A journalist named Karen Hunter offered this small bit of wisdom when she appeared on a January 31 episode of CNN – 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 Ã¢â‚¬ËœIn 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.
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.”
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’.”
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.”
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.”