The New Atheism Is Not Gone Yet

Professor Byron R. McCane is chair of the Religion Department at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. I don’t know what it takes to earn that title, but it can’t be much. In an opinion piece for The State newspaper, he shows his complete ignorance about atheism in America.

New atheism looked like the wave of the future. But not anymore. “Religulous” got mixed reviews and disappeared quickly. Rebuttals to Dawkins, Dennett and Hitchens have appeared, culminating with Karen Armstrong’s new book, The Case for God. Sales of atheist books have fallen off the charts, literally. Months have gone by since one appeared on the best-seller list.

Wow. The books by those atheist authors were on the bestsellers list for months at a time, each of them (some even longer), but now that it’s been a few years and they’re no longer on it, that’s a sign of the decline of atheism?

Not at all. Every book has a shelf life. At some point, the people who are going to read it have read it, and new sales go down.

There is a lull right now, but more books about atheism are on their way, by a multitude of newer atheist authors, exploring new niches in the atheism genre: parenting, dating, celebrating holidays, etc.

We’re only at the beginning stages of a surge.

Why did the new atheists falter so quickly? Because they ignored important facts about religion in America today.

First, they dramatically overestimated the number of unbelievers.

McCane cites stats we’ve seen before, that say the percentage of atheists is low. That’s not surprising. Part of the reason for the low numbers includes the fact that “atheist” still has negative connotations. Some people who are atheists are afraid to say so — or simply don’t know that they are.

He ignores the 2007 study of Generation Next which stated that 20% of adults under the age of 25 have “no religious affiliation.”

The membership of atheist organizations like the Freedom From Religion Foundation is higher now than ever before and they’re showing no signs of dropping.

The number of atheist Meetup groups is proliferating and the Secular Student Alliance has more groups now than at any time in our nearly 10-year history.

Second, the new atheists thought that books about science and logic would convince Americans to stop believing in God.

I don’t think any of the atheist authors believed that America was about to stop being religious because of their books.

But seeds have been planted. People are talking about religion moreso now than ever before. Atheists who were previously closeted are coming out and saying so. The more that happens, the easier it’ll be for everyone else. We’re less afraid of questioning religious dogma than we were before.

Give it some time. The tide will turn.

Yet the new atheists’ biggest mistake, by far, was to be openly intolerant of religion. They mocked, derided and made fun of it. But Americans today are overwhelmingly committed to religious tolerance.

Not surprisingly, McCane doesn’t give a single example of this “intolerance.”

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with pointing out how ridiculous religious beliefs are — some more than others. We should continue to do that, while sympathizing with those who sincerely believe them. We need to start discussions about religion that many people are afraid to have.

Religious tolerance means people have a right to believe what they want. No atheist is trying to take that away.

We’re perfectly welcome to point out that those beliefs make no sense, though. And we will continue to do that.

Our best bet is to get people questioning why they believe what they do. I’m not convinced that all religious believers have ever truly thought about the reasons they hold their beliefs. And for many people, I don’t think “the Bible says so” will cut it.

Some atheists do this with sarcasm; others make a sincere effort to talk to religious people.

But “intolerance”? Did we beat up religious believers? Did we ever try to take away their right to pray?

Never.

The new atheism is over and done, and its angry tone of voice will not be missed. But a kinder, gentler and (most of all) wiser atheism should be able to find its niche as one option among many in the spiritual marketplace.

I have no idea what the hell that means. What is “kinder, gentler, wiser” atheism? The author says “there is plenty of room for atheist groups that can attract seekers by presenting unbelief as a practical option along life’s way.”

Which is exactly what atheist groups do. The billboards, the bus ads, the books — probably all examples of “intolerant atheism” to this guy — they all point out that living without God is a practical option and there’s nothing wrong with it.

Part of making that convincing, though, is telling people why their current religious beliefs are not worth keeping. It requires pointing out why they don’t make sense and why people need to “break the spell.”

You can’t do the former without the latter.

And if anyone wants to explain what McCane suggestion of tolerant atheism being a “thoughtful expression of principled religious dissent” means, I’d love to hear it.

  • SarahH

    And if anyone wants to explain what McCane suggestion of tolerant atheism being a “thoughtful expression of principled religious dissent” means, I’d love to hear it.

    He means shutting up about being an atheist, or writing books like Unscientific America, which scapegoat atheists and argue that we should sacrifice academic honesty and integrity in order to appease the religious.

    Let’s hear some books titles he might approve of, eh?

    “The God Idea: It’s Really Great, and Even Thought I Don’t Share It, I’m Thrilled That It’s Out There!”

    “I Don’t Believe He Exists, But God Sounds Totally Great!”

    “Why Atheists Should Sit Back and Enjoy Government-Sponsored Religious Activities and Displays”

  • http://scaryreasoner.wordpress.com SteveC

    “Not at all. Every book has a shelf life.”

    So… uh, what’s the shelf life of the Bible?

    Shouldn’t it have expired by now? :) (it certainly stinks.)

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Hemant Mehta

    So… uh, what’s the shelf life of the Bible?

    Shouldn’t it have expired by now? :) (it certainly stinks.)

    There’s a reason they keep coming out with “newer and cooler” versions of the Bible very year.

    Same ideas, different versions. When one gets outdated, you have to make it “hipper.”

  • http://hoverfrog.wordpress.com hoverfrog

    Richard Dawkins’ The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution is available on pre-order now. Thank you Professor Byron R. McCane for reminding me that I hadn’t placed my order yet. I also hear rumours that Hemant Mehta is planning a new book.

    That aside I think that he’s completely missed the point. New Atheists (which I’m now planning on adopting to describe myself) are vocal about the harm that religion does. The nuanced subtle faith of liberal arts college professors isn’t something that we attack. Instead it is the idiocy of praying over children while they die rather than seek medical help. It is the madness of hijacking planes and murdering thousands with them while believing that a martyr’s death will reward you with 72 white raisins (or virgins) in the afterlife. It is the anti education policies of creationists and fundamentalist politicians. It is the sexism and homophobia of mainstream faith that denies basic freedoms and rights to millions all over the world.

    Oh yeah, New Atheism is openly intolerant of religion. We have good reason to be intolerant. Why does McCane seem to think that we should tolerate bigotry in the name of religion?

  • GT

    @ Hemant, I’ve got a copy of the The Adventure Bible (NIV) with a shiny hologram hardcover and pictures throughout its pages. I thought it was funny that someone would try to portray the Bible in such a way.
    @SarahH, Totally agree. It’s strange that some theists call atheists intolerant and in the same sentence tell us to shut up and stay out of the way.

  • Richard Wade

    Vulcanism is dead on Earth. Toba nearly wiped out humanity, but that was 74,000 years ago. Tambora killed 90,000 in 1815, Krakatau killed 36,000 in 1883, Pelee killed 30,000 in 1902, and Mount Saint Helens only killed 57 in 1980. The death toll is dropping off the charts, literally. It’s all over but the rumbling. Months can go by between eruptions in Alaska, or the South Pacific, or Europe, or South America, or Indonesia. Pay no attention to the recent surge of magma quakes in Yellowstone. That’s just hype. Nothing to worry about any more. Go back to sleep.

  • Justin jm

    Vulcanism is dead on Earth.

    When I started reading this, I first thought you were taking a crack at Star Trek.

    And if anyone wants to explain what McCane suggestion of tolerant atheism being a “thoughtful expression of principled religious dissent” means, I’d love to hear it.

    The more suspicious part of my mind thinks that he wants us to act like Nietsche wannabes in order to be considered “thoughtful.” If we dare claim that morality and meaning exist without a God then we’re considered arrogant for not conforming to apologists’ carefully crafted stereotypes.

  • http://logofveritas.blogspot.net Veritas

    Same ideas, different versions. When one gets outdated, you have to make it “hipper.”

    Coming out soon, the Snoop Dogg Bible. Save your soulizzle, fo’ shizzle.

  • VorlonGuyverOss

    As a resident of South Carolina and have family deliver newspapers for The State I can safely say this is nothing more than pandering to the religious pastors and ministers. They have seen a dramatic reduction in tithing and the pews are sparse with attendants.

    The greatest threat I have overheard from the “shepherds” is not people converting to a different sect or different religion but that the younger generation are able to think and reason much better than they have been trained to anticipate. Many of my daughter’s friends have asked me of my opinion and all I say to them is “my views are my own and this is why”. They usually come to the same conclusion and finish the reasoning process on their own. Some of their parents are mortified of their children’s reasoning abilities while others are proud their children are so intelligent but are disappointed the “teaching” didn’t take hold.

    As an outsider looking in I see the implosion of the churches because children are asking questions that they cannot answer, are seeing things as they really are, and are more willing to learn/think for themselves. I see the question WHY and the B#!! S%^& flag (B.S. Flag) being raised all the time.

  • EA

    “But in the Pew survey, only 2 percent of respondents said that science and logic play any role their religious choices.”

    Why does that not surprise me.

  • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com miller

    Why does everyone assume that atheists are naively optimistic about the destruction of religion? Hardly anyone thinks it could possibly happen within a decade, if ever. For some of us, that was never even our goal. I just happen to think that an increment in that direction would be a good thing.

    And who knows, maybe we won’t even succeed in that. Maybe we’re just running as fast as we can to stay in one place. But that doesn’t mean we should stop running and fall behind.

  • stinger

    Thanks, Prof. McCane, but I refuse to be relegated to the role of “dissent”. That implies that religion is the norm, the default position, when in fact religious belief is a learned behavior. An awful lot of work and cognitive dissonance goes into theism. Those who are “a-theists” simply don’t buy into all that. I’m not about to sit quietly in some “principled” corner and politely express my differing thoughts. I’m going to live my life and, when necessary, let you know loudly and plainly when you have transgressed my rights or made unprovable claims.

  • Ian

    This comes under the category of the Law of Attraction.

    If you act as if what you want has already happened, it might end up happening.

    Personally I’m quite happy for deluded middle-aged theists to pretend we’re not coming for their children :D

  • Tony

    I have no idea what the hell that means. What is “kinder, gentler, wiser” atheism?

    “Quieter”? Or perhaps “more ashamed”?

  • http://mylongapostasy.blogspot.com ATL-Apostate

    Vulcanism is dead on Earth. Toba nearly wiped out humanity, but that was 74,000 years ago. Tambora killed 90,000 in 1815, Krakatau killed 36,000 in 1883, Pelee killed 30,000 in 1902, and Mount Saint Helens only killed 57 in 1980. The death toll is dropping off the charts, literally. It’s all over but the rumbling. Months can go by between eruptions in Alaska, or the South Pacific, or Europe, or South America, or Indonesia. Pay no attention to the recent surge of magma quakes in Yellowstone. That’s just hype. Nothing to worry about any more. Go back to sleep.

    Richard, are you out of your Vulcan mind?

    sorry, lame joke on my part. couldn’t resist.

  • Erp

    Department of Religion seems to be the college’s name for Religious Studies though Wofford’s seems to be heavily Christian in emphasis. It has 4 faculty members and only one full professor.

    I should point out that “no religious affiliation” does not necessarily mean atheistic (and for that matter some affiliated people are atheistic [think some Unitarian Universalists]).

  • Richard Wade

    Richard, are you out of your Vulcan mind?

    Yes, clearly I am, by the number of hours I spend on this blog. ;)

    I could have used the other variant “volcanism,” but I wanted to make the teeny weeny little joke about an ism to another god. Just as lame, even imperceptible, but I too couldn’t resist.

  • Neon Genesis

    And since when does the lack of books in a genre or whatever determine how popular the genre is? It’s like saying since JK Rowling is no longer writing any Harry Potter books, Harry Potter must no longer be popular, which is ridiculous.

  • keddaw

    You say that atheists have never tried to take away the right to prayer or attacked people physically for their beliefs – and you’re correct, however…

    As atheists become more open, vocal and common then there will undoubtedly be groups of kids/young adults who will pick on other groups, as kids are wont to. And it is inevitable that at some point there will be a group of non-believers who will physically pick on a group of believers.

    Human nature will ensure this happens and it will also lead to a major backlash with Bill O and his like saying “we told you all atheists are evil, with no moral backbone all things are possible.”

    I just hope atheists are common enough and respected enough by then that they won’t have to go back into the closet.

  • Turtleneck

    well uh im not an atheist and im sure this will get a lot of dislikes, but im just curious to hear your responses, What do think happens at the end of the world ? just as a common question


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