In the last year both the religious and secular media have been widely reporting on the “new atheism,” which is expressed in three recent best-sellers: Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, Sam Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation, and Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell. In his syndicated column in the Long Island Catholic (Feb. 28), neoconservative writer George Weigel argues that the new atheism is “angrier” and more political than the atheism of the past.
There is a clear anti-Bush rhetoric found in these atheists’ writings, particularly focusing on the administration’s ties to evangelicals. Weigel adds that there is also an intellectual disdain for religion and the religious training of young people; Dawkins’ argues that such early religious formation is a form of “child abuse.” Weigel writes that in the “early 19th century, it was thought that an atheist couldn’t be a gentleman; today, the atheists argue that religious conviction is for slobs and morons.”
But most of the characteristics of the new atheism cited by Weigel have been present among American atheists throughout their history in the U.S. In 1966, historian Sidney Warren wrote of atheist movements in the 18th and 19th centuries: “Freethinkers never doubted the correctness of their position, for they viewed history as a continuous struggle between the forces of light and darkness. They were, they felt, carrying the torch of reason in an otherwise religious world of bigotry and superstition.” In fact, what may be more recent among the new atheists is their loss of faith in the progressive triumph of secularism in the U.S.
This was borne out in a study conducted by RW‘s editor on secular humanists and atheists (written with Christopher Smith and to appear in the journal Sociology of Religion). In interviews with secular humanists and atheists in New York and Oklahoma, we found that many had lost faith in progressive secularism and have reluctantly accepted their minority status in a religious society. That doesn’t mean that secularism and atheism are not finding a hearing among Americans (shown in the best-selling books by Dawkins, Harris and Dennett) or even that the number of secularists have not received a modest boost in recent years (the surveys are unclear on this point.)
But it does mean that freethinkers (a term we used to refer to those calling themselves secular humanists or atheists) are pursuing new strategies to survive and grow in light of the failure of progressive secularism. One such strategy is creating a niche for themselves among the unchurched and “secular seekers.” The loss of certainty about the progress of secularism in American society among secular humanists may be driving them in the direction of seeking new forms of community and support.
There is increased competition and institution building among the various freethinker groups, with the secular humanists (defined by a positive agenda of ethics and human rights and identified with the Council on Secular Humanism) leading the way. Like religious seekers, we found that “secular seekers” tend to move through ranks of various secular groups in search of community and secular identity–from Unitarianism to humanism.
Another strategy is mimicking and adapting various aspects of evangelicalism, even as free thinkers target this movement as their main antagonist. Debates organized by freethinker groups usually include evangelicals. Activists argue that secularists need to adapt and apply the methods and savvy of the Christian right to their own mobilization efforts. Most importantly, evangelical Christianity and the rise of the Christian right has also provided an impetus for nominally, formally uncommitted secular people to become involved in secular humanist and atheist organizations. In our interviews we found that contact with and concern about individuals and issues associated with the religious right. was decisive in “nominal” secularists becoming active in secular humanist and atheist groups.
The final strategy is making use of minority discourse and identity politics. In the pages of the secular humanist magazine Free Inquiry and in our interviews, we found frequent use of the language of identity politics and minority status. The call for atheists and secular humanists to engage in greater activism to protect their rights is often compared to the women’s rights and gay rights movements. It is fairly common to hear of declarations of atheist or secular humanist identity as an act of “coming out of the closet.” (See November, 2002 RW for more on this trend.)
Dawkins’ active support of the name “brights” for free thinkers was a self-described effort of consciousness-raising; replacing derogatory terms of the past with more positive ones is a frequent tactic of stigmatized minority groups. In conclusion, the anger, energy and new strategies of the new atheism may turn out to benefit secular humanists and atheists far more than the older and faded dream of building a secularist society.