What began with publisher W.W. Norton taking a chance on a gutsy, hyperbolic and idiosyncratic attack on religion by a graduate student in neuroscience has grown into a remarkable intellectual wave. No fewer than five books by the New Atheists have appeared on bestseller lists in the past two years–Sam Harris’s The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation, Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell, Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion and now Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great. The scandalized media have both attacked and inflated the phenomenon. After the New York Times Book Review, for example, ran a thoughtful review of Harris and then a negative front-page review of Dawkins, the daily paper published two weak op-ed attacks on the writers and a vapid article on how atheists celebrate Christmas, followed by tongue-in-cheek admiration in the Book Review for Hitchens’s ability to promote his career by saying the unexpected.
Despite such dubious blessings, the four have become must-read writers. The most remarkable fact is not their books themselves–blunt, no-holds-barred attacks on religion in different registers–but that they have succeeded in reaching mainstream readers and in becoming bestsellers. Is this because Americans are beginning to get fed up with the religiosity of the past several years? It would be comforting if we could explain this as a cultural signal of the end of the right-wing/evangelical ascendancy. Such speculations are probably wishful thinking–book buyers are such a small slice of the population that few sociologists would stake their careers on claiming that book buyers’ preferences reflect anything like a national mood.
The success of the New Atheists may, however, reflect something significant among their audience. In the past generation in the United States, atheists, agnostics and secular humanists have been a timid minority–almost voiceless, often on the defensive, routinely derided, both warned against and ignored. As Susan Jacoby pointed out in her book Freethinkers, it is symptomatic of the situation that the most dramatic presidential address in generations took place in the National Cathedral three days after September 11, 2001, so filled with religious language that it sounded like a sermon. It was delivered by a President flanked by Jewish, Muslim and Christian representatives, a model of religious inclusiveness, without anyone standing alongside them representing the tens of millions of nonreligious Americans. At this most important collective moment in our recent history, it was as if they did not exist. This is what the polls are telling us: Virtually everyone in America believes in God.
We know how zealously the conservative Christian denominations have politicized themselves in the past generation, how the GOP has harnessed this energy by embracing their demands–opposing stem-cell research, gay marriage and abortion rights, championing government aid to religious schools and faith-based social programs–and by appointing sympathetic judges. So effectively have they framed the issues that, according to the Pew Research Center’s 2006 report on religion and public life, fully 69 percent of Americans believe that liberals have “gone too far in trying to keep religion out of schools and government.”
We commonly hear that only a tiny percentage of Americans don’t believe in God and that, as a Newsweek poll claimed this spring, 91 percent do. In fact, this is not true. How many unbelievers are there? The question is difficult to assess accurately because of the challenges of constructing survey questions that do not tap into the prevailing biases about religion. According to the American Religious Identification Survey, which interviewed more than 50,000 people, more than 29 million adults–one in seven Americans–declare themselves to be without religion. The more recent Baylor Religion Survey (“American Piety in the 21st Century”) of more than 1,700 people, which bills itself as “the most extensive and sensitive study of religion ever conducted,” calls for adjusting this number downward to exclude those who believe in a God but do not belong to a religion. Fair enough. But Baylor’s own Gallup survey is a bit shaky for at least two reasons. It counts anyone who believes in a “higher power” but not God as believing in God–casting a vast net over adherents of everything from spirit to history to love. Yet the study allows unbelievers only one option: to not believe in “anything beyond the physical world,” leaving no space for those who regard themselves as agnostics or skeptics, secularists or humanists. Contrast this with a more recent and more nuanced Financial Times/Harris poll of Europeans and Americans that allowed respondents to declare agnosticism as well as atheism: 18 percent of the more than 2,000 American respondents chose one or the other, while 73 percent affirmed belief in God or a supreme being.