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A kinder, gentler American atheism

by Dr. Bryon R. McCane
The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life

Has something gone wrong with the new atheism? For awhile, it was really on a roll. Several best-selling books aggressively attacked religion, calling it a “delusion” (Richard Dawkins), and a “spell” (Daniel Dennett) that “poisons everything” (Christopher Hitchens). Bill Maher’s movie “Religulous” warned that humankind must get rid of religion or die. New atheism looked like the wave of the future. But not anymore. “Religulous” got mixed reviews and disappeared quickly. Rebuttals to Dawkins, Dennett and Hitchens have appeared, culminating with Karen Armstrong’s new book, The Case for God. Sales of atheist books have fallen off the charts, literally. Months have gone by since one appeared on the best-seller list.

Why did the new atheists falter so quickly? Because they ignored important facts about religion in America today.

First, they dramatically overestimated the number of unbelievers. According to the American Religious Identification Survey, 15 percent of Americans are not currently members of any religious organization. This finding led to the claim that one in six Americans is now an unbeliever. But the data actually show that three quarters of the people in that 15 percent are “in between” religious commitments.

Previous studies by Robert Wuthnow of Princeton University have shown that America today is a nation of “religious migrants.” Most of us go through a series of religious commitments over the course of our lives, drawing upon various religious institutions as “resource centers” along the way. We are, Wuthnow concluded, a country of “spiritual seekers.” At any given moment, 15 percent of us may be unaffiliated, but most of those are believers. In a recent Pew Forum survey, in fact, only 1.6 percent of respondents identified themselves as atheists.

Second, the new atheists thought that books about science and logic would convince Americans to stop believing in God. They tried to use evidence and reason to change American hearts. But in the Pew survey, only 2 percent of respondents said that science and logic play any role their religious choices.

Instead, the data show that Americans are highly pragmatic about religion: We opt for religious affiliations that help us with our personal spiritual quests. When one stops working, we begin looking for another. And today, there are so many groups to choose from that Wade Clark Roof of the University of California-Santa Barbara has dubbed it the “spiritual marketplace.” Science and logic, it seems, have a very small market share.

Yet the new atheists’ biggest mistake, by far, was to be openly intolerant of religion. They mocked, derided and made fun of it. But Americans today are overwhelmingly committed to religious tolerance. In the Pew Forum survey, in fact, a whopping 70 percent of religiously affiliated people agreed that many religions can lead to eternal life. Precisely because we are “spiritual migrants,” we Americans instinctively respect the rights of others to choose their own way, too. Some of us do not believe in God, but virtually all of us agree that personal religious choices should be respected. The angry hostility of the new atheists struck exactly the wrong note.

For all these reasons, the decline of new atheism is a step in the right direction. It shows that in America today, tolerance and freedom are stronger than narrow-mindedness and prejudice. And it opens the way for a kinder, gentler, more American brand of atheism. In our spiritual marketplace, there is plenty of room for atheist groups that can attract seekers by presenting unbelief as a practical option along life’s way. Perhaps non-belief can be re-framed as a productive hiatus during the busy life of a spiritual migrant, or as a thoughtful expression of principled religious dissent. In these ways, atheists might begin to work with, instead of against, important facts about religion in America.

The new atheism is over and done, and its angry tone of voice will not be missed. But a kinder, gentler and (most of all) wiser atheism should be able to find its niche as one option among many in the spiritual marketplace.

Dr. McCane is Albert C. Outler Professor of Religion and chair of the Department of Religion at Wofford College in Spartanburg.