The New Atheism’s Futile Crusade in its Fight Against Religion

This article emerges after its author read several times sociologist of religion Rodney Stark’s influential essay and critique of the secularization thesis, Secularization, R.I.P. (1999). This author could not help but draw parallels from the research provided by Stark to the agitated New Atheists and anti-theists of the past two decades or so. If readers want a full breakdown of Stark’s essay, please consult this article.

The New Atheists and anti-theists make no effort to conceal their disdain for all things religion. Jon O’Hair of American Atheists claimed that “This world would be the best of all possible worlds if “faith” was eradicated from the face of the earth” (1). Before his death, Christopher Hitchens, in one of his speeches, stated, “I think religion should be treated with ridicule, hatred and contempt, and I claim that right” (2). Dawkins holds to a similar view when, at a Reason Rally, he urged attending atheists to “Mock them [religious person], ridicule them… in public” (3). A study found that most atheists also express negative views when asked about the role of religion in society (4).

If there is one common thread running through these voices, it is that the New Atheists are angry and they disdain all things religion. This would mean that the fact that religions exist constitutes a great offense to the sensibilities and sensitivities of these proponents. This author does no suspect these attitudes will change, at least not in the short to long term future. One can expect the New Atheists and anti-theists to continue to be angry at an indifferent world that refuses to bow to their demands for the elimination of religion. Here we want to offer several reasons why we can expect the anger of the anti-theists to continue unabated.

A first point to consider is that atheism has always been and continues to be a minority worldview. It can indeed be very difficult to exist in societies in which one is a minority, especially one considered to be an outsider. As we will note below, atheists are very much considered, at least in the United States, cultural outsiders. Being a minority nonetheless comes with all sorts of difficulties. It is often challenging, for example, to engage with the convictions and biases of others who do not hold to your beliefs. There is never a shortage of such persons in a society in which they constitute a majority. There is also always the fear that as a minority, one will be taken advantage of or one’s rights might be undermined. This might explain why embattled atheists organizations desperately police the boundaries of Church and state and come down hard on any perceived transgressions.  

What makes matters worse is that atheists are also a minority group with a downright terrible public reputation. Atheists are notorious for being angry, dogmatic, and easily offended. Unfortunately, for atheists who are more academic, sensible, and level-headed, the likes of Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Hitchens have done much damage to atheism’s public reputation and appeal. Although militant attacks on religious faith will appeal to some, most will oppose such strategies. It becomes quite difficult for many atheists to market and share their ideas if their position is associated with a bashful, religion-hating disposition. This will no doubt thwart the efforts of many evangelical atheists and leave many feeling frustrated at the lack of penetration their ideas have in the general public.

To add a further comment on atheism’s public reputation and appeal, most people, at least in the United States, just do not seem to like atheists. Several studies suggest this.

Sociologists at the University of Minnesota conducted a research study that discovered that among a list of racial and religious minority groups in America, atheists were the most disliked group of people (5). It was found that forty-eight percent (48%) of people disapproved of their child marrying an atheist, while forty percent (40%) of Americans felt atheists do not share their vision for society (6). The findings suggested that Americans still have a negative view of atheists and the non-religious in general. According to the researchers, their goal was to replicate the analysis “from a decade earlier” and, this time around, “to consider the factors that foster negative sentiment toward other non-religious persons.” Researcher Penny Edgell explains that,

“The findings of this most recent survey support the argument that atheists are persistent cultural outsiders in the United States because they are perceived to have rejected cultural values and practices understood as essential to private morality, civic virtue, and national identity. Moreover, any refusal to embrace a religious identity of any type is troubling for a large portion of Americans” (7).

Regarding who Americans would vote for as president, a recent Gallup poll found that ninety-six percent (96%) of Americans would vote for a Black candidate, ninety-five percent (95%) for a Catholic, ninety-three percent (93%) for a Jew, and seventy-six (76%) for a gay or lesbian. Only sixty percent (60%) said that they would vote for an atheist. Americans are even more likely to vote for a Muslim president (66%) than an atheist one and only a socialist (47%) ranked lower than an atheist (8).

There is also a study in which participants were presented with a story about a person who accidentally hits a parked car and then fails to leave behind valid insurance information for the other driver (9). Participants were asked to choose the probability that the person in question was a Christian, a Muslim, a rapist, or an atheist. They thought it equally probable the culprit was an atheist or a rapist, and unlikely the person was a Muslim or Christian.

A 2019 Pew Research Center survey asked Americans to rate groups on a “feeling thermometer” from 0 (as cold and negative as possible) to 100 (the warmest, most positive possible rating). U.S. adults gave atheists an average rating of 49, identical to the rating they gave Muslims [49] and colder than the average given to Jews [63], Catholics [60], and evangelical Christians [56]. (10)

These studies are illustrative and there are few things worse than being a mistrusted minority who is seen as a cultural outsider.

third point to notice is that the global share of religiously unaffiliated people, although increasing in absolute number (from 1.17 billion in 2015 to 1.20 billion in 2060), is actually expected to drop (11). This means that atheism too is expected to decline globally while religions, except for Buddhism, will continue to grow and flourish. Persons with no religion will make up about thirteen percent (13%) of the world’s population in 2060, down from roughly sixteen percent (16%) as of 2015. Hinduism, Judaism, and Christianity will continue growing and Islam will become the world’s largest religion after 2050 (12). And certainly some New Atheists have not hold back on their negatives perceptions of Islam.

Of some relevance here are new religious movements. The prominent sociologist of religion Christian Smith, although admitting to the difficulties of predicting the future of religions, states that we can expect new religious movements to continue to emerge, including in the West (13). It is a fact, to atheism’s chagrin, that across the world people are constantly inventing variations of existing religious traditions and this includes new religions too. Much empirical evidence from the last two centuries proves that new religious movements continue to emerge and proliferate.

These predictions can be quite discouraging for atheists and anti-theists. Although atheists might continue to have success in converting some persons in several Western countries, the general global situation certainly looks less promising. Atheism is expected to decline in share of the global population and this might well make the anti-theist’s crusade to eliminate religion seem futile.

It is also not necessarily clear that there here is a lack of religious belief even in some of the so-called “secular” countries many atheists champion. An atheist might point to the loss of church attendance and the growing religiously unaffiliated population as proof that religion is declining. But this is hardly obvious. Sociologist Rodney Stark, for example, argues that the mistake proponents of the secularization thesis make is to correlate low church attendance with a lack of or loss in religiosity (14). But he challenges this assumption by referring to the case study of Iceland, allegedly claimed by some to be the most secular country in Europe. But as Stark shows, evidence suggests that although only two percent (2%) of Icelanders attend church, most hold to a belief in religious concepts.

As one fieldwork researcher and scholar in Iceland discovered, there are high levels of in-the-home religion in the country, high rates of baptism, and that nearly all weddings occur in church (15). He also noted that “affirmations of personal immortality are typical”, such as in newspaper obituaries usually written by a close friend of the deceased rather than by a news writer. Further, the 1990 World Values Surveys reported that eighty-one percent (81%) of Icelanders are confident that there is life after death, eighty-eight percent (88%) believe in the human soul, and forty percent (40%) believe in reincarnation (16). Regarding prayer to God, eighty-two percent (82%) said they prayed sometimes and one in four did so “often.” Only two-point-four percent (2.4%) of Icelanders claimed to be “convinced atheists.” Further, spiritualism is widespread in Iceland, popular even among leading intellectuals and academics. In light of these data, that Iceland is a secularized nation is a claim strongly contradicted by the facts.

Further, some atheists might cherish the fact that an increasing number of Americans is becoming religiously unaffiliated (those who categorize themselves as ‘atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular”’). But the anti-theists should not be too quick to celebrate given there are certainly signs of religiosity in the unaffiliated demographic. For example, the overwhelming majority of religiously unaffiliated Black Americans believe in God and about half pray regularly (17). Sixty-eight percent (68%) of unaffiliated American adults believe in God or a higher power (18). In other words, a sizable chunk of the religiously unaffiliated can still be considered religious, despite most not being a part of religious institutions. Stark refers to this as “subjective religiosity,” simply meaning that persons still hold to religious beliefs even though they do not attend church or belong to religious institutions. Religious loss in church attendance does not necessarily equate to a lack of religiosity. Much still needs to be explored in this area.

The data here complicates things for atheism, anti-theists, and atheist evangelists in their crusade against religion. The prospects of attaining the end of religion’s elimination appears rather bleak. The anti-theist Sam Harris once remarked that “If I could wave a magic wand and get rid of either rape or religion, I would not hesitate to get rid of religion” (19). In Harris’s ideal world there would no rape and religion. But in this real world, he and his fellow anti-theists are unlikely to get rid of either. 

References

  1. Jon O’Hair in The American Hour (1993), authored by Os Guinness. p. 172.
  2. YouTube. 2007. Christopher Hitchens — Religion. Available.
  3. YouTube. 2012. Richard Dawkins espouses Militant Atheism: “Mock them, Ridicule them.” Available.
  4. Lipka, Michale. 2019. 10 facts about atheists. Available.
  5. Edgell, Penny., Hartmann, Douglas., Stewart, Evan., Gerteis, Joseph. 2016. “Atheists and Other Cultural Outsiders: Moral Boundaries and the Non-Religious in the United States.” Social Forces 95(2):607-638.
  6. Edgell, Penny. et al. Ibid. p. 612.
  7. Edgell, Penny. et al. Ibid. p. 609.
  8. McCarthy, Justin. 2019. Less Than Half in U.S. Would Vote for a Socialist for President. Available.
  9. Grewal, Dasiy. 2012. In Atheists We Distrust. Available.
  10. Pew Research Center. 2019. Feelings toward religious groups. Available.
  11. Lipka, Michael., and McClendon, David. 2017. Why people with no religion are projected to decline as a share of the world’s population. Available.
  12. Pew Research Center. 2015. The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010-2050. Available.
  13. Smith, Christian. 2017. “What Is Religion’s Future?” In Religion Book: What It Is, How It Works, and Why It Matters. Princeton: Princeton University Press. p. 241
  14. Stark, Rodney. 1999. “Secularization, R.I.P.” Sociology of Religion 60(3):249-273.
  15. Swatos, William. 1984. “The Relevance of Religion: Iceland and Secularization Theory.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 23:32-43.
  16. Swatos, William. 1997. Icelandic Spiritualism: Mediumship and Modernity in Iceland. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers.
  17. Cox, Kiana. 2021. Nine-in-ten Black ‘nones’ believe in God, but fewer pray or attend services. Available.
  18. Pew Research Center. 2012. Religiously Unaffiliated. Available.
  19. Saltman, Bethany. 2006. The Temple of Reason: Sam Harris on How Religion Puts the World at Risk. Available.

3 comments

  1. “A first point to consider is that atheism has always been and continues to be a minority worldview. ”

    nothing more an an appeal to popularity fallacy.

    “What makes matters worse is that atheists are also a minority group with a downright terrible public reputation. Atheists are notorious for being angry, dogmatic, and easily offended.”

    thanks to lies by theists. Aren’t you proud!

    “Regarding who Americans would vote for as president, a recent Gallup poll found that ninety-six percent (96%) of Americans would vote for a Black candidate, ninety-five percent (95%) for a Catholic, ninety-three percent (93%) for a Jew, and seventy-six (76%) for a gay or lesbian. Only sixty percent (60%) said that they would vote for an atheist. Americans are even more likely to vote for a Muslim president (66%) than an atheist one and only a socialist (47%) ranked lower than an atheist (8”

    thanks to lies by theists.

    “articipants were asked to choose the probability that the person in question was a Christian, a Muslim, a rapist, or an atheist. They thought it equally probable the culprit was an atheist or a rapist, and unlikely the person was a Muslim or Christian.”

    thanks to lies by theists and the ignorant belief that theists are automatically good people. IT is notable you did not mention this from your source “Gervais and Norenzayan’s findings may shed light on an interesting puzzle: why acceptance towards atheism has grown rapidly in some countries but not others. In many Scandinavian countries, including Norway and Sweden, the number of people who report believing in God has reached an all-time low. This may have something to do with the way these countries have established governments that guarantee a high level of social security for all of their citizens. Aaron Kay and his colleagues ran a study in Canada which found that political insecurity may push us towards believing i”

    and ” Gervais and his colleagues discovered that people distrust atheists because of the belief that people behave better when they think that God is watching over them. This belief may have some truth to it. Gervais and his colleague Ara Norenzayan have found that reminding people about God’s presence has the same effect as telling people they are being watched by others: it increases their feelings of self-consciousness and leads them to behave in more socially acceptable ways.”

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