Is modern atheism a mirror image of religious fundamentalism?

Is modern atheism a mirror image of religious fundamentalism? August 28, 2019
Pointing the finger
Photo Credit: Jack P Williams Flickr via Compfight cc

It’s a provocative question, I know. Could atheism really be a mirror image of religious fundamentalism? Before you answer, let me put this question into context.

I recently started reading Karen Armstrong’s book, The Case for God. Armstrong is a former Catholic nun-turned-atheist-turned-religious sympathizer whose work on comparative religion has become quite popular in certain circles over the years.

The Case for God is a general survey of the history of religious belief and practice from the Paleolithic Age to the present. It focuses especially on Christianity, as that is Karen’s background, but it also includes Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, and other eastern traditions.

Armstrong believes that religion’s purpose is to “help us creatively, peacefully, and even joyously live with realities for which there are no easy explanations.” At the same time, she recognizes the dangers that lie inherent within the fundamentalist strains of any spiritual tradition or belief system (Crusades, anyone?). She confesses that her own militant atheism began to mellow the more she studied the great traditions of the past.

This point, in particular, is what struck me from my reading this week. In the opening chapters, Karen refers to modern atheism as a relatively recent historical phenomenon that depends on religious fundamentalism for its survival. Referring to the work of such “new atheists” as Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and the late Christopher Hitchens, she suggests that our modern version of atheism (a fundamental belief in the non-existence of God or gods) is a direct mirror image of the religious fundamentalism it so adamantly opposes.

Although I’d considered this possibility before, I was impressed with the clarity of Armstrong’s description on this point, especially given her own history as an atheist. And I’m inclined to agree with her, although I think one could make the case that our “new” atheist types today are not entirely new to the historical scene.


Since I began blogging on Patheos a month or so ago, I’ve been surprised to see how many people who might either describe themselves or be described as atheists seem to frequent the Progressive Christian channel. Assuming that you’re one of those people reading this post now, I’d like to hear your response to Armstrong’s position on this matter.

Do you think it’s fair to suggest that modern atheism is simply a mirror image of the religious fundamentalism it opposes? Where do you draw the line in your own definitions of, say, atheism and agnosticism? Were you once a “believer” of any sort, and what relationship does your former “faith” have to your current “non-faith?”

Thanks ahead for your kind and civil discussion on this matter. The comments are open. Fire away.

About Joshua Lawson
Josh Lawson is a pastor, writer, and small business owner. He lives in southern Ohio with his wife and kids and their cat Gryffin, which is short for Gryffindor. He loves strong coffee and good books. If you'd like, you can support his work at You can read more about the author here.
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  • In some ways, this is true. But it is true out of necessity, because what is described as “new atheism” (typically and short-sightedly condensed to a citation of the “four horsemen” authors) is itself a reaction to the bad behavior and religious bigotry promoted by fundamentalist Christianity. To the extent that atheists have been vocal, it has been in reaction to their mistreatment by fundamentalists.

    But there have always been, and still continue to be, many atheists who have productive discussions with, and even engage in interfaith work with, progressive Christians and other non-fundamentalist religious people. I count myself in both camps: strident when forced to push back against fundamentalist bigotry, and diplomatic when provided with religiously inclusive situations.

    Much of this was covered by the presentation I gave at this year’s American Atheist convention (held in Southern Ohio, as it happens). I encouraged the atheists in attendance to look beyond the reactionary mindset that was required of them in the past, and consider ways to develop more proactive and productive systems for the benefit of everyone.

  • Hayward Jeb Lomey

    I realized god was imaginary 20 years ago. It wasn’t because of any book. I have never paid a tax-free subscription to any group that told me what to do with my non-belief. Religion is a tax scam and a consolidation of influence and power and brainwashing. My disblief in your imaginary dad and his telepathic ghost of a self/son has nothing to do with any of that.

    So, no, just because you have come to a rationalization that religion isn’t complete garbage, we are not religious.

  • Dennis Keane

    “Do you think it’s fair to suggest that modern atheism is simply a mirror image of the religious fundamentalism it opposes?”

    I guess it depends on the version of religious fundamentalism we are discussing? There are the obvious versions that condone violence to reach religious objectives/aims, and I certainly don’t think there is an equivalence there at all.

    A lower tier of religious fundamentalism has it’s members (generally) reduce their participation in general society (I’m thinking ultra orthodox Judaism here) and have different rules for its members based upon gender. I would also rule this out.

    The bottom tier would be a fundamentalist religion that is allowed to participate in society, but its members must adhere to a strict set of rules (dogma) that are essentially unquestionable. A case could possibly made for some sort of comparison at this level. I find this a tenuous case at best. Atheists have no top down structure, it is almost entirely ruled from the bottom. If Richard Dawkins tweets or says something objectionable – his own community does a pretty good job of pushing back – mostly because Richard Dawkins doesn’t speak for atheists. We are a group that likes to argue a lot and I think we are better for it.

    EDIT: I have not read the book mentioned above. If someone would like to put forward a good example of why atheists might be similar to fundamentalists , I would like to consider the argument.

  • chemical

    I’m an ex-Catholic atheist, and although I left the church at the height of the New Atheist movement, I consider it to be a failure — or at least, it could have done considerably more damage to organized religion that what it actually did. When I left, I had never heard of Sam Harris or Christopher Hitchens. Dawkins was the only one I’d heard of, but I never read any of his work (and still haven’t).

    New Atheism isn’t a secular mirror of religious fundamentalism. I agree with Zachary — it’s a reaction against abuse and bad behavior from fundamentalists and evangelical Christians. To use a metaphor, New Atheism is a bunch of Smart Guys dunking on the silly and science-denying beliefs held by fundamentalists, like creationism, while wearing the pixellated meme sunglasses. I think it turned out this way because it feels good to laugh at the people you think are maroons, and a huge portion of the New Atheists suffered abuse from these people.

    We offered nothing, yet we deconverted people anyways, simply due to how poorly these churches treated their own members. Our offer of nothing was better than what their churches offered. If we had offered what the church does — a community — I think we could have done so much damage to organized religion that it would have been a political liability for an American politician to claim to be Christian.

  • Dennis Keane

    Agree with your post. I would only add that we offered them a philosophy that was a better approximation of reality. Has to count for something.

  • chemical

    It does, and it’s why we retained our folks. But I don’t think a lot of New Atheists made the initial decision to abandon religion because Richard Dawkins or some other prominent atheist made some compelling argument. That decision is much more personal, in my opinion.

  • Dennis Keane

    I agree. Those authors came well after my decision – even though I started using the atheist lable around the same time as most of the New Atheist publishing was hitting book store shelves. My decision came mostly from the question “A lot of people believe in religion, so there must be a really good reason why – let me look it up.” Looking in up killed any potential for religious devotion going forward.

  • swbarnes2

    Armstrong believes that religion’s purpose is to “help us creatively, peacefully, and even joyously live with realities for which there are no easy explanations.”

    That’s why religion will always be useful to despots and authoritarians. “There’s no good explanation why I have everything and you have nothing. Stop complaining, acceptance is the highest virtue”

  • Dennis Keane

    I wanted to comment on that line. I’m not sure I understand what “realities for which there are no easy explanations.” means. The easy explanations seems mostly like a god of the gaps argument. “X” is really hard to understand, or we don’t understand it yet – so let’s plug this more easily understood explanation in there and call it a day.

  • “New” atheists and Modern fundamentalists have much in common. 1. They are both products of the 19th/20th Century version of our late Modern/Industrial North American (most American) culture. 2. Neither of them are critically and reflexively aware of their imbeddedness in this particular history/geography. That is, both claim to know and defend “the truth as it really is. Both are offended by the thought that their version of the truth is an emergent feature of human history that will have a beginning, middle and end. 3. Both make the normal “Modern” assumption that religion is a matter of “cognitive belief”. What you “believe” (assent and claim to be true intellectually) and the particular words you use to express you belief is worth fighting over as they are the core of human life, religious or other. 4. Neither have any serious knowledge of or feel for the actual history of religion.
    In short, if you are seriously interested in pre-Modern history or the emerging future and what it will require of us, neither have much to say.

  • Dennis Keane

    “In short, if you are seriously interested in pre-Modern history or the
    emerging future and what it will require of us, neither have much to

    Would like to know who actually has something to say?

  • Dennis Keane

    As a geologist and an atheist – I think I have a unique perspective relative to what our pre-modern history means for us. We essentially are nothing relative to universal and geologic time. Our species has existed for almost no time on this earth (100 thousand years out of over 4 billion) and we will either evolve or go extinct prior to our sun expanding and recycling the earth. Generally in both time and space, we are of little consequence, except to ourselves.

  • I appreciate your message, Zachary. And I laughed out loud at your definition of Reformed Baptists.

  • I’ll mention here that although much of the “new atheist” social movement was based on individual reactions, there have been some significant communities that have developed in the aftermath. For lack of a better term, “atheist church” is often used to describe these. Some examples include the Sunday Assembly, the Oasis Network, and the Fellowship of Freethought. Many local atheist meetup groups, both virtually and in person, offer similar types of community. I agree that this is an absolutely necessary component of a functioning social movement, and I am encouraged to see some development in this direction.

  • fractal

    After rebelling at age 10 against Catholicism which was shoved down my throat, I was agnostic for another 10 years.

    To me, agnosticism meant being open-minded, seeing the universe as a fabulous place which simply cannot be fully apprehended by the human brain, and looking to myself for answers, instead of any “ism”.

    And many atheists/agnostics are like-minded; they think the word/idea of God is small-minded, fraught with assumptions, and lacking in originality—just a model for tribal patriarchy. They look forward to discovering new ways of seeing their place in the big picture.

    But there is another kind of atheist; the kind that refuse to consider any language but their own “science-ism” as fitting in a discussion. They will swell with pride discussing quantum physics, but snort in derision when asked to consider the possibility of other “states of consciousness”.

    This atheist will not admit there are more kinds of intelligence than deductive reasoning, and SNEERS at the notion, even though both psychologists and neurobiologists will tell you that deductive reasoning resides in the outermost shell of our brain, and doesn’t really have that much to do with our preferences or decisions.

    This atheist is ignorant of spiritual paths other than the Abrahamic Triad, has zero interest in what other spiritual paths have to say about the evolution of humanity.

    This atheist who will tell you that nothing is worth talking about unless it has been proved by science—materialism is their god.

    Usually, these atheists have been badly burned by religious fundamentalists, and have strong knee-jerk reactions to hearing any kind of language or ideas not provable in a double blind experiment.
    In essence, their beliefs have changed, but the WAY in which they think has not; they are still thinking like their church and Western civilization taught them them.
    Which is why they don’t understand other ways of perceiving reality, and get very strung out defending their POV; it is essentially the same POV that the overriding Christian culture taught them in the first place.

    I don’t consider those atheists to be discussing in good faith, and I find that their arguments have the same kind of foundational belief systems that religious fundamentalists have. Those foundational beliefs cause them to project their insecurities onto others with differing experiences, and attack them—exactly as we see religious fundamentalists attack non-believers.
    And it happens because both fundamentalists and atheists grow up in dualistic thinking systems, where everything is sliced and diced to death by deductive reasoning; the bible scholars resemblance to atheist fundamentalists in their thought structure and arguments is highly entertaining to read, but so unoriginal.

    While superficially, their beliefs may differ, the personality profile, temperament and close-mindedness of that kind of atheist parallels that of all fundamentalist everywhere.
    It is an “us vs them”, “right belief vs wrong belief dualism”— contempt for the free-thinker who presents new notions, an inability to recognize that our brains may have abilities far beyond our present knowledge—an inability to accept new possibilities and paradigms.

  • fractal


  • chemical

    I’m familiar with the Oasis, as they have a “church” in my city.

    Matter of fact, where I live, I can name 4 atheist groups off the top of my head that are active in my city (Houston, TX): American Atheists has a chapter, as does the American Humanist Association, Skeptics Society, and Black Nonbelievers.

  • What has your experience of “atheist churches” been like, Zachary?

  • Erp

    Modern atheism has a wide range of stances. A few are fundamentalist in the sense of knowing that there is no God (omniscient, omnipotent) and that is very important. Others would be of the stance I’m pretty much convinced there is no God (and it would be good if others didn’t denigrate us for that stance), but, think it is more important to the here and now of how we treat others (humans, animals, the environment). And then there are the Ayn Rand followers. Many of us hang out on the Progressive Christian channels because we think we can work with them on some common causes (and because some are really good, see Slacktivist) though we will likely oppose you on others (in the US, parsonage tax break, and that religions are treated as charities even though there finances can be hidden [no 990 forms] so the tax deducted donations might just be going to someone’s personal trainer). You might find it interesting to look at the Norwegian Humanists which are a recognized ‘life stance’ in Norway and treated like a religion by the state.

  • Largely positive. Bear in mind, I have previously been the lead organizer for two such “atheist churches,” (including one that explicitly called itself a church and was recognized legally as such) and am still on the board of directors for one (the Fellowship of Freethought). As an exercise in community-building, it’s been successful beyond what I would have expected given the resources available and cultural roadblocks. As I alluded in the talk above, through this community I’ve married people, welcomed children, and am now burying them as well. These are living communities, and for many a true oasis.

    The biggest challenges are figuring out how to retain the best and most productive aspects of religious systems without also holding onto their harmful tendencies. There are logistic and financial challenges as well, but these can be overcome through patience and careful planning.

  • rationalobservations?

    The “snorts of derision” that are attracted by all the many forms of unsupported superstition and evidence devoid claims of supernatural activity and/or supernatural beings that have not and cannot be detected by any means known to anyone is absolutely justified.

    Present evidence of (or logical evidence supported reasons for) the existence of the paranormal and/or the supernatural and we can all assess its validity and authenticity. Otherwise your empty claims are no less ridiculous than any other religionist’s unsupported claims or the claims of the child who absolutely “knows” that Santa and the tooth fairy are totally and utterly – without any doubt “real”.

  • swbarnes2

    When you kid is diagnosed with Type I diabetes, what do you want; the insights of a guru, or the insulin developed by that science you sneer at?

    Usually, these atheists have been badly burned by religious fundamentalists,

    No, they haven’t.

    But you have a huge motivation to lie about atheist’s experiences It’s amusing how fast you go from “science isn’t everything!!!111eleventy” to “Any conclusion I can say is emotional I am allowed to dismiss without examining”

  • fractal

    I understand how you feel.
    I sympathize.
    Uncertainty is harder for some to handle than others.

    Don’t give it a second thought.
    Probably just isn’t for you.

  • rationalobservations?

    Thank you once again for confirming that you have no excuses for your ignorance, superstition and gullibility.

    I am delighted that you attempt
    (and fail) to cast such feeble aspersions, and such dishonest misplaced schadenfreude. That tacit capitulation will be noted by astute and intelligent readers.

    In the several decades of research that have established the evidence that confounds you and all who accept myths legends and lies, I have encountered the stubborn wilful ignorance and gullibility you demonstrate and the infantile egotism that caused such sympathy or hilarity.

    You confirm that intellect and education are not for you, son.

    Grow up and get educated and get a life.

  • fractal

    What evidence do you have that I am your “son”?
    Or even a male?

  • fractal

    I like it!

    Often I have suggested to atheists that progressive spiritual people share many common values with them.

    What I usually get back is derision, like “rationalobservations?” has been doing while following me around Patheos. They sneer and tell me that atheism is simply a negation, and not to assume that we have ANYTHING in common. Then they tell me they have no intention of EVER cooperating with fools like us.

    I think that is sad.
    Progressive spiritual people are generally humanists and want to work for the greater good, and they don’t mind at all working with the Atheist/Agnostic community for the betterment of all—and most of them wouldn’t mind at all if organized religion had to pay taxes.

  • rationalobservations?

    What evidence do you have in support of your beliefs?

    You present evidence of your immaturity, ignorance and gullibility in each of your entries, my dear.

  • fractal

    You didn’t answer the question.

  • rationalobservations?

    You offer no evidence supported answers to any questions, son.
    Empty rhetoric and rhetorical questions deserve no direct response.

    Back on topic:
    Again: What evidence do you have in support of your beliefs?

  • fractal

    What belief?

  • rationalobservations?

    Your straw man non argument and dishonesty has been adequately demonstrated by you already. These further confirmations appear superfluous..?

  • rationalobservations?

    You have frequently alluded to your belief that there is something outside of the material reality of the universe and all it contains.
    You reference a spiritual reality that you have yet to offer any reason for or evidence of.

    You sneer and snipe at atheists who appear to be figments of your imagination and your gullibility and egotism are demonstrated by you in all your entries.

    If I have not assessed your beliefs accurately, once again you are challenged to explain and justify them or to confirm that you have none and thereby dismiss the fantasy of the undetected and undetectable supernatural and “spiritual”.

  • fractal

    Why are you following me around patheos?
    I think you are anger, looking for a place to land, and project.

  • fractal

    I write about what I have experienced.
    Nothing about beliefs.
    I don’t really have any.

    Now, why do you keep calling me “son”?
    Do you actually think I am a man?

  • rationalobservations?

    Why are you dragging my name into the dishonesty and lies you scatter around these comment columns?

    It is clear that you are a victim of your own ignorance and gullibility but are furious when your bunkum is repeatedly debunked.

    Get over it, dear.

  • rationalobservations?

    You write about your delusions but have no evidence or reason for anyone else to believe your lies or accept your claims, little girl.

  • fractal

    No claims.
    Just reporting what I experienced.

    But you are a troll, and wasting thread space and my time.

  • fractal

    Atheism is certainly a better approximation of reality than the Abrahamic Triad.

    However, Eastern spirituality isn’t concerned with a monstrous Godhead at all.
    They do refer to Deities, but none are eternal or omnipotent.
    And many who practice its variations see the Deities as icons for various states of consciousness, rather than personified God-figures.

    The Taoists and Buddhists don’t talk about a “God” at all—they consider the whole question irrelevant.

  • rationalobservations?

    You must realise that you can only block yourself from reading the truth that humiliated you.
    Others continue to read my observations and will recognise that you failed to argue from evidence and ran away from further ridicule.

  • Dennis Keane

    Still contains supernatural positions. Resurrection, Buddha born out of a slit in his mother’s side, etc. so not really interested Other claims are not falsifiable, replacing on mystery with another preferred mystery.

  • fractal

    When you have a major religion that spreads thru the population, you are always going to have those legends and “miracles”—it is human and inevitable.
    Don’t let it turn you away completely; all that stuff is window dressing, and there are some useful tools behind it.

    There are all kinds of Buddhism, for instance—something for everyone—and Buddhists think that’s just fine.
    No jealous gods.
    The more “Eastern Asian” roots a Buddhist subculture is, the more stripped down and subtle it is. Zen has none of that stuff at all, and neither does basic Taoism.

    The mind is a wondrous tool but a terrible master, because it can get all sorts of weird hangups and compulsions when the ego flies out of control.

    Eastern philosophy teaches the ego to cooperate with the body—because the body knows…

  • Amy

    I was reading through the comments on this post, and I notice that people answer the question in terms of the origins of the New Atheism movement, why it started. But in asking the question, is it a mirror of fundamentalism, is more about what it became. It might have started as a reaction to religious fundamentalism, and a criticism of it, which is right to do. But it grew into something that criticizes all religion and puts it into one basket. It began promoting an ideology and philosophy for determining truth and life. It became interested in “converting” people to their views. A lot of the attitudes and opinions about how to interact with opposing sides, is very similar to how the fundamentalist religions do it.

    Case in point, here in the comments: “I would only add that we offered them a philosophy that was a better approximation of reality.” In other words, this commentator was saying “what we offer is true/sane”. Which is the very same sentiment espoused by fundamentalist groups.

  • Guy

    Hey. Atheist here. Shown this article by a Christian friend.

    I used to be one of those “I hate religion” atheists because I saw religion as a bad thing – Islamic fundamentalism espoused by terrorists, Christians who threw their kid out of the house for being gay, things like that.

    However, a combination of positive experiences with Christians and other people who are nothing like what I just described, and disturbing things I’m seeing that have nothing to do with religion/faith, changed my views.

    In particular, who is doing most of the terrorism in the US these days? White supremacists (not all of whom identify as Christian; many do not). Atheism YouTube channels turned to antifeminism – in fact, one channel I used to like, The Amazing Atheist, who made fun of religion and racism, now constantly complains about women, feminists, and so-called “SJWs.” Indeed, the hostility I saw in the so-called “skeptic community” and how much they act like a tribe of their own made me realize that fundamentalism can come from any side.

    So as a result, why was I to dislike religion specifically? When the non-religious can – and sadly often do – have many of the exact same bad characteristics I associated with religion?

    So my views changed. I don’t care if someone has a religion or not. I care how they act. I’ve seen enough bad atheists (and I am an atheist myself) to lose that simple “religion bad, atheism good” worldview.

  • The question of “what became of New Atheism” is still being answered, I think. As a cultural and social phenomenon, it’s barely a decade old. To the extent that New Atheism criticizes all religion, it does so within the central tenet of the movement which is “faith is not necessarily good.”

    However, beyond that there is no central ideology or philosophy espoused by New Atheism. Many are secular Humanists in terms of their spirituality and philosophy, others are Objectivists, or Satanists, but mostly Apatheists. There are a small minority that seek to de-convert religious believers (some of this minority includes Dawkins, which gives the impression that it is much larger than in reality), but most recognize that apostasy is an intensely personal and internal experience that should not be forced.

    Within the broader atheist community, there are certainly factions that can act in ways that are similar to fundamentalist religions, in the sense that there are certain core ideals that must be affirmed to be a “true” atheist. But as with fundamentalist religious factions, these are typically much smaller and more marginalized than their loudness would suggest.

    That atheists believe atheism to be true is a bit of a tautology, but I would suggest that all religious traditions, fundamentalist or otherwise, purport to offer a view of the world that is true. This is not necessarily a negative trait, nor would I criticize fundamentalist religions for seeking truth; the better question is, how can we best determine truth?

  • Amy

    I would push back slightly on a few of those claims, as “religion” like all things (atheism also applies to this, of course) is not a monolith. I often have to debunk the myth that each religion says that only it has the claim on the truth. It’s a widespread misconception. I’m not saying you claimed that specifically, necessarily, but much of the atheistic reaction to religion stems from the Western religious monopolies on truth, which does not represent all religious perspectives around the world. We too often talk about religious beliefs as a type of cognitive assent, when in some cases that’s barely apart of the equation, if at all. You’ll find many people around the world who think of their religion more in terms of lifestyle and practice, how they relate to things, than what it is that they think.

    I also think, and this is only my opinion of course, that points made about faith by these movements are not really fair. “Faith is not necessarily good” is broad enough that it can mean many things. If it means it is a good idea that exercise skepticism and you shouldn’t assume faith is a good thing because everyone around you is doing it, then I would agree with that. The problem is our definition of faith, and the definition most religious people I know does not match what is commonly thought of as faith. I sometimes get the impression that some atheists have never interacted with a religious person who is also thoughtful, methodical, and aware of the issues. The objection to faith comes more from a difference in value sets (how you determine knowledge and make your decisions) than any true ramifications that the religious practice has on a person.

  • I would agree that religion is not monolithic, and indeed if we’re speaking as broadly as possible several religious traditions are technically atheistic. It has also been my experience that religion exists for many people as personal identity rather than cognitive assent, as there are plenty of people I’ve met who identify as a member of a traditional theistic religion (e.g., Roman Catholicism) but when queried about their actual beliefs, turn out to be atheists.

    As far as the virtue of faith, I would agree that there should be careful attention paid to precisely how it is being defined. Indeed, that is part of the entire point of saying that “faith is not necessarily good,” as definitions vary. The other point is that it has been commonly and historically claimed (explicitly or implicitly) that faith is a good in and of itself, at least when compared with no faith, and the New Atheism was in part a realization that this is not necessarily the case. Merely having faith in something should not be taken as a virtue.

    It very likely is the case that some atheists have never interacted with thoughtful religious people, but I would say the same thing about some (many? most?) religious people. In my experience, the vast majority of atheists (in America, at least) are apostates from one of the Abrahamic faiths, and the experience of apostasy does tend to bring one in contact with more thoughtful religious thinkers and thoughts; so I don’t think it is the case that the atheists I know suffer from a lack of interaction with thoughtful religious people. Perhaps if there were more of these thoughtful religious people in certain communities, it would limit the likelihood of apostates (such as myself) rejecting simplistic and fundamentalist religious ideas. More’s the pity.

  • Amy

    I would agree with pretty much all of that. I don’t have too much to add to that. I do think that “faith” is not a virtue in and of itself, or makes a person better. Case in point, we should not select politicians on the basis of their professed faith or religious belief, especially when you consider that we’re taking them on their word; for all we know, they’re closeted non-believers. Or maybe not–politicians lying for the purpose of gaining support and votes? Surely they would never do that.

    I would say that I’m not sure there would be less apostasy if religious communities were less simplistic and more thoughtful. My contention is that most people abandon religion or their beliefs because they simply don’t believe it anymore (or never did), and/or become wholly indifferent the spiritual side of things. How fundamentalist religious groups function now doesn’t do them any favors, but maybe the point is to retain only the most committed and unwavering members.

  • It’s difficult to say for sure what predicts apostasy, but I’ll note with some interest that the rise of the nonreligious demographic coincides with the rising popularity and accessibility of the internet. My own personal hypothesis is that people who identify as religious now have more access to information about their religion, as well as access to people who are questioning their religion, than ever before in human history. There may be a causal relationship between those phenomena.

    We also unfortunately have little in the way of sociological research on atheists in general and apostates specifically. However, the Barna Research Group (an Evangelical company) has produced some data on the apostasy factors cited by 18–29 year old current and former Christians. Three of the top reasons for apostasy were related to fundamentalism, including opposition to science, simplistic views of sex and gender, and hostility towards doubt. From my own experience, it’s been much less likely to find apostates from Methodist churches than Southern Baptist ones. It’s also been an obviously different experience interacting with fundamentalist Evangelical compared to academic or progressive Christians; the latter have an unmistakable anxiety surrounding the threat of apostasy, while the latter couldn’t be more relaxed. Your mileage may vary, I suppose. I’ll look forward to the continued study of this fascinating community.

  • Amy

    I think the internet is one factor, but it is one of many factors, not the main factor IMO. What we have in our modern era, I think, is a greater social acceptance of heterogenous opinions and lifestyles. People now feel they can be more open and honest about their beliefs. I’m willing to bet that in the 60s, there were many closet atheists in churches, but the closet was the only option. Modern atheists don’t have to hide it as much anymore. That isn’t to say there isn’t push back or consequences from admitting lack of belief. But people now, feel it is important to be true to oneself than to live with a façade to please others.

    Also note that we’re talking specifically about the American movement. I don’t know all the factors influencing the fall of religion in Europe, but I think an important one is the people started becoming fed up by the organized churches and moving past a feudalistic, aristocratic social system that the churches undergirded. Our own version of this began in the last decade or so. The churches became enmeshed with American political parties, and over time we were done with that. Scandals and abuse of power became more visible, as our news cycles and social media allowed information to spread easily.

    I hope that sociologists will continue to research this. One of my mentors does.

  • I wonder how easily it is to separate what you’ve observed about people being more open and willing to talk about the beliefs from the opportunity provided by the internet to discuss those beliefs easily and anonymously. I can recall the early days of the internet were awash with discussion boards full of people hiding behind pseudonyms but eagerly comparing notes with others who were questioning their religion. I’m not sure that this phenomenon would be possible without the architecture of the internet.

    For myself, I had little to no resources available within my church or among my religious peers when I began experiencing doubts. I was only able to explore those in more depth, and receive some guidance on areas to further study, when I began making contacts with other doubters online. If the internet had not existed, I’m not sure what my path would have been. Perhaps I would have remained a casual doubter, perhaps I would have assumed that my doubts were isolated and thus unimportant, and perhaps I would have dismissed them altogether. Perhaps, as well, I might have gone through a solitary apostasy and remained in the closet. Whichever would have been the case, I don’t know, but I do know that I wouldn’t have been able to connect to other apostates and develop communities for atheists and Humanists without the architecture of the internet.

    I suspect your assessment of European secularism is correct, and to the extent which Evangelical Christianity is treated as a state religion in America, I look forward to the same phenomenon being completed here.

  • Amy

    Btw, I tried to view your website (really just an alternate link to a Facebook page it seems), as I’ve enjoyed this particular interaction. But it seems like the site was down or gone, if you were unaware of that.

  • Apologies! The URL hasn’t been an actual website in more than a decade, I’ve used it in the past to forward to my Facebook profile, but that is currently deactivated.

    I’ve enjoyed this as well! If you would like to view my other work, I’d suggest visiting and My video content is at

  • Ivan T. Errible

    Religion is boring, expensive, and time-consuming.

  • Amy

    My website is You can find my contact info there — not much content yet, but I’m planning to expand it.

  • Thanks for the thoughtful dialogue, Amy and Zachary. I appreciate what you all have shared here.

  • You’re not wrong.

  • I appreciate you sharing that, and I share your conviction.