The new generation of bold and outspoken atheists, including Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, are making waves in society with numerous media appearances, a welcome change of pace from the media’s previous policy of steadfast refusal to cover freethought and nonbelief. (Some things are slower to change than others – despite
Time Newsweek‘s praiseworthy coverage of a debate between Sam Harris and Rick Warren, the conversation was a clear example of the “Gish Gallop”, where the theist throws out as many rapid-fire assertions as possible knowing the atheist will not have time or space to rebut all of them.)
It isn’t yet possible to tell what long-term effects will result from this bold call for reason. I have no doubt that Harris, Dawkins and others will win many new deconverts, but the ripple effects of their speech have not yet finished spreading, and the full impact may not be visible for some years. Nevertheless, it seems clear that some theists are already feeling the heat. Witness a recent column by John Avant, vice president for evangelization at the Southern Baptist North American Mission Board, titled Our real problem:
I just read one of the great evangelistic books of our day — “Letters to a Christian Nation” by Sam Harris. It is an evangelistic masterpiece. Harris has invested years of his life preparing to write this book. He is so passionate about sharing his faith with others that he took the time to write a defense of his faith and publish it for the whole world to read. They are reading it, and it is becoming a national best-seller. Harris is bold. He realizes that everyone is open to talk about faith these days, and so while most of us stay silent, he speaks loudly and clearly to all of the importance of his faith, which he says is intellectually defensible and exclusive.
…I admire Sam Harris. I know that may shock you, but how can you not appreciate the passion he has?
… This is the second passionate book written by an atheist that I have read recently. I am beginning to wonder if atheists are becoming more serious about their faith that leads to nothing than Christians are about their faith that leads to everything.
And while Harris is spreading the good news of atheism with fire and passion, Avant worries that Christianity is losing ground:
… We are not reaching truly unreached people, and most of our churches look more like religious clubs for their members rather than mission forces for Christ’s kingdom. A study by New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary’s Leavell Center for Evangelism and Church Health showed that only 11 percent of SBC churches are healthy and growing… Too many churches reach few if any people other than their own children or those from other churches.
Meanwhile, from 1991-2004 the number of unchurched adults in America rose from 39 million to 79 million. And we are doing worse with young people, with 39 percent of Southern Baptist churches in 2005 reporting baptizing no teens.
Granted, Avant throws in the obligatory attacks on atheism, claiming that “If I really believed what he believed, I would be in despair. I would be living every moment in emptiness and maybe even terror”. He steadfastly ignores the obvious fact that Harris and other atheists do not feel that way, implying that he is mistaken in his understanding of what atheism entails – like the hypothetical scientist who boasts he has mathematically proven that bees cannot fly.
Nevertheless, the evidence suggests that Avant is right to be worried. Consider the following Pew poll, which shows a measurable decline in overall American religious devotion. Even better, the survey concludes that “this change appears to be generational in nature, with each new generation displaying lower levels of religious commitment than the preceding one.” In particular, the generation born since 1977 (my generation – I’m happy to do my part!) has almost four times as many atheists as those born before 1945:
As the polls suggest, this shift has been going on more or less invisibly for some time. Sam Harris and people like him are probably more a symptom of this social change than they are a cause of it. But social changes can be self-catalyzing, with a group’s increasing numbers giving rise to forceful spokespeople and increased political organization that further accelerate its growth. (Notice, too, how many Gen-X and Gen-Y families are abandoning church in favor of more meaningful family and social activities.)
I have one more poll to report on: a Newsweek poll finding that the country is still overwhelmingly Christian, to no one’s surprise. Nevertheless, there is one fact that caught my eye:
The poll further found that 47 percent of respondents felt the country is more accepting of atheists today than before and 49 percent said they personally know an atheist.
It is hard not to notice that the latter figure is almost exactly the same as the proportion of people who say they would vote for an atheist candidate for president. And like the earlier figure, this one too is generational, with younger generations reporting significantly higher percentages who know and accept atheists than older age groups. All this suggests that, in order to grow our ranks and become more accepted, the most important thing we need to do is to simply speak out and make people around us aware of our existence. This should be music to any atheist’s ears!
What could be the cause of this explosive growth? One likely factor cited by one of the earlier polls is the increasing education of the post-war generations. Surveys have consistently found that the more educated a person is, the less likely they are to hold religious beliefs, especially fundamentalist or literalist beliefs.
In addition, I think another important factor is that atheism has nowhere to go but up. Christianity has literally reached saturation point in our society; it has nowhere left to spread to. It is so pervasive that a great number of people are nominally Christian not because they truly believe the religion or know a great deal about it, but because it is the cultural and social default. As a result, there are many frustrated freethinkers who have been brought up within the Christian tradition but are dissatisfied with it and want a better alternative. These people are the “low-hanging fruit”, the ones we can easily win over if we just make them aware of our existence and our mission. Until recently atheism lacked an effective voice in society and the media, and these people were not reached. Now we are beginning to reach them. Who knows how many more potential Sam Harrises and Richard Dawkinses there may still be – people who could become passionate and effective advocates for atheism, if only we can bring the spark to kindle their latent disbelief into a full-blown flame of enthusiasm for rationality and mental freedom?