasingly democratic society, we don’t just accept those assertions of superiority without question.

Granted, the number of “nones,” as these trendy hipsters like to call themselves, is not overwhelming, but it’s certainly higher than it should be if we were still a humble and rational people.

Hipster!

Yep, you heard right – we’re trendy hipsters! Atheism is the in thing, man! All the cool kids are doing it! It’s the latest fad, just like hot rods, dark glasses, and rock-n-roll music. (Who would’ve thought the older white men who make up a disproportionate share of the atheist movement were on the bleeding edge of the cultural zeitgeist?)

I think Heck’s problem is that he’s mistaken “new” for “trendy”. Because it’s an emerging cultural phenomenon, atheism is intrinsically interesting and newsworthy. But it’s not gaining numbers just because people want to get on the bandwagon. It’s gaining numbers because our arguments are winning, and people are increasingly rejecting unevidenced beliefs and prejudiced morality.

Christians certainly don’t believe that the massive preponderance of human beings since the dawn of creation who have believed in some form of Moral Authority, Designer, and/or Deity are wrong. We think they are 100-percent accurate in their basic understanding that there is Someone beyond us all.

Essentially, Heck is saying that it’s arrogant to deny any view held by a majority of human beings at that time. That’s an obviously fallacious appeal to popularity. That same reasoning could be used, and was used, to oppose the institution of democracy, the abolition of slavery, the granting of equal rights to women, the heliocentric model of the solar system, and any other ethical or scientific view that started out in the minority and had to fight for acceptance.

Now here’s the interesting part: even though his piece is titled “As Atheism Rises, America Declines”… Heck never gets around to explaining the “decline” part. In what ways has America declined? He treats it as self-evident that this is true, although he never gets around to listing a single specific example.

You could argue that atheism is responsible for America’s aggressive militarism, although I think you’d have a tough sell there. You could blame atheism for America’s vast inequality, but again, the immense untaxed wealth owned by preachers and churches also complicates the picture. You could also point out that America’s health-care system is awful compared to most advanced countries, except… well, you get the idea.

No, I suspect the “decline” Heck means to call attention to is that nowadays, gay people have too many rights and women who have sex aren’t punished harshly enough for it. It’s just another fond look backwards at the semi-mythical era when white Christian men were in charge and everyone else knew their place, or at least could be kept in their place. He may think it’s a sign of “decline” that Christians are losing their ability to dictate to others how they should live, but that’s just because every advance looks like a decline when your view of the world is backwards.

Image credit: Daniel Dennett, via Wikimedia Commons

About Adam Lee

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

  • David Hart

    Granted, the number of “nones,” as these trendy hipsters like to call themselves…

    “I’m a none” said no atheist I’ve ever heard of, ever.

  • http://stevebowen58.blogspot.co.uk/ Steve Bowen

    Do I get to be a “Hip” middle aged white man too, or is it only Americans?

  • Gunnar Tveiten

    The “decline” of civilization is frequently cited by alarmist conservative religious folks, but it’s seldom quite clear what they’re refereing to precisely.

    Infant mortality has never been lower. Maternal mortality is halved in the last two decades. The odds of dying from hunger are halved since the 80ies. The odds of dying as the result of violence is lower than it’s ever been. The odds of surviving to age 60+ is higher than it’s ever been. The average life-expectancy of a human being is higher than it’s ever been. The average material living-standard of humanity is higher than it’s ever been.

    So which decline are they refering to ?

    Like Adam, I too suspect that what they *actually* mean, is a decline in the arbitrary ethics they believe in. And an increase in people following their own head, and doing what they themselves find sensible, rather than what some old men *claim* that God wants them to do.

  • Steven Carr

    ‘A prosperous society built upon the back of the very values espoused in the Judeo-Christian worldview…’

    What is the Judeo-Christian worldview? Is that the one which says Jesus is the Messiah, or the one which says Jesus is not the Messiah?

    HECK
    The very fact that an atheist can argue about the laws of science “proving” there is no God, is actually proof in and of itself that He must exist

    CARR
    Oh I see. It all makes sense if you speak ‘gibberish’.

    HECK
    This culminates in an inevitable downward slouch that has accompanied so many great civilizations of the past.

    CARR
    The Holy Roman Empire – gone.
    The Kingdom of Israel, built on worshipping God – gone.
    Even the British Empire, ruled over by the Defender of the Faith – gone. Americans even fought us to stop us having colonies.

    If only those people had been more religious, America could now be part of a Holy Roman Empire, or at least still be under British rule.

  • Friendly guy

    Heck writes:
    “The very fact that an atheist can argue about the laws of science “proving” there is no God, is actually proof in and of itself that He must exist.”

    Can someone explain this sentence to me? If I argue that something doesn’t exist, it exists?

    Listen, if you want to believe something for which there is no evidence, that’s fine. But call it what it is: faith. Reason, in contrast, is based on logic and evidence. If there is no evidence for a phemenon, there is no rational reason for assuming its existence.

    Heck does a lot of name-calling in this article. But this example of mean-spiritedness, perhaps, is part of the reason why the church is no longer relevant for many people.

  • Rieux

    Adam:

    [Atheism i]s gaining numbers because our arguments are winning, and people are increasingly rejecting unevidenced beliefs and prejudiced morality.

    The second clause there is a basically accurate statement of fact—but how much do we think that effect owes to the first clause’s cited cause? How much do we think the recent rises in the numbers of (1) willing-to-identify-themselves-as atheists and (2) “nones” more broadly… owe to atheists’ arguments, as such? (Other candidates for significant contributing cause, for example, are the happy societal trends cited in Gunnar’s comment above, which are expanded upon in vastly more detail in Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, a terrific book that Adam reviewed here.)

    Adam being Adam, I bet he’s written an essay or two on this somewhere… but what do Daylight Atheism commenters think? Are atheism and irreligion burgeoning because people are being swayed by the arguments of Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, Myers, Lee, et (many) al.? Or is it mainly other factors?

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    He may think it’s a sign of “decline” that Christians are losing their ability to dictate to others how they should live

    Adam, for the likes of Heck, it’s more than decline. When the government pushes policies that go against the religious beliefs of fundies, it’s tantamount amount to persecution.

    @Rieux, it’s probably a combination of factors. Some people are being turned off of religion because of the intolerance that is preached. Others may be closet atheists or on the fence who do feel more comfortable declaring themselves because other atheists are now more outspoken, as well as the prevalence of atheist blogs where they realize they are not alone.

    I haven’t read Pinker’s book, though I have seen it posited in some places that religion thrives when people are in crisis, particularly people who were raised in a particular religion even if they never had practiced their faith seriously before. Religion is always there in the background though, ready to be tapped at a moment’s notice in case of emergency. That might be why some religious conservatives oppose government social service programs, because they would rather people in distress have no option but to turn to churches for help.

  • plutosdad

    Well it’s not the result of MY own hands, it’s people who came before me. Of course, if I think about that, it means I owe debts to other people, and should pay taxes and help the poor, and contribute to society so the next generation of people can be better off.

    But when Christians want to say we owe everything to God instead, that is a convenient way for them to also get out of directly helping others, a way for them to argue to lower taxes and lower medicaid and welfare and even food for poor people. In fact we hear that argument constantly from our religious politicians on the Right. Because we don’t owe other people, we would only owe God then.

    It is also a way of abdicating responsibility. Rick Perry and other politicians even advocate prayer to solve our economic problems, instead of the politicians actually doing their jobs.

    Not only that, but that kind of thinking, where we thank God INSTEAD of the people who built things (rather than in addition to, or not at all) also leads to the bizarre Prosperity Gospel that is popular now, where wealthy preachers fleece their flocks and tell them “donate to me and god will send you more money in return”

  • http://godsdeconstructed.wordpress.com Roger Ivan Hart

    Atheism has always been and always will be iconoclastic. Yet atheism is not anti-religion, as some theists (and some atheists) like to insist. Some atheists may not like to consider it, some think that atheism is more than it is, but atheism is very specific. It is ‘not-theism’.
    As theism has become more complex so has the complexity of what atheism rejects. But atheism cannot seek to replace theism, it remains iconoclastic. Atheism is destructive, not constructive. And atheism is not a worldview.
    Theists who insist atheism cannot replace theism are correct. But they are very, very wrong to compare atheism with theism as theism IS a worldview. So what does atheism reject and what doesn’t it? Atheism is not anti-religious in that the concept of a supernatural supreme being is not specifically rejected. There is a worldview that rejects the whole notion of the supernatural but it is not atheism. What atheism does reject is the WORSHIP of a supernatural, supreme being. To an atheist, the very idea of worshipping something that is considered man-made and fictitious, in other words a god, is ridiculous beyond belief.
    So what can replace theism? Some say secularism. But secularism is not a worldview; secularism merely calls for the separation of politics and religion. Also, secularism does not reject theism, just insists on separation. Buddhism rejects the concept of a supreme being but still invokes the supernatural so for those atheists who also reject the supernatural it is not all-encompassing. Religions like Hinduism are polytheistic, the worship of many gods, so Hinduism cannot be considered. Deism may be acceptable to some atheists, except that in developing arguments against theism many, if not most, atheists come to reject the supernatural in its entirety, even though that rejection is not strictly atheistic. At present, the only truly non-theistic, non-supernatural worldview is humanism. Yet some atheists reject humanism on the grounds that it is seen to replace a supernatural supreme being with something natural and supreme, the human being.
    The fact is that a completely new non-theistic, non-supernatural worldview will be required to satisfy those atheists who reject humanism. Atheism+ is a start but including the word atheism is always going to be derided by theists as iconoclastic and destructive. Until a worldview to replace theism that is accepted by the majority of atheists is developed, and with a name that is not going to be derided, I fear atheists will continue to be liable to attack by theists with some degree of authenticity.

  • Bdole

    America is declining.
    As America becomes less religious, we decline
    to kow-tow to the theocratic impulses of a large and vocal minority
    to relegate gays to 2nd-class status
    to force women to carry unwanted (by everyone) embryos to term
    to treat pseudoscientific nonsense with respect by teaching it to kids instead of actual science

    and on and on. I hope we keep declining all the bullshit on offer.

  • Pattrsn

    The very fact that an atheist can argue about the laws of science “proving” there is no God, is actually proof in and of itself that He must exist.

    Could someone argue that a bank account under my name with a million dollars in it doesn’t exist? Make that two and we’ll split it.

  • OverlappingMagisteria

    The very fact that an atheist can argue about the laws of science “proving” there is no God, is actually proof in and of itself that He must exist.

    Friendly Guy:
    What Heck is alluding to here is either presuppositional apologetics or the transcendental argument. (The two are similar in many ways and there’s not enough context to tell which one he is talking about.)
    Basically, these assert that the very laws of logic and science need some sort of underlying basis and this basis is God. I am not aware of any justification as to why the answer must be God other than “becaaauuuse it just has to be!”

    So when an atheist uses logic, reasoning, or science, she is actually proving God’s existence. If there was no god, there would be no logic and tomato faraway twisting breading nine pants.

  • Azkyroth

    I don’t believe in a really obscure god. You’ve probably never heard of Him.

  • Paul

    every advance looks like a decline when your view of the world is backwards.

    I like that phrasing a lot. Hope the blockquote tags worked.

  • Adam Lee

    @Rieux:

    How much do we think the recent rises in the numbers of (1) willing-to-identify-themselves-as atheists and (2) “nones” more broadly… owe to atheists’ arguments, as such?

    I actually haven’t written about this, that I recall. Maybe a topic for a future post… although I know that Greta Christina did write about it, and did an informal survey which found that a surprisingly large percentage of ex-believers on her site said that atheist arguments were a major factor in changing their minds.

    I’d be interested to see a scientific survey of this, if anyone ever had the resources to do one. I’d predict that philosophical arguments per se would be found most influential when it comes to people who are actively part of the atheist movement, whereas our increasing degree of social organization or broader ethical progress would be more of a factor for those who are apathetically non-theist.

    @Pattersn:

    Could someone argue that a bank account under my name with a million dollars in it doesn’t exist? Make that two and we’ll split it.

    I think apologist logic can be of use here. Clearly, if I had a Swiss bank account in my name with a billion dollars in it, that would be the greatest thing ever. But if that account existed only in my imagination, it wouldn’t be as great as an account that existed both in my imagination and in reality. Therefore, the fact that I can imagine this account proves that it must exist!

    So when an atheist uses logic, reasoning, or science, she is actually proving God’s existence. If there was no god, there would be no logic and tomato faraway twisting breading nine pants.

    I don’t believe in a really obscure god. You’ve probably never heard of Him.

    I can’t choose a favorite between these two, so I declare OverlappingMagisteria and Azkyroth the joint winners of this thread.

  • http://avoiceinthewilderness-mcc1789.blogspot.com Michael

    “As I’ve said many times, if God actually descended from the clouds and told us how he wanted us to live, we’d be having a very different debate. ”

    I know you’ve written on that specifically before, but can’t remember where. It’s something I’ve thought about, personally, and imagined a world in which God really was known by all people, along with the divine Law. The question becomes, what happens if people conclude this Law is barbarous, such as by sanctioning despotism, slavery and so on? Would they rebel against it, even if their struggle was a Quixotic “fight the unbeatable foe” one? I think some would, and thus something of a noble Satanism (Satan is “enemy” in Hebrew, i.e. enemy of God) arises. Doomed, perhaps, but no less moral.

  • Richard T

    Rieux, what happened for me was that the vast structure of beliefs that traditional religion wanted me to maintain in my mind turned out to be so heavy it collapsed under its own weight. Science was just … neater.

    The arguments came later. I was in preschool when this happened.

  • cipher

    One News Now – seriously? One has to be a certified moron to be a contributor there. The mean IQ of its readership is well below the three-digit line. I wouldn’t waste my time.

  • Nonnie

    Whatever, I was totally into atheism before it was cool. (before it went all commercial and mainstream..)

  • Tony

    I too see a deep thread of presuppositionalism in Heck’s original article. Of course, presuppositionalism is great for Christians as it is a great way of insulating themselves from the truth. Some other great lines in the original were…
    “Obviously, when it comes to the claims of Jesus of Nazareth, Christians believe we have it right and others are wrong. But it is wholly inaccurate to suggest that Christians think they alone are right on the most fundamental question there is, and that everyone else is wrong”.

    Eh? What? Does Heck actually read what he writes?

  • LindaJoy

    I think Heck’s analogy of the driver in four lane traffic going the wrong way is all off. From an atheist’s point of view, the scenario is more like religionists as lemmings heading for the cliff, and the atheist warning them that there is NOTHING up ahead but a great big FALL.

  • ORAXX

    If religion equaled morality, then the middle-east would be like Disneyland…the happiest place on earth, and our prisons would be overflowing with atheists.

  • sailor1031

    “A prosperous society built upon the back of the very values espoused in the Judeo-Christian worldview inevitably yields to satisfaction, complacency and arrogance,….”

    Well then, if it’s the inevitable consequence of those values the “decline” must be the will of doG – must it not?


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