Rieux (dr_rieux) wrote,

"The Nation" article on the 'New Atheists'

[Cross-posted from chalice_circle]

Apparently I missed it when it first came out in late June, but this article by Ronald Aronson in The Nation caught my eye this evening:
The great success of the New Atheists is to have reached [non-believing Americans], 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.
I'm with PZ Myers: I think Aronson stretches a little bit to find something in the works of Sam Harris, Daniel Dennettt, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens to criticize, but in the main it's a very good piece.

I find the poll data Aronson quotes especially interesting:
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.
Wow! As many as one in four Americans is a non-believer? Like the blogger at Daylight Atheism, I find that an exciting thought, even if it seems a little hard to believe. (It reminds me of this article, which puts forth a theory about the current global trend in religious belief that I have to admit I find very heartening. Maybe I'll start a thread on that one at some point in the future.)

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.


All this [new poll data] 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.
And how!

Anyway, how many folks in this community have read one or more of the five books that Harris, Dennett, Dawkins, and Hitchens have published in the past few years, touching off the so-called "New Atheist" movement? I've read all five, and I find them endlessly interesting. Anyone else?
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