Atheism Wins: The Rise of Popular Atheism and How Religion Lost the Argument

When I began writing this book in earnest roughly two years ago, I had already been blogging about religion for more than six years. I’d been following the debates even longer than that; I can trace my interest in them back to reading Thomas V. Morris’ Philosophy for Dummies when I was in middle school. I had also, by then, spent three semesters as a PhD student in the philosophy department at the University of Notre Dame (which is ranked as the best department in the world for philosophy of religion) before dropping out, disillusioned with academic philosophy.

I began writing with the idea that most of what there was to say about these debates had already been said, and my goal would mostly be to summarize what had already been said for the benefit of people new to those debates, to save them some time. But as I wrote, I came to a stronger conclusion: The debate is over, the atheists won.

In a way, the debate was never what it appeared to be. As I point out in chapter 7, the intellectual position of religion looked strongest in the middle ages and early modern era (historian-speak for the 17th and 18th centuries), when dissent wasn’t safe. Among intellectuals, religion took heavy blows in the 19th century, but dissent still wasn’t safe for ordinary people well into the 20th century. The great infidels of that period were people like Robert G. Ingersoll (a state attorney general) and Bertrand Russell (an earl), who were well aware that their social status allowed them to say things that ordinary people couldn’t.

This is where the atheist movement of the past ten years is distinctive. As I argue in chapter 1, calling it “popular atheism” is much more accurate than “new atheism,” because what’s significant about it is its popular success. Not only have books by Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins been bestsellers, but their success has been accompanied by a growth of local atheist groups and online activism by perfectly ordinary people.

As a result, much of the argument over popular atheism hasn’t been about the ideas (“is there a God?”) but about whether atheists should dare to discuss their ideas so publicly. For reasons given in chapter 3 (and to an extent other chapters), I’m convinced that religion has lost that argument too.

Since finishing the book, I’ve cut back quite a bit on the amount of time I spend writing about religion. I may continue to field questions about religion on my blog from time to time, but to some extent, I’ll be thinking of this as my swan song for writing about religion.

While I think the atheist movement has done a great deal of good, it increasingly feels like the part I’ve been most active in–the part that gets into arguments online and in print–has, having won the argument, run out of things to do. If you’re involved in a local atheist group in one of the more conservative parts of the US, helping non-believers in the area realize they’re not alone, by all means keep doing what you’re doing, it’s incredibly valuable. But me, I’ll be dropping out.

I think it’s important to that, because if you go looking for explanations by atheists of why they don’t believe in God, you’re not going to get a representative sample of atheist opinion. You’re going to get the opinion of atheists who think the subject is worth arguing about. Nearly three-quarters of philosophers are atheists, but only a tiny minority of them bother to publish journal articles discussing arguments for and against the existence of God.

As a result, if you read the current philosophical literature on the existence of God, you’re likely to get the impression that prevailing philosophical opinion is much more favorable to God than it actually is. A similar pattern almost certainly exists with atheists who aren’t philosophers. I’m not exempt from this, but at least this book gives the perspective of someone who, once having put a lot of time into the arguments, now thing the argument is over.

The chapters linked below are all licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. For anyone who’d like to compile them into a PDF, consider the text of this post similarly licensed; it’s intended to serve as a preface. Back when I was hoping to publish this as a more standard book, I got permission from the Illini Secular Student Alliance to use this picture of them posing with infamous campus preacher “Brother Jeb” as part of the cover art:

They are totally awesome for having agreed to let me use this picture, but are not to be blamed for the contents of the book. I still think it would make good cover art for the PDF.

I also always wanted to make sure a picture of Muhammad was included in the book somewhere, probably on the back cover. My friend Jason graciously gave me permission to use this picture, which he made for “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day”, for that purpose. A big thanks to Jason for that:

And finally, the chapters:

Chapter 1: Don’t panic!: On finding atheism unfamiliar and scary
Chapter 2: The many gods I don’t believe in (yours included)
Chapter 3: Why religious ideas are fair game
Chapter 4: This is what your religion looks like to me
Chapter 5: An open letter to religious believers on God and evil
Chapter 6: The conflict between science and religion
Chapter 7: There are no good arguments for the existence of God
Chapter 8: William Lane Craig exposed
Chapter 9: Bad religion
Appendix: An abridged Bible reading challenge

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