Tipping the Scales

Tipping the Scales October 23, 2006

“The book (The End of Faith) has spent nearly 20 weeks on bestseller lists… Presale orders of ‘Letter to a Christian Nation’ earned the book a spot among Amazon.com’s top 10 a month before its Sept. 19 publication. It debuted at No. 7 on the bestsellers’ list and is now in its sixth printing with 110,000 copies in print and a mammoth $200,000 ad campaign behind it.”

—Gina Piccalo, “Oh, dear God – it’s him again“, The Los Angeles Times, 2 October 2006

In a recent post, “The Quiet Revolution Progresses“, I wrote the following:

The most visible sign of this quiet revolution – the tip of the iceberg, so to speak – is the publication, in recent months, of several prominent and widely discussed mainstream books making the case for atheism. Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers, Sam Harris’ The End of Faith, Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell, and soon, Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion are at the forefront of this advance… But even more encouraging is their success, both critical and commercial.

These remarks seem to have anticipated a tidal wave, as the success of these recent pro-atheist books has been considerable and has even begun to attract attention from the mainstream media. Here is a recent story from Reuters, Is God dead? Atheism finds a market in U.S:

A fresh wave of atheistic books has hit the market this autumn, some climbing onto best-seller lists in what proponents see as a backlash against the way religion is entwined in politics….

Publishers Weekly said the business has seen “a striking number of impassioned critiques of religion — any religion, but Christianity in particular,” a probably inevitable development given “the super-soaking of American politics and culture with religion in recent years.”

And a headline that made me laugh, Anti-God book is Christmas bestseller:

An unlikeliest bestseller in the run up to Christmas is a book which claims to prove God doesn’t exist, it was revealed today.

The God Delusion is being reprinted every two days and is the number one bestseller on Amazon.co.uk, after selling more than 70,000 copies.

…[Richard Dawkins] said: “Another similar book, Letters to a Christian nation, by Sam Harris, is doing very well in America and these two books are possibly a symptom of a shifting in the cultural tectonic plates, with religion playing less of a part in our lives.

“I am very hopeful that the tide may be beginning to turn from the stranglehold that Christianity has had on our culture…”

Nor is the trailblazing success of these books only a matter of publishers’ sales figures, with no effect on the wider world. On the contrary, to judge by recent local headlines, atheist groups are springing up like wildflowers after rain. From a recent news article, Atheism no longer a ‘dirty word’:

When Richard Golden put the word out that he was starting a group for atheists in Walnut Creek, about a dozen people showed up.

Two years later, 80 are dues-paying members and several more drop in on twice-monthly meetings to chew on everything from particle physics to court cases.

Horrified by escalating religious violence and alarmed by the Bush administration’s “faith-based initiatives,” which make government money available to religious organizations, atheists are coming out of the closet — and organizing.

“Local groups are springing up all over the place,” said Ellen Johnson, president of American Atheists. Active groups have grown by about 90 percent over the past six years, she said.

In the past few years, groups affiliated with American Atheists have taken root in Walnut Creek, Berkeley, San Francisco, Davis and Silicon Valley. East Bay Atheists has grown to more than 300 members.

California membership in the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a group of atheists and agnostics that monitors the separation of church and state, increased from 900 to 1,200 in one year. Nationally, it grew from 5,000 in 2004 to 6,400 members by the beginning of 2006, said co-founder Annie Laurie Gaylor.

The question might be asked: Do pieces of good news like this represent a comparative increase in atheism? Are our numbers and organization growing as compared to the rest of society, or is it simply the case that people in general are becoming more politically active, and every group is growing equally?

To judge by another recent story, Evangelicals Fear the Loss of Their Teenagers, the answer is that the former is the case.

Despite their packed megachurches, their political clout and their increasing visibility on the national stage, evangelical Christian leaders are warning one another that their teenagers are abandoning the faith in droves.

At an unusual series of leadership meetings in 44 cities this fall, more than 6,000 pastors are hearing dire forecasts from some of the biggest names in the conservative evangelical movement.

Their alarm has been stoked by a highly suspect claim that if current trends continue, only 4 percent of teenagers will be “Bible-believing Christians” as adults. That would be a sharp decline compared with 35 percent of the current generation of baby boomers, and before that, 65 percent of the World War II generation.

While some critics say the statistics are greatly exaggerated (one evangelical magazine for youth ministers dubbed it “the 4 percent panic attack”), there is widespread consensus among evangelical leaders that they risk losing their teenagers.

…The board of the National Association of Evangelicals, an umbrella group representing 60 denominations and dozens of ministries, passed a resolution this year deploring “the epidemic of young people leaving the evangelical church.”

Despite their organization and vast resources, religious groups seem to be unable to stem the tide of people leaving the church. I wrote previously about other evidence for this, including a 2004 study which concluded that Protestants would make up less than 50% of America’s population for the first time ever by the end of the decade. There is also similar evidence from other directions, including Europe, where the Catholic church is struggling to fill available clergy posts.

We must be careful not to exaggerate the significance of these events. In America, at least, atheists are still widely outnumbered by conventionally religious people, and these stories represent at best a few pinches of sand added to the scale on our side. Nevertheless, they may well be the grains of sand that presage a much larger slide in the near future, and lead to a much more dramatic tipping of the scales.

I do not think it is too optimistic to hope that the resurgence of the religious right, which has awakened many people to the dangers of excessive and unrestrained faith, may lead to a counter-reformation of atheism. People have seen for themselves the results of untrammeled religious fundamentalism, and they do not seem to like what they have seen. There is no better time for us nonbelievers to organize and to promote our message as a positive alternative. If we can succeed at this, the backlash may well be wide enough not just to sweep the religious right out of power, but to create a strong and thriving atheist community that will work to promote progress in society and serve as a check on any similar regrowth of fundamentalism in the future. We once had something like this, in the “golden age of freethought” led by Robert Ingersoll that invigorated America in the late 1800s. I do not think it is too much to hope that we can ignite a similar movement again. That would truly be a tremendous and heartening accomplishment, and a great thing indeed to see.

And the wave set in motion has not crested yet. I leave you, readers, with the following excerpt from another story titled Atheist author fights back:

Harris’ book is a fast read, filled with arguments you’ve heard before, though presented with admirable and engaging passion…. you have to give the author credit for bringing up such a taboo topic in today’s climate. And even if he’s preaching to the choir, he says, the effort is worthwhile. He has received praise, he says, from “people in the reddest of red states who often said they’d never met anyone who openly doubts the perfect truth of the Bible… people expressing relief to know that they’re not alone in the universe.”

They’ll have more company soon. Christopher Hitchens’ title God is Not Great is expected in 2007.

Keep one eye on the sky for frogs and locusts – and another, dare I say it, on that holy arbiter of the publishing businesses: the best-seller list.

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