The New Atheists

The New Atheists

An increasingly outspoken community of atheists and agnostics is getting fed up with being marginalized, ignored and insulted.


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.

A more general issue affects American surveys on religious beliefs, namely, the “social desirability effect,” in which respondents are reluctant to give an unpopular answer in a society in which being religious is the norm. What happens when questions are framed to overcome this distortion? The FT/H poll tried to counteract it by allowing space not only for the customary “Not sure” but also for “Would prefer not to say”–and 6 percent of Americans chose this as their answer to the question of whether they believed in God or a supreme being. Add to this those who declared themselves as atheists or agnostics and, lo and behold, the possible sum of unbelievers is nearly one in four Americans.

All this helps explain the popularity of the New Atheists–Americans as a whole may not be getting too much religion, but a significant constituency must be getting fed up with being routinely marginalized, ignored and insulted. After all, unbelievers are concentrated at the higher end of the educational scale–a recent Harris American poll shows that 31 percent of those with postgraduate education do not avow belief in God (compared with only 14 percent of those with a high school education or less). The percentage rises among professors and then again among professors at research universities, reaching 93 percent among members of the National Academy of Sciences. Unbelievers are to be found concentrated among those whose professional lives emphasize science or rationality and who also have developed a relatively high level of confidence in their own intellectual faculties. And they are frequently teachers or opinion-makers.

But over the past generation they have come to feel beleaguered and, except for rare individuals like comedian and talk-show host Bill Maher, voiceless in the public arena. The great success of the New Atheists is to have reached them, both speaking to and for them. These writers are devoted, with sledgehammer force and angry urgency, to “breaking the spell” cast by the religious ascendancy, to overcoming a situation in which every other area of life can be critically analyzed while admittedly irrational religious faith is made central to American life but exempted from serious discussion.

This does not make for restraint. Harris displays brash self-confidence, Hitchens and Dawkins angry intellectual bite and Dennett an inexhaustible theoretical energy and range of inquiry. Harris excoriates religious moderates, accusing them of providing cover for fundamentalists at home and abroad by refusing to contest the extremists’ premises–because they share them. More upbeat, Dennett is devoted to creating the intellectual conditions for future discussions, in which religion will be treated as just another “natural” phenomenon and accordingly subjected to critical scrutiny. Dawkins bulldozes his way through every major argument for religious belief, and a great many minor ones. And Hitchens endlessly catalogues religion’s crimes and absurdities. Each man is at war, writing as if no others had preceded him, and with a passion that can only be described as political.

Above all, each sees himself as breaking a taboo. This explains not only the vigor and urgency of these books, their mainstream character and their publishing success but also the common refrain in reviews that they have “gone too far.” Of course they have, because their many faults are often inseparable from their strengths. Self-indulgence is their common flaw: Dennett and Dawkins might have considered their readers more and disciplined their own need to follow out every line of thought, while Harris is so full of his point of view that he, like Hitchens, is unable to consider faith as anything but stupid. They show little understanding of religion or interest in it [see Daniel Lazare, “Among the Disbelievers,” May 28]. Still, I am surprised by the hostility and bemusement expressed toward them by their fellow travelers in The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker and The London Review of Books. In attacking religion the four have been breaking the taboo against talking about it seriously, and they may be forgiven for not being calmer, more expert or more measured. Doing battle with what they see as the most pervasive and bothersome phenomenon in American life during the past generation, Harris, Dennett, Dawkins and Hitchens deserve praise for their courage and tenacity in shattering its spell.

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.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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