The Dawkins Effect: How The God Delusion mainstreamed atheism

To receive favorable publicity for a cause, one simply needs a Hallmark card.

A journalist named Karen Hunter offered this small bit of wisdom when she appeared on a January 31 episode of CNN’s “Paula Zahn Now.” Hunter was one of three who participated in an “Out in the Open Panel” that discussed discrimination against atheists. It followed a four-minute news segment titled “Beliefs Under Attack,” a profile on a Mississippi couple who had been ostracized from their community because of their disbelief in God.

For me, a person living in the 21st Century, the profile of the couple and the subsequent panel on atheism felt like an anachronism. The common-held principals to which I’d been subjected my entire life –- particularly those involving the First Amendment and the freedom of religion — were seemingly nonexistent in this CNN newsroom.

Hunter, a Christian, was accompanied by ESPN’s Stephen Smith, another Christian, and Jewish conservative columnist Debbie Schlussel in what can only be described as a deluge of atheist bashing. “What does an atheist believe?” Hunter asked. “Nothing. I think this is such a ridiculous story. Are we not going to take ‘In God We Trust’ off of our dollars? Are we going to not say ‘one nation under God?’ When does it end? We took prayer out of schools. What more do they want?”

Schlussel immediately agreed with her. “I think that the real discrimination is atheists against Americans who are religious,” she said. “Listen, we are a Christian nation. I’m not a Christian. I’m Jewish, but I recognize we’re a Christian country and freedom of religion doesn’t mean freedom from religion.”

Upon further elaboration, Hunter revealed the crux of the atheists’ problem. “They don’t have a good – marketing,” she said. “If they had hallmark cards, maybe they wouldn’t feel so left out. We have Christmas cards. We have Kwanza cards now. Maybe they need to get some atheist cards and get that whole ball rolling so more people can get involved with what they’re doing. I think they need to shut up and let people do what they do. No, I think they need to shut up about it.”

In moments like these, when one feels the utter vacuum left by such a provocation, I can’t help but wonder about the nature of hindsight and whether the panel and producers should have predicted the outrage that would soon ensue. Did, for instance, the CNN producers realize at that moment the weight of what had just been said? In their preparation for such a discussion, did not one of them raise his hand with the sheepish suggestion that if CNN planned on holding a panel on atheism, then maybe at least one atheist should be present?

But like most ruminations on hindsight, they quickly become steamrolled by the unrelenting momentum of the present. Not long after the show aired on CNN, clips were posted to Youtube and, after a plethora of links and embeds, viewed by hundreds of thousands of people. The email floodgates were opened and CNN was bombarded by hundreds — if not thousands — of messages from angry non-believers who felt that their views were not accurately represented. But CNN wasn’t the only one to feel the heat; Schlussel also became a target of fierce emails that only intensified when she flippantly responded to her critics online.

It wasn’t long before CNN succumbed to the pressure. In what can only be described as a victory for atheist activism, a follow-up panel was scheduled for “Paula Zahn Now.” In this new, more balanced, segment, the panel included a representative from American Atheists. But what was perhaps more interesting was an additional interview that Zahn conducted with Richard Dawkins.

Though Dawkins — who holds the Charles Simonyi Chair for the Public Understanding of Science at the University of Oxford — was already well known before the publication of his 2006 book,The God Delusion, the press and media attention he received after writing it propelled him into a new level of celebrity. It can be argued that the scientist is the most widely-known atheist alive today. He is part of what some have labeled “New Atheism,” a movement that not only accepts a lack of belief in God, but also actively promotes that lack of belief to others.
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Richard dawkins
(Richard Dawkins)
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The arguments against religion that appear in The God Delusion are, for the most part, nothing new to most atheists. They touch upon such subjects as the infinite regress, the invisible pink unicorn, and the Flying Spaghetti Monster — arguments that I had known of well before reading the book. But what is perhaps unique about The God Delusion is its unapologetic approach to religious criticism, something that is discussed at length in Dawkins’s preface and first chapter.

“The reason many people don’t notice atheists is that many of us are reluctant to ‘come out’,” he says in the preface, invoking a comparison to the homosexuals’ own quest for mainstream acceptance. He explains that he hopes that the book would create a “critical mass” that would cause a “chain reaction” of widespread atheism– a Tipping Point, to borrow from Malcolm Gladwell.

In his first chapter, he battles the “widespread assumption which nearly everybody in our society accepts…that religious faith is especially vulnerable to offense and should be protected by an abnormally thick wall of respect.” In short: religion is a belief system, and is therefore subject to the same criticism that any political or moral belief system — whether it’s conservatism, Marxism, liberalism, etc… — is given. “It is in the light of the unparalleled presumption of respect for religion that I make my own disclaimer for this book,” he concludes. “I shall not go out of my way to offend, but nor shall I don kid gloves to handle religion any more gently than I would anything else.”

Dawkins certainly didn’t don kid gloves when confronted by Zahn. “It strikes me that the atheist message is particularly threatening to some Christians because they believe in some way you’re trying to compromise their ability to have this stuff out there on the public stage,” she said. “Is there any public role, as far as you’re concerned, for religion?” But the scientist quickly pummeled this play-the-victim argument just as he does in his book, saying that the religious are “remarkably intolerant” to atheists. In her final question, Zahn asked him how he would characterize the overarching public reaction to atheists. Though Dawkins offered a lengthy response, his first word could accurately summarize his nemesis as a New Atheist, the obstacle he and other like-minded atheists have to overcome: “Misunderstanding.”

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As of November 2007, The God Delusion has sold over a million copies. Since its publication, Dawkins has appeared on a number of US mainstream news shows, including a brief debate with Bill O’Reilly, the most widely watched cable news show host today. There has also been an uptick of other atheists who have appeared in mainstream news outlets and an increase in the number of publicized atheism-versus-religion debates frequently hosted by universities.

And now that the success of the book has shown publishers that such provocative literature can produce real sales, several similar titles have been released — most notably Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great, which is possibly more combative against religion than Dawkins’s book.

Though Dawkins’s efforts are still far from causing atheists to establish a majority in the US, the “critical mass” that he referenced in his preface seems to have been reached. Non-belief has been catapulted into the public debate; the popularity of The God Delusion has created a chain reaction that has allowed atheism to inch its way into the mainstream.

PZ Myers is an associate professor of biology at the University of Minnesota and is the writer for Pharyngula, arguably the most popular science blog on the internet. In addition to his writing about topics related to his profession, he is an avowed atheist, and many who visit his site — including me — do so to read his often humorous criticisms of the religious, particularly those who champion creationism or its red-headed step sister, Intelligent Design.

Myers has said several times in his writing that he thinks that Dawkins has done very little to convert the religious into nonbelievers. Instead, The God Delusion and other books like it are simply rallying calls for the choir. I asked Myers a few months ago why he thinks Dawkins has such a poor conversion rate. “It’s not a problem with Dawkins — it’s a trait implicit in atheism,” he said. “We tend not to be proselytizers, and even within the atheist community (which is hard to call a ‘community’ at all) you find incredibly diverse positions. We aren’t offering simple solutions — follow this ritual, attend this meeting twice a week, pay attention to your leaders — we’re encouraging people to think for themselves. That’s not something about which we can really talk about ‘conversion’.”
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god delusion
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But other atheists have argued that the poor conversion rate is the result of a weak book. Some atheist purists have made claims — generally in blog comments and online message boards — that The God Delusion is inferior to much weightier atheist texts. But when I brought up this argument to Myers, he didn’t buy into it. “It’s an odd thing, actually — so many people complain about [The God Delusion] because it is dismissive and holds religion in contempt, in such disregard that it skips over those refined and attenuated arguments from centuries worth of theologians,” he said. “It’s as if they think that because so many old priests have cobbled together so many apologetics, we owe them some greater consideration.”

In short, one does not need to consider an entire body of work if its basic premise is wrong. “It’s about time the theological tree was given more than a cursory shake,” Myers concluded, “but was instead just uprooted.”

John W. Loftus is one of several atheists who write at a group blog called Debunking Christianity. When I interviewed him in August, he seemed to disagree with what he considers the offensive tactics Dawkins uses. “Even though we argue against…faith, we do so in a more or less non-offensive way,” he told me. “To belittle [the religious] like other sites do is not effective if we want them to consider our arguments. There is a place for ridicule, and people on both side of the fence do this. Sometimes it just feels good to vent, I suppose. But that’s not us (for the most part). That’s one of the reasons so many Christians visit us and discuss these issues with us, and I like it this way.”

Loftus expressed ambivalence toward Dawkins, saying that on the one hand, The God Delusion book suffers from a lack of research (in Loftus’s mind), while on the other hand, “Dawkins has gained for atheists an audience.” This audience, he argued, has caused more people to provide additional research against religion in general. “That’s something I am grateful to Dawkins for,” he said, “even if educated people immersed in these debates don’t think that highly about his arguments.”

But lest one be lured in by a false sense of security about the widespread acceptance of atheism, consider the fact that several of the people I interviewed for this article would only answer my questions under the condition of semi-anonymity.

A group called the Rational Response Squad has grown increasingly popular in the last year. They created a project called “The Blasphemy Challenge” in which atheists posted videos on Youtube that showed them denouncing the Holy Spirit. Two of its members also participated in a widely-publicized debate with Kirk Cameron (a Christian of Growing Pains fame) and another religious apologist.

When I emailed the group’s website to request an interview, I noticed that the names of those who answered my messages seemed pseudonymous. Eventually, a person who simply went by the name of Kelly answered my questions. In an interview for an article that appeared on the ABC News site, Kelly (I’m assuming it’s the same one) expressed her wish not to have her last name printed.

Another person I spoke to while researching this article went by the pseudonym Vjack; he’s (we’ll assume it’s a “he”) a person who writes for a blog called Atheist Revolution. “As an atheist living in rural Mississippi, concerns about my personal safety and the impact on my career prevent me from using my real name on my blog or during interviews,” he said. “I teach at the university level, and I would not want my personal beliefs about religion to become an obstacle to the education of the largely Southern Baptist students with whom I work.”

Imagine such words coming from someone who is religious. I’d be hard pressed to think of any Christian in the US who would feel it necessary to use a pseudonym when writing about his or her beliefs. Such precautions are indicative of the large strides that must still be made before atheists are wholly embraced.

Both Vjack and Kelly claimed that The God Delusion was part of the mainstreaming of atheism rather than the cause of it. To them, the general unrest of nonbelievers created an atmosphere that was open to its publication. “Not to take anything away from Dawkins or the impact of his book, but I believe that the success of The God Delusion was more about him giving people what they wanted at the right time than about anything particularly groundbreaking in the book itself,” Vjack said. “His book appeared just when it was most needed by a public tired of Christian extremism.” But he also said that the book’s position on bestseller lists resulted in a snowball effect, creating more interest in atheism.

Kelly from the Rational Response Squad explained that Dawkins was part of a shifting culture. “There was a point in time when these books would not have been published, much less have been on the NY Times bestseller list,” she said. “And that alone is indicative of the fact that religious belief is steadily losing its stranglehold on the populace of the US, and thereby the media.”

The internet is one particular haven that has been a breeding ground for atheist writing. Popular sits like Digg.com have heavily promoted pro-atheist articles, and some videos offering atheist arguments that were placed on Youtube have been viewed by hundreds of thousands of people. Many of the campaigns created by the Rational Response Squad have been largely run on the web. According to Kelly, their online forums have 9,000 registered users, they have 26,000 Myspace friends, and 6,000 Youtube subscribers.

“I think that the internet has certainly helped to spark what some are terming the ‘atheist movement,’” she said. “First of all, it has allowed a relative minority (as far as the US goes) to connect and collaborate in ways that were impossible in the past. Secondly, being mostly user driven and not subject to the censorship that one finds in the major media outlets, it has given us the forum in which to speak out publicly. I also feel that the increase in information available to the average person has helped many to see religion for the fraud that it is.”

But she had a caveat: “That being said, I think that the issue is much more complex as individuals who are scientifically oriented may also tend to be more computer savvy, and therefore, we have a kind of advantage in the internet proficiency quotient (if there were such a thing). I don’t know that it is necessarily ‘more sympathetic’ to atheists, though, as there are just as many people spreading religious rhetoric all over the web.”

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Because of labeling problems, pollsters often have a difficult time tracking the spread of atheism in the US. Many nonbelievers tend to stray away from the term “atheism” and identify themselves as agnostics. It would seem that a simple solution to this would be for the pollster to ask the person if he or she is nonreligious, but then that might inaccurately place those who believe in God but not religion (sometimes referred to as deists) into the atheist/agnostic camp.

The Pew Research Center claims that “The number of Americans who say they are atheist or agnostic, or choose not to identify with a religious tradition has increased modestly over the past two decades, with Pew surveys since the beginning of 2006, finding that 12% of U.S. adults identify themselves as secular or unaffiliated with a religious tradition; that compares with 8% in the Pew values survey in 1987.”

With 217.8 million people who are age 18 and over in the US, this means that there are possibly 20 million Americans who are nonreligious — not an insignificant number. But because it’s hard to unite a group based on a lack of belief, the mobilization of such a large number of nonbelievers can prove difficult. It could be years yet before we see a true mainstreaming of atheism, one in which atheists become a major factor in political campaigns, forcing presidential candidates to cater to them much in the way that they currently cater to Christian churches or other major special interest groups.

But atheists like Myers seem to be optimistic: “Give us a few years,” he said. “Atheism isn’t about proselytization, but the more recent aggressively godless writers are about setting a bold example and raising awareness of the flaws of religion, and I also think it helps that the Religious Right has so thoroughly discredited themselves with their policies in government, so I think we’re going to see steady erosion of religious adherence in America, and I also think that those who leave the fold will also tend to be more outspoken. There will be a growing fear in the religious community, I hope.”

33 Comments

  1. god is incoherent Says:

    This reads like journalism. Well done.

  2. DaveX Says:

    Atheism also has at least one other thing working against it– I would rarely talk about something I don’t believe in. There’s so little cause for me to bring up anything related to atheism that I can live an out-of-the-closet atheist life and hardly ever speak of it. Probably not the best sort of thing for spreading the news, haha.

  3. Jason Says:

    The only think Dawkins mainstreamed is neo-atheists being gigantic pricks and getting away with it.

  4. Christensen Says:

    Discrimination against atheists?

    Maybe in small towns. In the university setting, religous discussion is severely restricted, if allowed at all.

    Who ya kiddin?

  5. Booger Says:

    When asked about my religious beliefs, I respond by asking who the questioner prefers Mozambique or Botswana in Division Five cricket. The resulting blank stare (American) helps explain that not only do I not have a religious affiliation, but I don’t even understand the game in the first place and it couldn’t possible matter less to me.

    With apologies to cricket players and fans everywhere.

  6. Scrofulum Says:

    “In the university setting, religous discussion is severely restricted”

    Not true. You can discuss anything at university. Whether it be religion or time-pixies that paint the universe frame by frame. Just don’t expect respect for believing in something with no evidence.

  7. Simon Says:

    Re: god is incoherent

    I would like to think it *is* journalism :-)

    (I’m a newspaper journalist by day)

    Re: Christensen

    Even if your premise is correct, then small towns still make up a huge part of the American population. The school board in the Virginia county in which I work will be voting next month whether they reinstall public prayer in during their board meetings.

  8. Danley Says:

    The “desire for purpose” has done more for the destrucion of society than anything. God is a fantasty we simply cannot afford to pursue anymore. One must keep in mind, the “neo-atheissts” have also contributed to massive educational awareness in various studies aside from this issue. Many like PZ Myers, Stenger and Susskind have been instrumental in explicating the intricacies of biology, cosmology and physics. The end result provides an individual with the option to choose critical thinking over the authority of antiquated fables.

  9. Stephen Ward Says:

    Excellent article, Simon. Definitely one of your best works in recent memory. I look forward to perusing some of the blogs you cited. Having read “The God Delusion” yourself, would you recommend reading it, or are there other books that stick out in your mind as authoritative on atheism?

  10. Gene Says:

    It is only the religious who declare holy wars and fatwahs, blow up abortion clinics, send death threats to teachers of evolution, etc. It’s no wonder that atheists are concerned about “coming out of the closet.” With so many dangerous religious nuts running around who have no qualms in taking to violence when they become “offended” at someone saying their beliefs are unfounded, it only makes sense for atheists to be careful.

    So atheists do have a rallying point: fight back against religious bigotry and intolerance. Yes, remove “In God We Trust” from the money — it wasn’t always there. Also, remove “…under God…” from the “Pledge of Allegiance.” It wasn’t always there either. It was “snuck in” under the Eisenhower administration during the Cold War as an anti-communist tactic.

  11. Cervantes Says:

    But because it’s hard to unite a group based on a lack of belief, the mobilization of such a large number of nonbelievers can prove difficult.

    Surely you did not mean to write this. We are not nihilists; we do not lack beliefs. We believe in understanding the universe through our senses and our reason. Yes, we reject absolute truths and our current beliefs are subject to revision by new evidence; nevertheless there are propositions of which we are reasonably well convinced by overwhelming evidence, others we consider highly likely, others possible. There is a substantial core of rational, scientific belief which reasonable people share, and above all a shared commitment to inquiry, understanding, and intellectual honesty.

    That’s plenty to unite around.

  12. Caucasian Jesus Says:

    Watch out, filthy atheists, My Dad and I are going to send you to Hell! I mean it! No, really. You don’t believe Me? Ah, why am I not surprised…

  13. Simon Says:

    Re: Stephen Ward

    I would recommend it. It’s often (unintentionally) funny and is easily accessible. I would guess that the weightier texts that some atheist purists might recommend wouldn’t make great casual reading, though I haven’t really read them so I can’t say for sure.

    Re: Cervantes

    Who is this “we” you speak of? The whole point that Myers and other people I interviewed made was that all atheists don’t hold the same principals. Atheists are capable of being irrational on a whole range of issues — I’ve met conservative, liberal, libertarian and anti-global warming agnostics and atheists. Though they all lack a belief in a deity, this doesn’t automatically bind them all to this “rational, scientific belief” that you mention.

  14. Chris Bell Says:

    For what it’s worth, The God Delusion “converted” me.

    I never found religion that convincing. I went to church with friends and tried to believe, but I just never felt anything. So I went on for years not really caring about religion. If anyone asked, I would call myself a deist. It was just not a part of my life and I found it puzzling.

    Although I don’t find the ‘religion causes more bad than good’ argument that convincing, that argument and arguments like it were all I needed to hear to realize that I had to make up my mind – and I made it up damn quick. A lot of bad things DO come from religion (something I was blissfully unaware of). Fairy tales are not just stories anymore.

    The God Delusion is not Richard’s best book and there are better ones. But Richard is a popular writer, so I picked it up. There was just a release of hearing someone say “you don’t have to respect this nonsense.”

    And now I’m an atheist, not a deist. Thank you Richard.

  15. Oran Kelley Says:

    and many who visit his site — including me — do so to read his often humorous criticisms of the religious, particularly those who champion creationism or its red-headed step sister, Intelligent Design.

    Why? What precisely is it in you that requires this regular dose of reassurance?

    Imagine such words coming from someone who is religious. I’d be hard pressed to think of any Christian in the US who would feel it necessary to use a pseudonym when writing about his or her beliefs. Such precautions are indicative of the large strides that must still be made before atheists are wholly embraced.

    Ahhh, frankly I’m pretty disgusted by the way Christain believers continuously make their religious beliefs an issue for everyone around them–I just don’t care. And you suggest that atheists should emulate them?

    What’s wrong with you?

    And on Dawkins way of dealing with religious apologias:

    On the one hand, to the extent that Dawkins took it upon himself to attempt to refute those apologias (why does he bother? I don’t know), so he pretty much obliges himself to be careful with them, don’t you think?

    And, secondly, that is the easy complaint that people have with The God Delusion. There are two big stated goals in TGD: one is to provide evidence against the existence of God; two is to prove the general perniciousness of religion. It is on point two that the book stumbles badly. (And it is here that Dawkins and his backers have been backing off big-time in his apologias as they repeated empahsize his first goal while forgetting to mention the second.)

    Discussing issue number 2 requires that Dawkins have some notion of what religion is in the world, how it operates, what roles it plays in people inner lives, how it influences their behavior, and how it operates within societies. Dawkins’ attempts to grapple with these questions are laughably and willfully ignorant.

    The reason for this is that Dawkins is so prejudiced against religion that he cannot bring himself to even consider that it might have a positive function.

  16. Simon Says:

    Re: Oran Kelley

    Why? What precisely is it in you that requires this regular dose of reassurance?

    That’s like accusing a person who visits political blogs of constantly needing reassurance that his political philosophy is correct. That’s not the point — or not the main point anyway.

    Ahhh, frankly I’m pretty disgusted by the way Christain believers continuously make their religious beliefs an issue for everyone around them–I just don’t care. And you suggest that atheists should emulate them?

    You — and people who have made arguments similar to yours — act like religion is this abstract concept that has no real-world effect on human life. In this made-up world, people believe things and those beliefs don’t spill over into political, government and social decisions. It’s because “Christain [sic] believers continuously make their religious beliefs an issue for everyone around them” that the New Atheist exists.

    As for the rest of your argument, I can only conclude that you haven’t really read Dawkins because he has already addressed the “cannot bring himself to even consider that it might have a positive function” argument several times.

  17. Derek Says:

    You forgot to mention that Dawkins’ interview was postponed at first. I used to watch CNN daily. My homepage was cnn.com. I was inclined to not watch CNN again after the first “panel.” But, then Dawkins was bumped for more coverage of Anna Nicole Smith’s death. I haven’t watched CNN since.

  18. Travc Says:

    “[atheists]…forcing presidential candidates to cater to them much in the way that they currently cater to Christian churches or other major special interest groups.”

    I think this statement is all wrong. Atheists (or more properly and generally ‘freethinkers’) don’t want to be a ‘special interest group’. We want catering to religious special interest groups to stop.

    There are a few specific issues, such as separation of church and state, but those are no more ‘special interests’ than the ACLU is a ‘special interest group’. Pretending otherwise, even rhetorically, is damaging.

  19. J. J. Ramsey Says:

    “In short, one does not need to consider an entire body of work if its basic premise is wrong. ‘It’s about time the theological tree was given more than a cursory shake,’ Myers concluded, ‘but was instead just uprooted.’”

    That doesn’t address the objection that the book is weak because it doesn’t do that good a job of “uprooting the tree,” so to speak. For example, the “Ultimate Boeing 747″ argument looks kind of fun until you start examining how one would shore up the premise “A designer has to be at least as complex as what it designs.” Ok, now, so presumably Dawkins has a way of estimating complexity that can be applied equally well to a heterogenous thing that has lots of vacuum, hydrogen, debris, and a few bits of self-aware organic matter (that is, the universe), and to what amounts to a really weird ghost (that is, God). Or more likely, he just threw around a vague word like “complexity” and didn’t think of how that vagueness could threaten the coherence of one of his premises. Or the way that he attacked a straw man of Thomas Aquinas’ fourth way even though the real argument is pretty trivial to take down. But then, misrepresenting Aquinas’ argument so that it lead appears to lead to God being a peerless stinker is far more fun than saying something boring and philosophical like saying that the argument fails because it’s based on a premise from Platonism that is simply wrong. (Which is probably why you don’t really see too many people use the argument these days.) Then there are the points where Dawkins isn’t really arguing but is laying down some howlers anyway, such as credulously repeating a quote mine of John Adams. When it comes to solid logical argument, Dawkins is great at slick rhetoric.

    Of course, slick rhetoric tends to fare better than solid argument in a lot of places, so Dawkins’ weaknesses may not be a problem when it comes to promoting mere atheism. On the other hand, I don’t see Dawkins really helping that much to make people more rational. He certainly is not that good at leading by example.

  20. Cyde Weys Says:

    Excellent, well-done article. All I can really offer up to the discussion is an anecdote, but it’s quite a powerful one.

    I graduated college in Maryland in May, 2007. About half of the people I knew were either atheist or agnostic. Indeed, throughout my entire college career, I only met a few people who were very religious (you know, the kind of people you speak to for just a few minutes and you can already tell).

    Religion is simply turning off lots of young people, whether it’s all the wasted time on the weekends, or the prejudiced views against gays and other minorities, or the increasingly obvious gap between what science has been able to deliver to the world versus what religion was come up with. Being religious just isn’t attractive to young people any more. All it needs now is time. Give it a decade now and that 20-30% of non-believer teens will take a sizable bite out of adult religiosity.

  21. Brian Says:

    I agree with Clyde. I think the transition toward atheism will be generational. Viewed from that angle, it doesn’t matter if Dawkins or others succeed in changing the minds of the current generation of committed believers. A mainstreamed atheism can still be extremely influential by changing the minds of young people. Cultural change can’t be forced. It takes time.

    As for being closeted, all I can say is that I have never publicly acknowledged my atheism. I work in state government, in an exceedlingly blue state, but I still feel that I would be hamstringing my career if my views were known.

  22. E in Md Says:

    #
    Christensen said,

    November 14, 2007 @ 8:49 am

    Discrimination against atheists?

    Maybe in small towns. In the university setting, religous discussion is severely restricted, if allowed at all.

    Who ya kiddin?

    Who are YOU kidding? Look around your town. How many signs and billboards do you see about churches, church bingo nights, church fund raisers, about ‘Waiting till marriage’, about ‘Virgin isn’t a dirty word’. Now count how many you see that say god does not exist.

    Turn on your Tv. Flip through some channels or look at the guide and count how many religious oriented shows there are for the next month. Count how many channels there are devoted entirely to religion as well. Now how many are devoted to atheism?

    Head down to the Faith Based Initiatives office. Tell them that you want some money to start an atheist charity center to help girls choose life over abortions for unwanted pregnancies. Take note of how much money they offer you and how loudly they laugh. (On a side note you can try this particular one telling them any other religion than Christianity as well. This program could just as easily be named the ‘Give Public Tax Money to Christians Initiative’.)

    Turn on your radio. Terrestrial or Sat based. Doesn’t matter. Count the religious channels. Compare with channels who say they are atheist or agnostic? Pick any station that doesn’t profess any religious or non-religious theme at random and listen to it for a few hours. Make a note of how many times the DJs and guests mention or talk about god or religious themes and how many times someone talks about atheism.

    Sign up for the boy scouts either as a scout or scoutmaster. Pay your dues. Help old ladies across the street. Get your merit badges. Now tell them you’re an atheist.

    Go work for a Baptist church doing task where your belief system shouldn’t matter in the slightest. Work hard. Work unpaid overtime. Show up every day on time. After about a month or two, tell them you’re an atheist.

    Go to any university and ask where the chapel is. Go ahead. I’m sure you’ll get a few people who reply, “Which one?” but I doubt you’ll find any unless they’re a local community college lacking in funding that will say ‘We don’t have a chapel’. Now ask them what building the atheists get supplied to them to hang out in.

    Head down to Bob Jones or some other religious oriented college. Tell them your an atheist and would like to start a club on campus where atheists can gather. You might want to have a bodyguard with you for that one.

    Look through newspaper stories for the last five years. Count how many gangs of atheists and agnostics have intimidated, violently protested, beaten down, killed, raped, lynched, desecrated or otherwise rampaged against religious folk. Now do the same for groups of religious people do the same to non-believers.

    So, still no discrimination against atheists? Why not print out a flier describing a fictional atheist Presidential candidate and give them out on some random street corner and check the reaction. Or walk into a restaurant or pub and chat with people. Tell them you’re an atheist. See what reaction you get.

    Head down to Congress or your local or state legislature and tell them you’re an atheist and would like to give a non-sectarian invocation before the start of the session.

    Uh huh…

    Before you start going on about the ‘market place of ideas’ nonsense, that argument is only used by people who have already rigged the market place to ensure that only their ideas get marketed.

    And before you start whining about ‘In God we trust’ or ‘One nation under God’. If we were a Christian nation, they would not have had to have been inserted over a hundred and seventy plus years AFTER the founding of the nation. Nor would the Christian god have been left out of the Constitution. Nor would Congress have ratified a treaty wherein it explicitly says that the US was not a Christian nation nor based on Christian ideals.

    In short, the places where atheism is accepted are the same places wherein everyone is accepted and the average religious person who isn’t trying to cram their own beliefs down everyone’s throat would be accepted too.

    It has been my experience that the Christians whining about religious persecution have never actually encountered anyone who didn’t believe as they do are flabbergasted as to how to deal with that knowledge. They complaining because in this country they have never actually faced any real persecution so they have to make up some in order to fulfill the persecution complex their faith has generated.

    So when people take issue to be preached to against their will or because they have the audacity to question you on your faith Christians ( and by this by and large I mean the right wing variety) yell ‘discrimination’ at the top of their lungs thinking that this will win them the day. What they fail to realize is that Christians already run the country lock, stock and barrel to the near exclusion of every other religion, philosophy and belief system.

    If you want to talk about persecution take a walk in someone else’s shoes for a few miles to understand what it is like to be them. Go be a Muslim, or an American Indian, or a Wiccan, or a Buddist or an Atheist for a day. Then we’ll talk.

  23. J. J. Ramsey Says:

    E in Md, some of your examples are more a product of atheism not being a religion:

    “Count how many channels there are devoted entirely to religion as well. Now how many are devoted to atheism?”

    Why have a show *devoted* to atheism? A show devoted to debunking myths can be interesting, especially when it involves ingenuity and blowing stuff up, e.g. Mythbusters. But that’s about practicing reality-based thinking in general, not just atheism. A show with one or more atheist characters can be interesting when its well-written, but that’s the writing, rather than the atheism. What do you want, a show that repeats over and over that there is no God? I’d call that preachy at least. And boring.

    “Head down to the Faith Based Initiatives office. Tell them that you want some money to start an atheist charity center to help girls choose life over abortions for unwanted pregnancies.”

    Atheism is not a faith, so why should a faith-based initiative have anything to do with it? You know why there isn’t much in the way of atheist charities? Because that niche is taken up largely by secular charities that don’t bother with spreading ideologies and just get on with the business of helping people.

    “Pick any station that doesn’t profess any religious or non-religious theme at random and listen to it for a few hours. Make a note of how many times the DJs and guests mention or talk about god or religious themes and how many times someone talks about atheism.”

    I spent a painting job listening to pretty much one station all day. No mention of religion or atheism that I could remember, just a lot of classic rock.

    Atheism isn’t a religion. Why expect it to be promoted as such?

  24. cereal breath Says:

    very much enjoyed your article, found it informative and enjoyable. i usually skip large parts of text in web postings, mainly out of boredom, but shit man you can write (without calling attention to that fact). nicely done.

    DaveX :
    what you say is mostly true, re: the lack of atheists being compelled to “spread the word” about their beliefs. i mean, i don’t go around telling people i don’t believe in the lawnmower fairy. that would be absurd and probably psychotic. but i think the point of the recent emergence of atheism, as dawkins points out, is that it is a backlash against the madness of some segments of american society and the global society at large. so yeah, an atheism (or a lawnmower fairy) movement is sort of ridiculous and ironic, but ultimately it is about promoting reason and argument, not atheism per se.

    j.j.:

    “What do you want, a show that repeats over and over that there is no God? I’d call that preachy at least. And boring.”

    amen. although i did enjoy watching the clips of atheist appearances on mainstream television provided here. i find the incredulity of the hosts genuinely entertaining. like they just discovered a new species of salamander that shoots rainbows out of its eyes living under a rock in their backyard.
    most atheists i know (not projection, i actually know alot of them!) would find the idea of sitting around and discussing their atheism to be a time miserably spent (agnostics though…they’ll and blather all day about the shit). p.z. myers however, he’s the one motherfucker that i can read regularly on atheism. always a good time there. he’s my atheist id, if i ever got really drunk and accidentally stumbled into a prayer meeting and just started getting into it, i imagine it to be a far stupider, stumblier and slurry version of p.z. myers.

  25. Oran Kelley Says:

    As for the rest of your argument, I can only conclude that you haven’t really read Dawkins because he has already addressed the “cannot bring himself to even consider that it might have a positive function” argument several times.

    The only real response I’ve seen is Dawkins reply to Sloan Wilson, which is essentially the attempt to pretend the book is only about the existence of God and not about the general perniciousness of religion. Which, frankly, seems to me to be Dawkins conceding the point: he wishes to have said nothing regarding the desirability of religion if you are prepared to contest the point, as Sloan Wilson and Scott Atran ( http://www.edge.org/discourse/bb.html#atran ) do.

    That’s like accusing a person who visits political blogs of constantly needing reassurance that his political philosophy is correct. That’s not the point — or not the main point anyway.

    Yes, it is like that. I’m not at all afraid of extending the observation to politics.

    You — and people who have made arguments similar to yours — act like religion is this abstract concept that has no real-world effect on human life. In this made-up world, people believe things and those beliefs don’t spill over into political, government and social decisions. It’s because “Christain [sic] believers continuously make their religious beliefs an issue for everyone around them” that the New Atheist exists.

    Nice use of the old sic. Wouldn’t want anyone thinking you type as badly as me!

    Anyhow, you are making all kinds of unwarranted assumptions here. The first being that religion is some kind of primum mobile of people’s social attitudes. That’s wrong, and pretty simple-mindedly wrong. The reason why we have such a plethora of religious sects in this country is precisely because religion is a product of or a mere component of a whole array of social attitudes–xenophobia, social solidarity, empathy, sexual hangups, whatever. If what you are interested in is converting people to more copasetic social attitudes, I doubt that a frontal attack on their ideas of the sacred is the way to go. Particular since “religion” is not, as you (and ironically, religious people) seem to like to imagine it, the great engine that creates those social attitudes.

    But that’s not really what you are interested in, that’s just what folks like you say when they are trying to excuse their general hostility to religion.

    If you could get over that hostility and start thinking a little bit more like a scholar or a scientist, you’d be able to look, and be more interested in looking at religion as a phenomenon (and sometimes epiphenomenon) rather than as a bogeyman.

  26. Jennifer Armstrong Says:

    IN my view, atheists and agnostics alike do have the basis for a rallying cry in the form of advocating a move away from the subjectivist stance of partisan political interests, which would justify treating somebody who is not part of our group in an unfair way. Rather, we advocate that humans have a right to be treated with dignity just because they are humans — whether or not they accept our particular creed or community.

    Jennifer Armstrong
    Secular Party of Australia
    http://www.secular.org.au/index.php

  27. Lifewish Says:

    Yes, it is like that. I’m not at all afraid of extending the observation to politics.

    I’m afraid I’m slightly confused. Are you saying that people shouldn’t read material written by people who agree with them? If that’s your concern, then I’m afraid it’s probably not grounded in reality. I have four Christian blogs on my regular reading list (as opposed to 3 atheist and 6 miscellaneous skeptical), and I imagine that’s true of a lot of my fellow atheists.

    Or are you saying that you disapprove of people wasting time discussing these issues? In that case I’m afraid I have to strongly disagree. By ignoring philosophical issues of this sort, we may be able to spend more time on practical stuff – but how will we know which stuff to do if we haven’t thought about what goal to shoot for?

    As an atheist, I think the Christians are absolutely right when they say that God’s existence is one of the most important questions we’re likely to come across. It’s just the arguments they use to support their conclusion that I disagree with.

  28. Oran Kelley Says:

    “not grounded in reality?”

    You mean they aren’t realistic?

    Anyhow, what I’m saying is that, yes, there is something . . . what? Wasteful? Masturbatory? Self-congratulatory? Conductive of offensive self-righteousness? Something a bit wrong in making regular visits to a site merely to see “the enemy” castigated/scorned/dehumanized.

    Haven’t you ever seen an old propaganda film and wondered what the hell could have possessed people to watch and enjoy them?

    And reading both sides’ propaganda doesn’t sound like a very good reading program to me! Wouldn’t it be better to say, take a more “reality-based” approach and to start looking at religion as it exists out there. Stop reading Internet screeds and start reading some sociological scholarship. That is, if you’re interested.

    If not . . . well, then, quit jawing about it. I don’t know about you but I’ve had quite enough know-nothingism from the current administration. From Dawkins, I expected something a bit better.

    Or are you saying that you disapprove of people wasting time discussing these issues? In that case I’m afraid I have to strongly disagree. By ignoring philosophical issues of this sort, we may be able to spend more time on practical stuff – but how will we know which stuff to do if we haven’t thought about what goal to shoot for?

    If we’re talking about PZ Myers’s site, then the person avoiding it will miss very little in the way of “philosophical” discussion. But I am not advocating that people not discuss these issues. I am saying finding new reasons on a daily basis to make fun of or attack Christians or atheists of insufficient pugnacity does not represent discussion.

    It’d actually be pretty nice if people DID in fact take a bit of true interest in the subject of religion, because I think it’s pretty interesting. But work like Dawkins’s and Myers is the very opposite of interesting–it’s propaganda, produced to froth up the (un)faithful.

  29. Mike Haubrich, FCD Says:

    Excellent article, and thanks to Vjack for sending me this way. I think your main point has been lost in the comments, and it could quickly stray into another quiet atheists v noisy atheists argument.

    TGD didn’t convert me, I have been an atheist for several years. I enjoyed the book, and partly because I am not all wrapped up in the fine points of invisible clothing.

    Regarding Oran Kelly’s final comment, I think you should take a look at Avalos’ Fighting Words as he makes the case the religion is inherently harmful because it creates scarce resources over that which is ultimately and inherently unverifiable.

    And Cyde Weys, Pithecanthropus erectus sez – “Congrats for Graduating.”

  30. toomanytribbles Says:

    that episode with that obnoxious panel on paula zahn seems like eons ago — so much has happened since then!

    excellent post, simon.

  31. Oran Kelley Says:

    MH: Read your review of Fighting Words, which looks interesting, though it looks to be rather on the theoretical/structural side of things rather than the sociological side of things.

    Anyhow, I think the argument you sketch out boils down to “religion creates a kind of currency” much like developed economies create currency. And the existence of that currency facilitates new kinds of activity, including violent, abusive, criminal activity (on money’s role in corrupting man, see pastoral tradition, passim).

    It is fairly easy to see why currency as in money might be useful in facilitating transactions, question is what does the sacredness currency do for us?

  32. KATH Says:

    Check out: churchofreality.com Marc will talk to you & not hide his beliefs or his name. A great place for discussion too. Good Article & by the comments, smart people read your work. Keep it up. Thanks, Kath

  33. RJB2009 Says:

    As shown in The God Delusion “doing good” is a Darwinian selection mechanism outside of religion, in 4 different ways. Religion is not necessary for altruism. However, religion is responsible for a lot of bad things as is well known. We can have good without religion but with religion we have both good and bad. So getting rid of religion would eliminate the bad that it brings with it and we would still have the good that comes from being the animals we are, Darwinian selected. Ergo– get rid of religion and the sooner it goes, the better off we would be. Also, we would get rid of a bunch of bloodsuckers and amateur counsellors at the same time. It is really too bad we have had religion as it has generated millions of man-hours of wasted time and effort over centuries– lives wasted in contemplating nonesense and writing about it.
    One final point. When travelling in India I was cautioned by an Indian, as a white visitor and outsider, not to give alms to the poor as I would gain nothing by doing so and at the same time deprive an Indian of the reward of giving alms to that person. This provide me with a clear insight into religious altruism. To hell with it!


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