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The New Atheism

Is God Coming or Going?

David Ramsay Steele surveys American Belief to explain New Atheism’s popularity.

No one predicted it. No one expected it. It was completely unprecedented in American history. It began in 2004.

What happened was an explosion of public discussion about atheism. The most obvious sign was a boom in sales of books about atheism. The huge sales of Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens were only the tip of the iceberg. Dozens of other books on atheism, for and against, have been published, many selling far more than would have been expected a few years earlier. What’s the explanation for this astonishing upsurge of interest in atheism?

Has God Returned?

According to some Christian critics of the New Atheists, the spate of successful atheist books is a response by atheist intellectuals to the disconcerting fact that religion, instead of dying away as expected, has made a comeback. According to Marvin Olasky, a well-known Evangelical Christian writer, atheists are “cornered and desperate” because of the shocking revival of religion in the US. Similar claims have been by Dinesh d’Souza, and by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, co-authors of God Is Back (2009), who refer to the New Atheism as “secular fury.”

There must be something wrong with this theory. First, it presupposes that the New Atheist boom has been engineered by its authors. But books by atheists attacking Christianity have been appearing by the truckload every year for the past hundred years, without any significant sales or impact until 2004. Authors and publishers wish they knew of a trick for ensuring that a book will become a bestseller, but they don’t. What we have to explain is not why these books were produced, but why they have been bought and read by so many people.

In America, the great majority of the readers of these books cannot be atheists. All surveys of American religion indicate that more than ninety percent say they believe in God, while those who call themselves ‘atheists’ comprise about two percent of the population. Even if we suppose that atheists read more books than other people, basic arithmetic compels us to acknowledge that the book buyers responsible for the success of Harris, Dawkins, and Hitchens in America must consist overwhelmingly of people who believe in God. Second, the theory presupposes that there has in fact been a recent revival of religion in the US. If this is interpreted to mean that religion plays a more important role in the lives of typical Americans than it did fifty years ago, this is a false claim – though it’s frequently voiced, and many people believe it.

Let’s see how this story of a comeback for American religion, like other resurrection stories, came to be believed despite its demonstrable falsity.

Secularization Challenged

Until the 1960s, social scientists and journalists almost unanimously accepted the secularization thesis – broadly, that life under modern capitalism tends to erode the importance of religion (which for our purposes here means monotheistic religion, chiefly Christianity). Adherents of this thesis did not claim that there would be a growth of atheism; simply that religion would have less and less importance in people’s lives.

Beginning in the 60s and becoming more audible in the 70s, a minority of social scientists and popular writers began to challenge the secularization thesis. Observers of American religion noted the curious fact that the churches known as ‘Mainline Protestant’ were dwindling as a proportion of the total population, while the ‘Evangelical’ churches were growing. Evangelicalism has an ‘old-time’ Biblical literalist perspective, whereas Mainline Protestantism appears to have accommodated itself to the scientific worldview, accepting evolution for instance, and also accepting that the Bible is not infallible in its historical claims. So the growth of Evangelicalism and the decline of Mainline Protestantism look like the opposite of secularization. It has indeed been hailed as an example of desecularization.

In 1972, Dean Kelley published an influential book, Why Conservative Churches Are Growing. He later pointed out that a more accurate title would have been Why Strict Churches Are Strong. Kelley argued that religion loses appeal if it becomes lax and accommodates to the secular world. Evangelical churches were growing at the expense of Mainline churches because they made fewer concessions to the secular world and more demands on their members.

This message was taken up the sociologist Rodney Stark, who argued in The Churching of America and numerous other writings that religious commitment has been growing in America since the early nineteenth century. As Stark sees it, when churches accommodate themselves to the non-religious world at the behest of well-educated and comfortably-off ministers, they lose members. New, enthusiastic, and more demanding sects spring up and attract worshippers away from the more complacent liberal congregations. While some secularization is always going on, it is always being made up for by energetic new sects. In Stark’s view, desecularization has outweighed secularization over the past two hundred years in America.

Since 1939, the Gallup organization had been asking a random sample of Americans ‘Have you been to church in the last week?’ In 1939 the affirmative response was forty-one percent. In the 70s and 80s, affirmative responses still hovered around forty-one percent! This too didn’t look like secularization. Other developments seemed to give credibility to the view that religion was on a roll. For instance, there was the activity of the Religious Right (later called the New Christian Right), associated with Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority and then with Ralph Reed’s Christian Coalition.

The desecularization theory has attracted many active proponents, and is regularly repeated in a stream of popular books and articles. The writers usually agree that Christianity is in its death throes in Europe, but so much the worse for Europe! The desecularizers insist that what goes for Europe does not go for America – America is different. In America, as in the Third World, religion is alive and well, even expanding its influence.

A recent example of this type of writing is God Is Back. Yet if we look at the evidence its authors offer, we find it consists of a breathless recitation of disconnected factoids. Those from the industrialized world are seriously misrepresented, while those from the Third World are beside the point. There is no dispute that the sheer amount of religious activity going on in the world is growing, simply because religion is stronger in the poorer half of the world, where population growth is still rapid. (The richer half of the world would show declining populations if it were not for immigration from the poorer half.)

To gauge the global trend, what we need is not a rag-bag of anecdotes, but a systematic survey of religious commitment compared with economic development. The best thing we have along these lines is the study by Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart reported in their book Sacred and Secular (2004). They looked at seventy-four countries, classified as agrarian (poorest), industrial (richer), and post-industrial (richest). They found that religious belief and commitment is dramatically higher in agrarian than in industrial societies, and is higher in industrial than in post-industrial societies. So the facts indicate that secularization is a worldwide (post-)industrial reality. What we want to know next is whether the United States of America is an exception to this. Contrary to what is frequently asserted, we’ll see that it is not.

Secularization Vindicated

Do the growth of Evangelicalism and the emergence of a Christian Right in the second half of the twentieth century indicate a comeback for American Christianity? If we put these developments in context, we draw a very different conclusion.

In the 1990s, sociologists took a harder look at the Gallup responses about church attendance. Different ways of asking the question elicited a much lower rate of reported church-going; and comparisons with the direct observation of people attending church showed that the responses to the Gallup question exaggerate actual attendance by up to one hundred percent. We now know that US church attendance has actually been falling steadily, and averages around twenty percent – higher in the South and Midwest, but lower in the rest of the country. US church attendance is about four times that of the UK, yet still, church-going is distinctly a minority activity in today’s America.

Most of the churches we now call Mainline (Methodist, Presbyterian, Congregationalist, and so on) used to be Evangelical. Methodism was the original Evangelical church – the first denomination in the English-speaking world to lay great emphasis on a ‘born again’ conversion experience. As a form of Evangelicalism, Methodism spread like prairie fire at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth century. But in the course of the nineteenth century, Methodism evolved into a Mainline denomination.

Evangelicalism was at its peak in America before the Civil War. Whereas Evangelicalism, if generously defined, now accounts for over a quarter of the US population, in 1860 it accounted for more than eighty percent! The proportional growth of Evangelicalism compared to the Mainline after World War II was not due to conversion of adults from Mainline churches, but was primarily due to the fact that people in Mainline churches became less fertile: they had fewer babies, and started to have them later in life, while Evangelicals tended to stick to a more old-fashioned reproductive pattern, women generally beginning to have babies by their early twenties.

Indications are that the higher fertility of Evangelicals was merely a lag in the adjustment of Evangelicals to the newer, less fertile pattern, associated with the fact that Evangelicals are concentrated in the (until quite recently) least economically advanced parts of the country. The story that large numbers of adults left Mainline churches to join Evangelical churches is an unfounded legend. It’s just not true that adult Americans have turned away from liberal Protestantism to conservative Protestantism because they found the latter more appealing.

America is a big country, and religious participation statistics are misinterpreted if regional differences are ignored. It would be like taking similar statistics for the whole of Europe, thus lumping Slovakia in with Sweden. Many parts of the US, like Washington State or New Hampshire, are just as irreligious as the more irreligious parts of Europe, so to speak. If we break down the US geographically, we see the same configuration as the worldwide pattern found by Norris and Inglehart: the more advanced, urbanized, and educated areas are consistently more secular in outlook than the less developed areas. But since many parts of the formerly backward South have achieved spectacularly rapid economic growth in the past half-century, this connection becomes even clearer if we match up present-day religious patterns with economic development fifty years earlier.

Until the 50s, the South was a Third World country within the US: desperately poor and overwhelmingly rural. Economically, it was like a colony, comparable to Algeria or the Philippines. And virtually all well-known evangelistic preachers since World War II were Southerners. As the South rapidly industrialized, there was an export of Southern culture to the rest of the US. This process has been called ‘the country-and-westernization of America’ (and indeed the story of country music closely coincides with that of Evangelicalism). Now most of the South is affluent, we can witness the reciprocal ‘Americanization of Dixie’: the South is now experiencing steady decline of Evangelical affiliation, alongside the comparative growth of Mainline churches. This is comparable to what happened in the North after the Civil War. American exceptionalism turns out to be ‘recently-undeveloped-and-backward-rural-American’ exceptionalism – and therefore no exceptionalism at all.

The new prominence of Evangelicals in rightwing politics in the 1970s did not occur because there were more Evangelicals around, or because Evangelicals had become more active, but because Evangelicals were breaking with a strong tradition of non-involvement in politics. As a young minister, the Reverend Jerry Falwell was opposed to men of the cloth becoming politically active: he was talked into changing his mind by entrepreneurial lobbyists.

There is one under-publicized fact which puts the whole secularization/desecularization issue into perspective. The category of religious affiliation which has shown the greatest change over recent decades in America is those with no affiliation. The category of people who disavow any religious label has shown steady growth over many years, and is now sixteen percent of the entire adult population, and twenty-five percent of the population aged 18 –29. Of course, they’re mostly not atheists: they’re just uninterested in belonging to a church.

Thus the growth of Evangelical Protestantism at the expense of Mainline Protestantism occurs within a shrinking proportion of the population. But there’s worse news for those who would like to see God return. Evangelicalism is being diluted from within. Estimates of Evangelicals as constituting over a quarter of the population rely on self-identification in polls. Many in this group are the grown children of Evangelical parents, and less connected to the church than them: they are religiously inactive, and most of them are ignorant of the beliefs which define Evangelicals. Their lifestyles are not much different from the general population; for example, their divorce rate is somewhat higher. The Barna Group, a research organization run by Evangelicals, but widely respected for its scrupulously objective methods, estimates the proportion of genuine Evangelicals among the US population at seven percent.

Roman Catholics have remained a steady proportion for a long time, at about a quarter of the US population; but this statistic hides a steep decline, only compensated for by heavy Catholic immigration, as native Catholics defect to Protestantism or become unaffiliated. Regular attendance at mass among self-identified Catholics has plummeted even more dramatically, and it has become almost impossible to recruit new priests from the US or from any other affluent industrial country.

Apart from churches classified as ‘historically black’, which have exhibited no net growth, that leaves small Christian groups like the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses (Jehovah’s Witnesses are less than one percent of the US population, Mormons less than two percent), and the non-Christian religions (Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism), which together amount to less than four percent. Both Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses have grown very rapidly, Mormons primarily by having babies rather than by making adult converts. Jehovah’s Witnesses make a lot of converts, but also face a very high rate of defection in each new generation. A look at Mormonism also discloses the emergence of a ‘liberal’ wing within the Mormon Church. This maintains, for example, that The Book of Mormon need not be relied upon as accurate history, but should be valued only for its spiritual message.

Though both Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses will certainly become larger proportions of the US population, and will therefore exert a more noticeable impact on public awareness, there is no indication that these denominations can ever make up in absolute numbers for the steady fall in church attendance. And as these two churches grow, we can expect their members’ fertility to decline, and the proportion of their offspring who lapse into purely nominal attachment to increase.

So is God back? The truthful answer from within the US is that God never left, but lately has been looking distinctly unwell, and is now a pale shadow of His former self.

Explaining the Explosion

If the New Atheist explosion in America can’t be explained as a reaction to a Christian resurgence, what does account for it? I have a two part answer: the polarization of American political culture, and the impact of 9/11 on left-leaning American intellectuals.

Polarization in American attitudes has been widely documented. On many religious, social, and political issues, support for extreme positions has grown, while support for intermediate positions has waned. For example, there’s been growth in the number of young people who think abortion is murder; yet also in the number who think abortion should be freely available. We see a growth of those who reject evolution because it contradicts the Bible, yet also a growth of those who think the Bible is just a collection of ancient writings deserving of no authority. The polarization is documented and analyzed in Robert Wuthnow’s fine book After the Baby Boomers (2007).

We’ve already seen this polarization as the simultaneous growth of the religiously unaffiliated and the Evangelical churches. It manifests itself in elections as the red state/blue state opposition. (Confusingly for non-Americans, ‘red’ means rightwing and ‘blue’ means leftwing.) The polarization is due to two influences working in opposite directions. More children grow up in red-state households. However, exposure to life in big cities, higher education, and other features of advanced industrial culture, tends to influence people toward a more secular or progressive outlook.

Polarization also means that atheists see a growth of fundamentalist religion, which alarms them, while conservative Protestants see a growth of militant secular humanism, which alarms them. However, they’re both right, because the extremes are growing and the center is shrinking. And so we see that the theory of a religious comeback, while generally false, contains a nugget of truth. There has indeed been a growth of ‘extreme’ and enthusiastic religiosity, which has alarmed the more secular-minded people, even though, viewing US society as a whole, commitment to religion has shown net decline. Bold and explicit atheism is generally a response to bold and explicit religiosity.

Most Americans today are secular-minded nominal theists. They say they believe in God, but they have no time for church. They are not alarmed by atheism, and they often hold the same blue-state social and political attitudes as the tiny minority of atheists. They think of atheists as intelligent people with interesting ideas, whereas they think of Evangelicals as a bunch of kooks who might become dangerous. And so they take readily to books like The God Delusion.

The second stage of my explanation for the New Atheist Explosion in America centers on 9/11. American intellectuals needed a story which would put 9/11 in context and confirm their assumptions. What they came up with was the view that the Muslims who perpetrate terrorist attacks and the New Christian Right are the same enemy (fringe elements of Evangelicalism have perpetrated terrorist attacks on abortion clinics). This is the dominant theme in The End of Faith by Sam Harris, and it looms large in The God Delusion, and in God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens. The New Atheist story, marketable to the American intelligentsia as a whole, is that extreme religion commits atrocities, and even moderate religion may be dangerous because it provides cover for extreme religion.

Is this story defensible? I don’t think it is. But that’s another argument.

© David Ramsay Steele 2010

David Ramsay Steele is the author of Atheism Explained: From Folly to Philosophy and co-author with Michael Edelstein of Three Minute Therapy: Change Your Thinking, Change Your Life (1997). He has also contributed to The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (2007) and The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism (2008).

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