The New Atheists
Where does the work of the New Atheists leave us? I hope they have roused a significant portion of America from its timidity. But to what end? Living without God means turning toward something. To flourish we need coherent secular popular philosophies that effectively answer life's vital questions. Enlightenment optimism once supplied unbelievers with hope for a better world, whether this was based on Marxism, science, education or democracy. After Progress, after Marxism, is it any wonder atheism fell on hard times? Restoring secular confidence will take much positive work as well as the fierce attacks on religion by our atheist champions. On a societal level, as Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris point out in Sacred and Secular, living without God requires creating conditions in which people are free from the kinds of existential vulnerability that have marked all human societies until the advent of Europe's postindustrial welfare states. Markedly more religious than any of them, the United States provides a life that is far more unequal and far more insecure.
The surprising response to the New Atheist offensive should thus inspire us to think politically as well as philosophically. As a first step this demands creating a coalition between unbelievers and their natural allies, secular-minded believers. I am speaking first about many millions of Americans who nominally belong to a religion but effectively live without any active relationship either to it or to God, or belong to a church and attend services but are "tacit atheists," living day in and day out with only token reference to God. And I also include the many believers who accept the principle of America as a secular society. These include members of the liberal Jewish and Christian denominations, who have long practice in accommodating themselves to science and the modern world and who, as the National Council of Churches website tells us, may remain inspired by Genesis while not needing to take it in "literal, factual terms." Many of these turned up in the most significant finding of the Baylor survey, namely that more than one in four American "believers" does not mean by this a personal God at all but a distant God who has little or nothing to do with the world or themselves. This sounds very much like the deist God of "unbelievers" Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine.
These believers, along with those who think of themselves as "spiritual," as well as professed unbelievers, help to explain why according to the Pew study so many Americans--32 percent--want less religious influence on government. Twenty-four percent say that President Bush talks too much about his religious faith and prayer, and 28 percent deny that the United States is a Christian nation. Most dramatically, a whopping 49 percent believe that Christian conservatives have gone too far "in trying to impose their religious values on the country." This, then, is an unreported secret of American life: Considerable numbers of Americans, religious and secular, are becoming fed up with the in-your-face religion that has come to mark our society.
Until now the most vocal left-of-center response to the Christian right, for example by Sojourners, has been to call for more religion in politics, not less. In early June the group organized a nationally televised forum at which John Edwards, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton testified to their faith, talking about the "hand of God" (Edwards), forgiveness (Obama) and prayer (Clinton). Few loud-and-clear voices have been agitating in the mainstream on behalf of the separation of church and state, for secular and public education, or demanding less rather than more political discussion of religion. Yet tens of millions of Americans worry about such things.
Whether most of them continue to believe in God matters much less than that they are comfortable with secular knowledge and America's secular Constitution. Barry Lynn, for example, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, is a Protestant minister. Although Harris and Dawkins castigate all believers for sharing the premises of conservative Christians, the fact is that many believers could easily be working with out-and-out atheists and agnostics on key issues.
Such a coalition should take the offensive on behalf of American constitutional promises of a secular society, increasingly under threat from Bush's Supreme Court appointments. It will gain support in unexpected places: Judge John Jones III, a Bush appointee, delivered a devastating blow to the forces behind "intelligent design" in his December 2005 decision in the Dover School Board case. The first half of his impressive decision contains a crystal-clear reflection on what science is and why intelligent design, a refurbished form of creationism, is religion, not science. The second half reads like a whodunit, revealing how a minority on the school board conspired to impose intelligent design on the district. It should be a rallying point for the nearly half of all Americans who are disturbed by right-wing religious attempts to impose their faith on the rest of us. An immediate goal should be a call for the publication and widest possible distribution of the Dover decision. It could become another bestseller--by a conservative judge no less!--and a text for civics, current events, history, law and basic science classes.
A second goal of such a coalition might be a campaign to reorient American thinking about atheists and atheism. In recent polls, far more respondents have declared themselves willing to vote for a woman or African-American for President than for an atheist--atheists are more unpopular than gays. Television news viewers are encouraged to nod in agreement with such ageless gibes as "There are no atheists in foxholes" without seeing just how nasty they are. This obnoxious remark, by Katie Couric on NBC's Today show, drew a few complaints and letters, but no wider protests or apology. A coalition determined to widen the range of socially acceptable belief could make a significant difference on such issues.
A broad secular coalition could also demand more nuanced discussion of the range of belief and unbelief in America today. Rather than consciously or unconsciously promoting religious belief, public opinion research should try to register a full range of beliefs, including the interesting and perplexing ways in which people live secular as well as religious lives and their sometimes contradictory combinations. These are rejected by Harris, Dawkins, Dennett and Hitchens, and ignored by the media and mainstream politicians.
Finally, such an alliance could become one place where Dennett's goal of discussing religion openly and critically--as well as atheism and agnosticism--could begin to be realized. A number of questions might be explored: What, for example, is the common ground and what are the differences between believers and unbelievers? And--I save for last the touchiest question of all--shouldn't all Americans be instructed in the great religious and secular traditions, as well as their greatest books? After all, achieving literacy in both religion and secularism might allow us to discuss them more intelligently.