The New Atheists are Back…

The New Atheists are Back… May 16, 2015

Dumber Than Ever as Daniel Dennett looks at a Pew poll and sees, despite all the blandishments of reality, exactly what he wants to see, the imminent death of religion.  Damon Linker does the autopsy on Dennett’s perverse and wilful misreading of the data:

The biggest problem of all with Dennett’s op-ed is the fact that it purports to use a new Pew poll to make a claim about the coming decline of “religion” as such, and yet that very poll directly contradicts the claim. Yes, the ranks of the religiously unaffiliated are growing modestly in the United States (and France). But the poll also includes the following top-line prediction about the religious profile of the planet as a whole in 2050: “Atheists, agnostics, and other people who do not affiliate with any religion…will make up a declining share of the world’s total population.”

That’s right: The “bleak” future of religion likely includes the proportional decline of the religiously unaffiliated relative to the religious, with the number of unaffiliated growing slightly (from 1.13 billion to 1.23 billion), but their share of the global population falling from 16.4 percent to 13.2 percent. That decline will largely be the result of substantial growth in the number of Christians (from 2.17 billion to 2.92 billion) and Muslims (from 1.6 billion to 2.76 billion).

If that’s a decline in religion, what would a boom look like?

Dennett once again demonstrates that no religious sect in the world has more intense, reality-denying faith than the New Atheism.

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  • MichaelNewsham

    Though an atheist, I’m normally a big fan, but this is disappointing- I won’t even mention the commenter you link to, who has the bile of Chris Hitchens but not the talent.

    If this trend continues, religion largely will evaporate, at least in
    the West. Pockets of intense religious activity may continue, made up of
    people who will be more sharply differentiated from most of society in
    attitudes and customs, a likely source of growing tension and conflict.

    No one, least of all Daniel Dennett, is denying that in places where poverty and lack of education is rife, the population is growing, and that these places are more religious. Therefore, as long as vast swathes of the planet remain this way, religion will flourish in those conditions.

    He is assuming, perhaps optimistically, that the world will gradually become a wealthier and more educated place, coming to resemble Europe and its offshoots, or prosperous East Asia, where religion is indeed declining.

    If we are lucky—if human health and security continue to rise and spread
    around the globe—churches might evolve into humanist communities and
    social clubs, dedicated to good works, with distinctive ceremonies and
    disappearing doctrine, except for a scattering of reclusive sects marked
    by something like institutional paranoia.If we are unlucky and calamity strikes, our anxiety and misery will
    provide plenty of fuel for revivals and inventions of religions we have
    happily learned to live without.

    I have long held that the least realistic part of The Walking Dead is that, especially in rural Georgia, 90% of the communities they come across would be based on the idea that the Zombie Apocalypse is a result of gay marriage, feminism, and Obamacare.

    • Pete the Greek

      Have you lived in the rural South?

    • Religious people are poor and ignorant? You, because you are an atheist, must be affluent and well-educated?

      Are those scientific statements?

      • MichaelNewsham

        Um, yes, on the whole- doesn’t apply to each person, of course. Check out which countries are wealthiest and most educated- hey, they’re least religious.

        Check out poor, less-educated and more disaster-torn countries- they’re most religious.

        Not saying religious belief causes poverty and ignorance; it’s a consequence

        • Tweck

          As someone gifted with relatively high intelligence, I can testify to the fact that ignorance is not a component of belief, nor is belief a consequence of ignorance. In fact, the more education I’ve received, mostly in the arts and sciences, the more my belief has increased.

          Much of this worldly education came during a time when I left organized religion, and even attempted to be agnostic for awhile. All it did was point me back to God.

          Obviously I’m just talking from my own experience, but I suspect that many of the young people who leave the Church, as I did, will have similar revelations years down the road. That’s just my opinion, though, and I don’t hold it up as any sort of prophetic or scientific reality. It’s just a suspicion based on personal experience.

          • MichaelNewsham

            As the old saying goes “data is not the plural of anecdote”.

  • Galorgan

    Linker’s article is quite poor. Dennett is clearly talking about the West, not the entire world. “If this trend continues, religion largely will evaporate, at least in the West.”

    Linker then goes on to imply that atheists need better champions than Dennett, but this is after he speaks of atheism’s predicted (global) decline being due to birth rates, not conversions (or lack thereof).

    Linker’s article itself starts with insubstantial bile against the “New Atheists” and focuses it rather disgustingly on Dennett himself. “Apparently, no one bothered to tell Daniel Dennett, the Tufts University philosopher who has long had the distinction of serving as the dunce in the New Atheist’s classroom of theological underachievers.”

    It all just comes across as sad – sour grapes in light of the Pew study.

    • “If this trend continues, religion largely will evaporate, at least in the West.”

      Do you believe that religion will largely evaporate in the West, whatever that is? Based on what? A trend identified on the basis of a poll taken in the year 2015?

      It sounds very scientific.

      Now, bile it may or may not be, but if you are an atheist you are blind and deaf. Look around you. There is no evidence of coherence, majesty and beauty?

      Atheism is a form of depression.

      • Galorgan

        “Do you believe that religion will largely evaporate in the West, whatever that is? Based on what? A trend identified on the basis of a poll taken in the year 2015?”

        I don’t know and Dennett could well be wrong about these things. One could easily say that Dennett is overreaching and is being unscientific. It makes it all the weirder that Linker made such bad points.

        “Now, bile it may or may not be, but if you are an atheist you are blind and deaf. Look around you. There is no evidence of coherence, majesty and beauty?

        Atheism is a form of depression.”

        What a compelling argument. I’m convinced!

        • You will convince yourself, which is the best sort of conviction.

    • jroberts548

      When I woke up this morning, it was about 60. Now it’s about 80! If this trend continues, we’ll all be dead by monday morning!

      I’m amazed at the ability of people who are smarter, more enlightened than me, and who believe in science to extrapolate a trend infinitely into the future, with no regard for the fact that we’ve seen similar trends before, and that such trend will not continue forever.

      • Galorgan

        Again, Dennett could well be wrong, but your analogy doesn’t quite work. We haven’t had surveys such as this long enough to know if it is cyclical like the temperature is during a day. The increased temperature vs time of day analogizes more closely with how people may become more religious as they age, not of how the entire population has become less religious.

        Yes, Dennett may be extrapolating too much and is probably relying on wishful thinking. I don’t get why this can’t just be stated without resorting to hyperbole or bad arguments.

        • jroberts548

          I too don’t get why Dennett can’t state his argument without resorting to hyperbole or bad arguments.

        • Alma Peregrina

          Maybe we haven’t had surveys for long enough to know if religiosity is cyclical, but if any induction from previous trends can be made, is that Catholicism will bounce back.

          In my country, we’ve had a President that made as the goal of his life to eradicate religiosity from our nation. He said triumphantly: The Catholic Church will not last two generations in here (no exageration, no hyperbole). Well, he’s dead for 8 decades now and Catholicism is still around… we even had a “Catholicism”-based dictatorship after that guy…

          This is not an isolated incident, by the way.

          From my limited point of view, the trend is this: anticatholics predict the end of Catholicism. Anticatholics and their respective movements die out. Catholicism thrives.

          • Galorgan

            What you describe is quite different than what we are seeing, though. There is no widespread movement against Catholicism per se in the United States. There may be movements against specific positions that Catholics (and other Christians/religious people) have, but what we are seeing is people freely choosing to no longer identify as Catholic.

            This isn’t to say that the Catholic church won’t bounce back, but the current trend does not relate to hostile regimes. In addition to the decrease in the percentage of Catholics, there is a cultural shift away from a few Catholic positions that cannot be (easily) changed. So, presumably, something is going to have to happen for the Catholic church to bounce back in places where this is occurring. Either the culture will revert back to accepting the Catholic positions, the Catholic church will change its positions outright, or the Catholic church will soften its stance without changing it and just talk about these things less. I doubt any of these will happen, but I can’t predict the future. Furthermore, the latter two options have not worked for mainline Protestant churches or progressive Christian churches.

            As a final caveat, it still just one study, no matter how large. Replication is an important part of science, including the social sciences.

            • Alma Peregrina

              All good points, but I said: “From my limited point of view, the trend is this: anticatholics predict the end of Catholicism. Anticatholics and their respective movements die out. Catholicism thrives.”

              Dennett is anticatholic. Therefore the trend dictates that the New Atheist movement will die out before Catholicism does.

              I don’t think it’s irrational to posit this will happen. I’ve already witnessed various people (theists and atheists alike) in the Internet criticizing the New Atheist movement as the sort of annoying childish proselitizers that they are. And this backlash it’s getting more and more widespread by the day.

              As for the Catholic Church you’re right… we don’t know what will happen, statistics-wise. However, I’m not worried. And so, I think Dennett should not be worried about us, he should be worried about his own backyard.

    • Tweck

      He says, as you quote, “If this trend continues, religion largely will evaporate, at least in the West.”

      He does not say, as you suggest, “”If this trend continues, religion largely will evaporate in the West.”

      He is suggesting that religion will “largely evaporate,” and then adds, “at least in the West,” indicating that in his view, based on his willful misreading of the numbers, this “evaporation,” is likely to be world-wide (but maybe not (even though the numbers of religious people, including Christians, show to be increasing worldwide (so his view makes zero sense whatsoever…)))

  • 4,4,4,2:


    Not yet deep dusk, the swifts in

    Their business is with light above,

    For us below already night

    Who struggle through a dearth of

    They swoop and swerve and bank
    their wings

    Across the setting of the sun,

    They always know what dawn will

    Has always brought, God’s will be

    But those beneath have lost their

    In even where their steps may go,

    Those earth bound sons of greed
    and lust

    Impure and heavy, blind and slow

    The contrast as they dart and

    Compels a wonder at our pride


    May 6,

  • staircaseghost

    “Dennett once again demonstrates that no religious sect in the world has more intense, reality-denying faith than the New Atheism.”

    An additional data point indicating the decline of religion in the West is the use of descriptors like “intense faith”, “dogmatic”, “Inquisition”, “witch-hunt” etc. as terms of abuse by members of the religion which once championed those very behaviors.

    • Tweck

      But New Atheists ARE religious.

      • staircaseghost

        “But New Atheists ARE religious.”

        Good catch. Don’t know how I missed it.

        In the mind of the 21st century Christian, nothing is more insulting to a person’s moral and intellectual character than calling them “religious”. If fortune is smiling on us, perhaps this kind of cavalier attitude towards whether words mean what they mean also presages an imminent abandonment of the “they’re trying to change the definition of marriage” line of rhetoric.

        • Tweck

          Let’s see… they go out of their way to proselytize their faith in unbelief and win converts… and look, they even have churches:

        • Tweck

          Also, I don’t mean to insult anyone’s moral or intellectual character, I am simply pointing out a statement of fact. The New Atheist movement is fundamentalist and evangelistic.

          Also, a definition of “religious” is:

          “Relating to or manifesting faithful devotion to an acknowledged ultimate reality or deity.”

          As for the definition of marriage, that’s been pretty much set in stone for most of human history. So yes, people are trying to change an agreed-upon social construct, even outside of the boundaries of religious consideration.

  • Sue Korlan

    The Get Religion folks had the best proposed explanation for the study I’ve seen. Nominal Christians who used to say they were a member of whatever Church they grew up in due to social pressure to belong to a church no longer feel the need to lie about what they do. If you haven’t darkened a church door in 20 years you really are a none.

  • The nones tend not to reproduce, the religious a bit more so. Those pockets of religious faith in the west that Dennett admits to are going to be where the demographic growth is coming from. Funny how a demographic analysis was entirely absent from our new atheist friend.

    • Alma Peregrina

      Shush… let us not spoil the atheist secularist triumph that is sterile sexuality with that thing called reality. Oh, and by the way, religious people just believe in god because of wishful-thinking and yada yada yada.

    • MichaelNewsham

      Same thing in Europe: didn’t work there either

    • MichaelNewsham

      Whatever marginal increases in population growth among religious groups is swamped by other factors- particularly abandonment.

      The projections show there will be many more Christians by 2050- it’s just that they’ll be concentrated in the poorest countries, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa, while the numbers in wealthier countries will drop. Of course, you could advocate for masive immigration from those poor countries- that will reverse the trend, and is surely the Christian thing to do.

      • It’s actually quite funny to think that we have good projections out to 2050 on an item where wealthy nations is a relevant category. Where was Greece supposed to be in 2050 according to the predictions of 2005? It certainly was a different future than the same prediction made today.

        • MichaelNewsham

          It’s still a wealthy and developed nation on an international scale. It will (barring war, volcanic eruption, or other massive natural disaster) still be wealthier than most nations, simply by its proximity to and involvement with the advanced countries of Europe.

          While some poorer countries may make breakthroughs, like China did- and hopefully India is- on a 35-year timeline it’s very easy to predict- barring nuclear war or the Zombie Apocalypse- that most of the poor and undeveloped countries today will still be in that position a generation from now.

          • Funny you mention China because it’s income is going up at the same time as its interest in religion which should be an impossibility according to the original thesis by Dennett. Do people turn toward God in times of trouble only to forget Him when all is going well? The Bible’s full of such stories. The phenomenon is not exactly controversial. Instead Dennett’s saying that communication and information drives out belief in which case the poor countries shouldn’t be predicted to be hot spots for religion because by 2050 even they will likely be fully wired as connectivity costs continue to drop.

    • Passion Pit

      It’s funny because he was talking primarily about the U.S., which shows not only a decline in the national percentage of Christians, but also a decline in the raw number.

      • Dennett was talking about the US, except when he wasn’t. He seems very flexible.

        • Passion Pit

          Really? He seems to be pretty constant in his speaking of the U.S.:

          Taken from the Week:
          “What is Dennett’s evidence that religion is about to go the way of the buggy whip? A new Pew Research Center study predicts that by 2050 one out of four Americans will be “religiously unaffiliated” (up from one in six today).”

          Taken from the WSJ (the article replied to by the Week):
          “If this trend continues, religion largely will evaporate, at least in the West. Pockets of intense religious activity may continue, made up of people who will be more sharply differentiated from most of society in attitudes and customs, a likely source of growing tension and conflict.”

          Taken from an Alternet interview:
          “The Pew Research Center predicts that the growth in world Muslim populations will increase not only in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, but also in North America. Their demographic study validates my prediction that there will be more religious switching within Western culture from Christianity to non-affiliation. But the percentage of unaffiliated believers will actually go down as a percentage of the global population.”

          Funny how he’s, again, only talking about the West’s decline. Dennett knows full well that Religion is going to still be here in the middle east and Africa (interestingly, the majority of world-wide atheists are in the east). He knows that the modernization of a religious area causes religious people in that area to become less religious, as shown in many, many studies. He knows that those Western pockets and world-wide religious ubiquity are primarily due to differentiating birthrates between religious and non. He’s shown this in interviews and in his op-ed, which was poorly reported by the week.

          • Nice example of moving goalposts, first “he’s talking about the US” and then “the West”. Culturally, the US isn’t unitary, not by a long shot and it’s not even unitary in a legal sense. It’s 50 sovereign states with a sovereign federal government on top. The state of religion in South Carolina is likely to be significantly different than Massachusetts.

            We’re heading into the end game of a huge economic mess which I would expect will expose the weak points of the New Atheists. I don’t particularly want this to happen. I just don’t see it as being physically avoidable at this point without making things even worse. We’re Wile E Coyote after he ran off the edge of the cliff. How many years, months, or weeks will it take us to collectively figure that out and price it into the markets is the only mystery that’s left.

            • Passion Pit

              I never moved goalposts. Be it national centrism, but when i say the West, I mean predominantly the U.S., which is what I said in the beginning. I totally agree with you about the cultural pockets of religion in the west. Even Dennett would agree with you.

              As for your last paragraph, I’m completely lost as to where you got that tangent from. Plus, I don’t know how an economic mess equates to the exposition of New Atheism weak points. They’ve been there for anyone to see for as long as they’ve been popular, just like any other movement.

              • That “tangent” comes from the silly idea that Dennett’s peddling of straight line projection to 2050 as a serious scenario for the future.

                • Passion Pit

                  I’ve never heard him say nor seen him write that his prediction is something more than a prediction. Perhaps you could show me where he does that?

  • bob

    You seem to be confusing atheism with religious unaffiliation. I’m unaffiliated but I’m not an atheist, and the same is true of most unaffiliated. We believe in God. We just don’t believe much in religion.
    The Pew poll does show a decline in religious affiliation. It does not necessarily show a decline in belief.

    • Bob, it’s more and richer than youi may think. It’s true that you may have to put up with other people, but after all, they have to put up with you.

    • Mike

      A serious question…..What does not “believing in religion” mean? Doesn’t un affiliated raise the risk of creating belief in ” your own God”.

    • MichaelNewsham

      Not necessarily, but in fact it does show a decline in belief if you get down to the stats.
      But it’s true there are many people out there who are “spiritual”, New Age, believe in some kind of “God” , “Force”, “Cosmic Sense” etc.

  • wlinden

    And what about the tierces and sexts?

    • Sigroli

      I laud your question.

      • antigon

        Am certainly not complining about it.

  • Just back from Mass here in a small American town. The Church was filled with young parents and their infants and small children. Lots of teenagers too.

    • MichaelNewsham

      Argue with this guy:

      From the crisis of today the Church of tomorrow will emerge—a Church that has lost much. She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to
      inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the
      number of her adherents diminishes, so will she lose many of her social
      privileges. In contrast to an earlier age, she will be seen much more as
      a voluntary society, entered only by free decision.

  • Tweck

    I keep telling those New Atheists that they are, in fact, a religion unto themselves, and should stop hiding behind the basic idea of “small a” atheism that defines itself as people who simply don’t believe in God, gods or dieties.

    Their forceful attempts to spread their anti-theistic gospel through whatever lies and data-manipulation they feel betters their cause, and endless attempts to force their beliefs down our throats or go out of their way to discredit ours through any and all available means… makes them Fundamentalist Evangelical Anti-theists.

    • Passion Pit

      The idea that atheism is a religion is silly. Religion is predicated on unproven faith and pastoral rhetoric that gives authority to those who master it. Dawkins, Hitchens, etc., accept facts and evidence that transcend observer bias.

      Calling atheism a religion is simply a rhetorical strategy to undermine the movement, and it does nothing but deepen the divide between atheists and religious.

      • Tweck

        Not atheism, New Atheism. They are two markedly and fundamentally different things. The “atheists” that I know are not religious about it at all, but they also don’t try to proselytize their atheism to me, and we get along quite well. But the New Atheists are a different breed altogether.

        I mentioned to another commenter that one definition of “religious,” is:

        “Relating to or manifesting faithful devotion to an acknowledged ultimate reality or deity.”

        The New Atheist movement is a movement of faithful devotion to what they see as the ultimate reality, and they are hard at work trying to convince the rest of us of their version of “truth.”

        That is the very definition of “religious.”

        • Passion Pit

          And you’d be right, if you didn’t overlook two small things:

          “Relating to or manifesting faithful devotion to an acknowledged ultimate reality or deity.”

          That key word faithful, as I’ve said, is what religion is predicated on. Atheists have no faith, they have confidence. Faith is implicitly tied to no evidence, while confidence is. Atheists trust and have confidence in science, because science has shown to be right before, and advances in it have proven to be more helpful to society than faith ever could.

          Secondly, a New Atheist is an atheist. Lots of people call Atheism by different names: nones, free-thinkers, humanists, skeptics, etc. However, if you call the foundation that a New Atheist bases his views on as religious, you’re also saying that all of those other non-religious people are atheists too. So you can’t pick and choose, friend.

          • Tweck

            I can pick and choose, because I know I’m right about this.

            Faith: complete trust or confidence in someone or something.

            Faith, trust and confidence are all variations of the same thing.

            As I’ve said, atheists are not religious – the “New Atheist Movement” is, however, a religious movement. And those who are devoted to it are being religious. I’ve been very clear about this the entire time, and it’s true.

            Also, I am a free-thinker and a Catholic. Imagine that.

            • Passion Pit

              Please, show me an instance of Hitchens, et al, using a non-factual error to back up their “truth-claims.”

              “I can pick and choose, because I know I’m right about this.”
              If this isn’t the most brazen comment I’ve ever seen…

              Faith, trust, and confidence (I hate not using the Oxford comma) are all variations of the same concept of belief in something. Linguistics and language of a definition, however, can’t be used as an ultimate source of proof, because language isn’t universally used. The argument, and what I’m saying by faith, is that in a religion, there is no evidence of the existence of a God, Gods, or Spiritual Essence (if you can give me evidence that clearly shows through sound reasoning not only the existence of Christ as a human, but the existence of God, I’ll be stunned). The only thing that separates New Atheism from atheism is a more aggressive attitude towards religions, or a lack of respect to the beliefs of other faiths. They don’t purport their beliefs to be the ultimate reality by any means, and saying the contrary is a straw man. Atheism is no more a religion than Confucianism. It’s a philosophy.

          • Tweck

            Also, Christopher Hitchens and his ilk seem to enjoy using non-factual error and/or presumption to back up their truth-claims with regard to all religions outside of their own. They aren’t very scientific when it comes to religion; they are as ignorant about it as they so brazenly claim us to be.

  • Passion Pit

    Leave it to a religious person to look at something on a basal level. 🙂

    The numbers alone will show that the Christian population will stay the same, proportionally speaking, with Muslims being the only group growing. However, one must look at how Pew arrived at that number.

    Simply put, when you look at the population currently, factor in average birth rate based on religion, and stretch that out to 50 years, you’ll have a growth of religion much higher than what the Pew poll suggests. There must be something more to the story, then. That’s where this thing called Religion Switching comes into play.

    It’s very common for people to leave their childhood religion, especially if they were Christian. I use common, not in the sense that it’s happening left and right, but in the sense that the majority of switches go from Christian to something else. What isn’t common is for someone to go from unaffiliated to religious. Assuming patterns from the last 7 years hold (which they never do; it’s likely that we’ll see a greater decline in religion as older folks pass away and younger folks who are definitely less religious get older and have kids) then, yes. There will be a lot of people who were born into Christianity migrating away from it, showing that the only thing keeping religion alive is people being born into it and being brainwashed as children. What Dennett suggests is that the power of information and the power of facts can overturn indoctrination. Below is the article this guy mentions.

    Have fun, guys!