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

  • Axel Blaster

    I think the rise of atheism has a lot to do with the fact that the message is meme-friendly.

    • Erin

      I think you are all puffed up ego-maniacs. All trying to outdo each other. Each one trying to sound more intelligent. Evolution is just as crazy sounding as any Bible story could be. If you don’t believe in God, why do you feel so driven to disprove Him? Why so threatened? Do you think if you keep saying He isn’t real it will make it so? You will all find out how real He is when you pass on. I pray you all figure it out before that time comes, because by then it will be too late. Someone mentioned that telling your Child their dead pet when to the farm to play wouldn’t make it so, well saying God doesn’t exist won’t make it so either. No matter how many degrees you have, or intelligent you think you are, it all comes to nothing when faced with the Living God!

      • http://patheos.com/blogs/hallq/ Chris Hallquist

        “Evolution is just as crazy sounding as any Bible story could be.”

        What sounds crazy at first glance is a poor criterion to judge the truth. The difference between evolution and the Bible is that evolution has massive amounts of evidence backing it up, while the Bible has massive evidence against it.

        “If you don’t believe in God, why do you feel so driven to disprove Him?”

        I wouldn’t care – except for the flood of misinformation being put out about religious believers, about everything from evolution to the Bible to atheists. Seeing that drives me to counter it.

  • Dan

    I would prefer a PDF format so that I could read it with my tablet. If anyone can make one, please post it on the comments. Thanks!

  • Fredo

    Here’s proof of God, have a homeless person or a child with a terminal illness ask if you believe in God. What would you say? Maybe after that God would seem a bit more real. It is pointless to ask if God “scientifically” exists, you should rather ask why a person would need God. It seems to me atheism is a product of a privileged lifestyle.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/hallq/ Chris Hallquist

      I’d say “no.” Unless maybe I thought the homeless person was crazy and would attack me for not believing in God. But it’s irrelevant – telling a kid their pet went to a farm to play with all the other animals doesn’t make it so.

    • MNb

      I’d say “no” too. You only make clear that god is a product of wishful thinking.

    • Dez

      Yup that privileged status of being a poor black atheist woman in the U.S. I can’t anywhere without using my privilege to my advantage.

  • Alex SL

    Two thoughts: First, never assume that you have won an argument. The moment one side decides that they don’t need to invest any energy any more, the other side can start pushing back, and that will be as true for freethought as it is for women’s rights, civil liberties or the social safety net. Perhaps history is best seen not as a story of inexorable progress where we can simply tick off one box after the other but rather as a constant struggle against the forces of selfishness and stupidity that will take any opportunity to undo whatever good has been achieved.

    Second, and related to that, while it is important that one can openly be an atheist, in my opinion the real issue should never have been about atheism as such but about freethought and the use of reason. Atheism is, at its root, merely a conclusion, but rationality is a useful way of thinking that, were the world we find ourselves in completely different than it actually is, might have lead to a different conclusion. Reason and evidence are what really matters, and their importance can never be stressed enough, not least because we need to constantly work on it ourselves.

    • MNb

      As we Dutch say: getting the recognition of being right is not the same as being right itself (in Dutch it sounds better: gelijk krijgen is niet hetzelfde als gelijk hebben). In that sense we haven’t won the argument indeed. The important point is of course that there isn’t much left to say.

    • http://kusmeeks.info/ kusmeek
  • see.the.galaxy

    It’s very good work. I do hope that you continue your work on behalf of atheism.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/hallq/ Chris Hallquist

      Thanks!

  • King Dave

    What exactly has atheism won when it comes to Islam?

    • http://oldtimeatheism.blogspot.ca/ Andyman409

      what has Islam “won”? There are literally no arguments in its favour, so its practitioners have to resort to cheap “because I say so” schoolyard tactics. At least Mormons have (empty) miracle claims…

      • rg57

        It appears to have won six countries, the populations of 30-40 more, and so far controls one or two billion people. That seems significant for some reason.

  • Steelwheels

    Atheism wins? I’ve heard that before. There really is nothing new under the sun.

  • Pofarmer

    Here is what I am somewhat concerned about as a relatively new atheist, and sort of always free thinker, at 42. Religion in our society has given us a consistent set of values. It seems to me that we are setting up a lot of strife right now because there isn’t a consistent moral code being emphasized to replace the old religious code. It seems like societies need these codes for cohesiveness, and I wonder how much of the divisiveness in our country right now is being fed by this as we transition to a more secular society. Maybe I am just imagining a problem.

    • MNb

      Which old religious code? As far as I know there never has been one single consistent set of values dominating any western society – not even in the Middle Ages. I think the divisiveness in the USA has to do with something else. What’s more, I think the assumption that this divisiveness works out badly might be unfounded. Suriname, where I live, is far more divided. Still it’s society doesn’t fall apart.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/hallq/ Chris Hallquist

      Yeah, this is just reflecting you being much more aware of division in our own time than in the past. We forget, for example, how dirty 19th century political campaigns could get when we bemoan dirty campaigning today.

      Also: civil war, anybody? That happened with both parties claiming God was on their side. The problem is that even when you agree, “okay, we’re going to follow the Bible” or whatever, you get division over how to interpret the thing you agreed to follow.

      What ditching religion gets you is the ability to have those debates (more) rationally rather than have to base everything on appeals to outdated religious texts.

      • hf

        I would add that both sides in our Civil War seem correct about the Bible verses they cited supporting their points. Why doesn’t this trivially disprove the “consistent set of values” claim?

    • http://kusmeeks.info/ kusmeek

      unchanging set of moral prescriptions << evolving method of evaluating moral actions

  • MNb

    “their social status”
    Now you hurt my nationalistic feelings as a Dutchman.

    http://nl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anton_Constandse
    One title: The misery of religion, 1923.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ferdinand_Domela_Nieuwenhuis
    Quote: “to derive a divine world from the concrete one is a salto mortale.”

    http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/72/Ferdinand_Domela_Nieuwenhuis_statue.JPG
    His statue, made in 1931 – on ground where formerly stood a church.
    Both Domela Nieuwenhuis and Constandse were from modest descent.
    In The Netherlands atheism used to be connected with socialism and social-democracy. My grandfather is also an example: social democrat, atheist and truck driver in the 50′s. My great-grandfather probably also was one. They both lived here:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hem,_Netherlands

    Not much social status, I can assure you.

    “someone who, once having put a lot of time into the arguments, now thing the argument is over”
    Herman Philipse after finishing God in the Age of Science expressed the same feeling. As for me I have one wish left. I’d like to be convinced that science and any belief system are incompatible a priori. I am rather underwhelmed by PZM and JA Coyne when arguing this.
    As for the rest – we can only repeat what has been established.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/hallq/ Chris Hallquist

      I don’t read Dutch, so those Wikipedia links aren’t helpful. Your father sounds like a counter-example, though I’d note socialist != lacking protections of social standing. Russell too was a socialist.

      • MNb

        The link on Domela Nieuwenhuis is in English. My point is though that all my examples lacked the protection of social standing. Still they were openly atheists.
        My grandfather was member of this party

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_Democratic_Workers'_Party_(Netherlands)

        and it’s successor PvdA (which is not socialist anymore, but was back then). SDAP had been in Dutch parliament since 1897.
        Just after WW-2 the Dutch communists won 10% of the votes. You’ll understand that most of them were atheists too. So open atheism has been possible in The Netherlands since decades, including the time of Russell and Ingersoll.

        “to say things that ordinary people couldn’t.”
        This might be correct for the USA (I trust you on that one), for England (though Labour has been in British Parliament since long as well) but certainly not for several West-European countries. The way you distinguish old atheism from popular atheism simply doesn’t apply here. You make a hasty generalization.

  • http://lotharson.wordpress.com/ Lothars Sohn

    ANTItheists win because they use the same technique of emotional propaganda and bullying like Evangelicals.

    In my native country (France), and to a letter extent Germany, there are many agnostics, pantheists, people believing in esoteric stuff, and their number is not lowered by the raise of materialism.

    America is suffering a crazy Christian fundamentalism, so it is a good thing they get rid of it, I’m just sad they’re replacing this fundamentalism by another one.
    And since America has influence everywhere on the planet, I’ve to be concerned about that.

    Please, don’t see that as any form of hostility against your person.

    Lovely greetings from Germany
    Liebe Grüße aus Deutschland

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son
    http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com

    • MNb

      “this fundamentalism by another one”
      You’re confusing fundamentalism with dogmatism. Atheists don’t have any fundament to fall back on. Of course they can be dogmatic.

      • http://lotharson.wordpress.com/ Lothars Sohn

        You see, if someone believe with “100%” likelihood the rich people in Russia have to be sent in Gulag, this is dogmatism.

        If he believes that with “99.9999″ this would no longer be dogmatism, but equally dangerous nonetheless.

        The same can be said about the willingness of many antitheists to forbid EVERY kind of religious teaching, even the harmless ones.

        Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son
        http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com

        • DrVanNostrand

          That’s an absurd assertion. Almost NO atheists (or antitheists) want to ban ANY kind of religious teaching. You may be confusing that stand with our very common opposition to religious teaching by the state, which is quite a different issue (and a completely reasonable stance).

  • Derrick Knight

    People are becoming increasingly suspicious of grand narratives whether secular or religious. We moderns are more interested in what works.

    • MNb

      I think science provides a fascinating grand narrative, one that begins with the Big Bang.

      • Derrick Knight

        I’m not sure there is a grand narrative in science. Science changes when new evidence is presented. If new data disproves the Big Bang, no more Big Bang. Besides which people are suspicious of science as well.

        • Carol Lynn

          “Science” does not change when new data is discovered. “Science” is a process or method used for understanding the world. We understand how the world works better with each new discovery. If new data disproves the Big Bang, then we have a better understanding of how the world actually is and can use the new data to formulate another scientific explanation that is closer to reality. You sound here like you are saying that having a better understanding is a bad thing. I thought you said you were interested in “what works”? Science works.

          • Derrick Knight

            I know that science is a method. Grand narrative is another way of saying ideology. Science is not ideological, hence the “what works”. My original comment isn’t hard to comprehend.

          • Carol Lynn

            Words – they have meanings. Look them up before you toss them around as if they can mean whatever you want them to. A ‘grand narrative’ is not an ideology. “Science” does not change when new data is encountered.

            You may be correct that “science” does not have an overarching “grand story” the way a religious narrative has, but not for the reasons you gave. Science is “what works.”

          • Derrick Knight

            Grand narrative is a well known political term for ideology. Fascism has a grand narrative, Marxism has a grand narrative, Islamism has a grand narrative etc. Go tilt at windmills somewhere else.

          • Carol Lynn

            That you can’t use words properly is no reason to accuse me of tilting at windmills. So… you don’t think science is a political and/or religious ideology – which I agree with – and also that it has no other potential to give any other type of narrative structure to the universe. Well… perhaps. MMV Obviously, MNb finds “grand narrative” potential in science. I do not necessarily disagree with that. I certainly find more ‘meaning’ in a scientific universe than in one where the ‘meaning’ is religious.

            I’m still sure you said “Science changes when new evidence is presented.” Er, no. Science is the method not the result. Even if you meant to write the more accurate “the hypothesis changes” or the “scientific explanation changes” and not the “science changes” you actually wrote, why are you saying,”Oh, noes! It changes!” like that’s a bad, untrustworthy thing rather than being the point of the process?

            Then you said, “Besides which people are suspicious of science as well.” and also “We moderns are more interested in what works.” But science is “what works.”

            You think nothing provides anything to “we moderns” but ‘what works’ … but since you don’t trust science either, what’s left to “work”? Untestable spiritual woo? Good luck with that. Technology? How can you trust technology either since it depends on science-thinking and maybe even on a, gasp, science-based narrative of how the universe works!!!

          • Derrick Knight

            Jesus H. Christ. What’s the topic of this post? It’s the rise of popular atheism and how religion lost the argument. We are both atheists and since we’re on Pathos I’d be right in thinking that we both have examined theism and have rejected it. We are a minority. Here in Europe most people have rejected religion not because of an examination of theological arguments or because of the “New Atheists” . It seems to me the reason is because the “Grand Narratives” no longer has the same appeal. So party political affiliation has collapsed, church attendance is dwindling, rise of anti-vaccine scares, anti GMO, climate change denial etc. You seem intelligent so it can’t be that hard for you to understand.

            Mnb got the wrong end of the stick, so it doesn’t matter if he finds comfort in science. What do I care if he likes the Big Bang? What did he want, a cookie? Anyway science is not too much affected by the loss of faith because it produces results though it is still viewed with suspicion.

            There’s no shame of being unaware of the term “Grand Narrative” but it can’t be hard to translate that to “Big Stories” So people are suspicious of THE BIG STORY.

            F***k me, should I use crayons and draw pictures next time? Or should I just go “Yay Atheists!, Boo religion”? Is that more your level?

        • eric

          I’m not sure there is a grand narrative in science. Science changes when new evidence is presented

          And that’s part of the grand narrative; that it’s the methodology of science that matters. Empiricism rather than authority. Tentatively held beliefs, open to change should new evidence come along. The necessity of sharing information, peer review, and reproducibility. Those would certainly have been radical ideas to middle age theologians. They are still radical ideas to many fundamentalists today.

  • Buckley

    I’m quite familiar with Brother Jeb. We also used to call him Preacher Ted at Eastern Illinois University. he was fantastic entertainment when he was younger – fire and brimstone stuff. Right in the middle of one of his rants two girls walked by in shorts on their way to class when he stops mid-sentence and yells out “Fornicators! You are going to hell” To which the girls wheeled and flipped him off to cheers from us onlookers.

  • BronzeDog

    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.

    I’m only a philosopher in the most amateur and casual way (no degree, but I absorbed some of my brother’s by osmosis), and I’m familiar with the problem. I started blogging in December 2005 about skepticism and atheism, and my posting regularity went into decline when I ran out of new angles to write about the question.

  • Frank

    Atheism lost a long time ago. A truly losing proposition.

    • KNOWAK

      Yes, atheists lost it already – but they’re too intellectually challenged to realize that. Unfortunately that doesn’t mean that the world will be a better place to live in.

  • ctcss

    If the point that is being made is that atheism can now be expressed openly, OK. But since atheism was never actually a big secret, it’s not like it was an unknown thing. It just wasn’t discussed very much. (And that is a shame IMO.) And despite current feelings to the contrary, atheism (as one take on the general subject of what options are available regarding one’s spiritual outlook) is actually not really that much different from any other approach that finds itself on the margins of this general subject area. Holders of mainstream views have always held sway, and those holding minority views have always had to defend themselves, sometimes with their lives, but most often, simply trying to find “official” allowance for their particular practices. Deciding to live on the margins has always come with a cost.

    To me, the only real wins for atheism are deciding to publicly and openly declare this affiliation and to come together as a group, and to finally begin spelling out what, exactly, atheism is (and is not). In other words, a place has been made at the table for this new/old group.

    Welcome.

    You are now sitting with everyone else (mainstream and non-mainstream) at the table.

    But as for winning the quest for other hearts and minds to join you, you will need to accept the fact that you are just one of many voices at the table. Atheism may intrigue some, but it certainly doesn’t intrigue all. So get used to a long stay. This discussion is going to go on for quite a while and it is not likely to end anytime soon.

    And even if it does “end” and you truly “win”, beware becoming the mainstream. Humans don’t seem to handle that role very well, especially as to how they treat those who are not mainstream.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X