Professor Byron R. McCane is chair of the Religion Department at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. I don’t know what it takes to earn that title, but it can’t be much. In an opinion piece for The State newspaper, he shows his complete ignorance about atheism in America.
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.
Wow. The books by those atheist authors were on the bestsellers list for months at a time, each of them (some even longer), but now that it’s been a few years and they’re no longer on it, that’s a sign of the decline of atheism?
Not at all. Every book has a shelf life. At some point, the people who are going to read it have read it, and new sales go down.
There is a lull right now, but more books about atheism are on their way, by a multitude of newer atheist authors, exploring new niches in the atheism genre: parenting, dating, celebrating holidays, etc.
We’re only at the beginning stages of a surge.
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.
McCane cites stats we’ve seen before, that say the percentage of atheists is low. That’s not surprising. Part of the reason for the low numbers includes the fact that “atheist” still has negative connotations. Some people who are atheists are afraid to say so — or simply don’t know that they are.
He ignores the 2007 study of Generation Next which stated that 20% of adults under the age of 25 have “no religious affiliation.”
The membership of atheist organizations like the Freedom From Religion Foundation is higher now than ever before and they’re showing no signs of dropping.
The number of atheist Meetup groups is proliferating and the Secular Student Alliance has more groups now than at any time in our nearly 10-year history.
Second, the new atheists thought that books about science and logic would convince Americans to stop believing in God.
I don’t think any of the atheist authors believed that America was about to stop being religious because of their books.
But seeds have been planted. People are talking about religion moreso now than ever before. Atheists who were previously closeted are coming out and saying so. The more that happens, the easier it’ll be for everyone else. We’re less afraid of questioning religious dogma than we were before.
Give it some time. The tide will turn.
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.
Not surprisingly, McCane doesn’t give a single example of this “intolerance.”
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with pointing out how ridiculous religious beliefs are — some more than others. We should continue to do that, while sympathizing with those who sincerely believe them. We need to start discussions about religion that many people are afraid to have.
Religious tolerance means people have a right to believe what they want. No atheist is trying to take that away.
We’re perfectly welcome to point out that those beliefs make no sense, though. And we will continue to do that.
Our best bet is to get people questioning why they believe what they do. I’m not convinced that all religious believers have ever truly thought about the reasons they hold their beliefs. And for many people, I don’t think “the Bible says so” will cut it.
Some atheists do this with sarcasm; others make a sincere effort to talk to religious people.
But “intolerance”? Did we beat up religious believers? Did we ever try to take away their right to pray?
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.
I have no idea what the hell that means. What is “kinder, gentler, wiser” atheism? The author says “there is plenty of room for atheist groups that can attract seekers by presenting unbelief as a practical option along life’s way.”
Which is exactly what atheist groups do. The billboards, the bus ads, the books — probably all examples of “intolerant atheism” to this guy — they all point out that living without God is a practical option and there’s nothing wrong with it.
Part of making that convincing, though, is telling people why their current religious beliefs are not worth keeping. It requires pointing out why they don’t make sense and why people need to “break the spell.”
You can’t do the former without the latter.
And if anyone wants to explain what McCane suggestion of tolerant atheism being a “thoughtful expression of principled religious dissent” means, I’d love to hear it.