Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

In his June/July First Things article, " Remembering the Secular Age ," along with emails he’s been sending us over the past few months, Michael Novak has been tracking the claim that atheism is back. Or so, at least, you might imagine from all the figures in recent months, one after another declaring a proud and militant rejection of God and all his works.

Christopher Hitchens, for instance, gave his much-noted book, God Is Not Great , the subtitle How Religion Poisons Everything . In The God Delusion , Richard Dawkins asserts that teaching children religion is "child abuse" and ought to be outlawed. In Breaking the Spell , Daniel C. Dennett, in the guise of studying religion objectively, dismisses religion with disdain. Sam Harris follows up his bestselling but dyspeptic The End of Faith with a slim but insulting Letter to a Christian Nation .

In Michael’s view, there’s an odd defensiveness about all these books¯as though they were a sign not of victory but of desperation. Everywhere on earth except Western Europe, religion is surging. Each of the authors admits that most people, especially in America, do not agree with him. Each pictures himself as a man who spits against the wind. Each rehearses his arguments for atheism mostly, it seems, to convince himself.

They’re certainly not convincing many others. According to a 2007 Princeton Survey poll for Newsweek , 91 percent of Americans believe in God. Only 3 percent say they are atheists. The whole group of nonbelievers¯adding in agnostics and persons who say they are of no religion¯account for 10 percent, at best, of all Americans. Worse for the new atheists: A full 87 percent of Americans identify with a specific religion¯82 percent Christian, 2 percent Jewish, and 1 percent Muslim, Buddhist, and other.

Now, Michael insists that all this recent atheistical brouhaha comes from the easily predictable anxiety that appears at the end of any age¯in our case, at the end of the age of secularism.

And maybe he’s right. But there are some more proximate causes we might look to. So, for example, part of this is driven by the evolution debate¯although, in truth, it really works the other way around: Atheism and religion are what drive the evolution debate. The physicist Steve Barr tells the story of a lecture Daniel Dennett gave last year at the University of Delaware, in which he claimed that Darwin had shredded the credibility of religion and was, indeed, the very "destroyer" of God.

In the question session, a philosophy professor named Jeff Jordan suggested to Dennett: "If Darwinism is inherently atheistic, as you say, then obviously it can’t be taught in public schools." "And why is that?" inquired Dennett, incredulous. "Because," said Jordan, "the Supreme Court has held that the Constitution guarantees government neutrality between religion and irreligion."

Dennett, looking as if he’d been sucker-punched, leaned back against the wall and said, after a few moments of silence, "clever." After another silence, he came up with a reply: He had not meant to say that evolution logically entails atheism, merely that it undercuts religion.

Barr notes that Jordan’s question reveals how the self-appointed defenders of the scientific method are trying to have it both ways. Don’t allow religious philosophy to intrude into biology classrooms and texts, they say, for that is to soil the sacred precincts of science, which must be reserved for hypotheses that can be rigorously tested and confronted with data. The next minute they are going around claiming that anti-religious philosophy is part and parcel of the scientific viewpoint.

There’s a kind of old-fashioned animus in it all, an Enlightenment claim of a sort of¯oh, I don’t know¯ enlightenedness about our escape from the dark ages of religion. It has the dated tang of an old, yellowed pamphlet, with 60-point type on the cover, proclaiming "Robert G. Ingersoll Demands Free-Thinking Now!"

But there are other pieces of the puzzle that are worth noticing. The tides of book publishing shouldn’t be discounted. The flood of atheism books over past two years followed the flood of theocracy books over the previous two years¯and for much the same cause: Because publishers are sheep, they follow in droves, and they want their new books to be like their previously successful books. If Sam Harris’ End of Faith had not made the bestseller list, Christopher Hitchens would not have written his atheism book now, however atheistical he happens to be.

Still, there are reasons Sam Harris started the flood. The attacks of September 11 fit in here somewhere: the sudden unavoidable awareness of Jihadism and radical Islam put a weapon in the hands of opponents of religion. Here are crazies announcing they want to kill us in the name of God, and thus¯by the logical fallacy known as illicit conversion¯everyone who believes in God must be a murderous lunatic. Here are neo-fascists who are creating theocratic states across the Middle East; and, by that same illicit conversion, America’s evangelicals and Catholics¯and Orthodox Jews, for that matter¯must want to build Gilead in Harvard Yard.

A more immediate reason for these books might be simple partisan politics. In the enduring anger about the 2000 election¯and particularly after all the values talk that followed the 2004 campaign¯there was a general sense on the left that the evangelicals had become a defining force in American politics. It wasn’t enough to mock and despise them; they must be actively attacked, as the confident New Yorkery class sneer was converted into a hard grimace, a kind of permanent anxiety about the breeding herds of Red America.

There is a way to read everything in America politics through the 2000 election as concerned, really, about abortion. The great liberal program, which was once defined by its economics, had devolved entirely into sex. That became much less true after the attacks in 2001¯and the Iraq War has reinvigorated the left in a variety of ways. Still, the sex stuff hasn’t gone away, and the anti-Catholic rhetoric over the past few days, in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s Gonzales v. Carhart decision, proves that it’s not going to go away.

In a certain sense, we’re getting all this new atheism because religion looks so powerful¯and we’re also getting it because religion looks so weak. It’s safe and rewarding to bash Christianity: Comedy Central had a running skit about a woman who periodically has sex with a character named God, and nobody can gin up the outrage to make it stop. Let Bill Donahue and the Catholic League snarl as they will, the only people left in America with any strong sense of blasphemy against biblical revelation are artists and popular entertainers¯people desperate, in other words, for some last bit of rebellion, some last frisson of transgression.

The Democrats’ gains in the 2006 election are a big part of the certainty that religion is weak right now. Among conservatives, as well. Brooke Allen, Cathy Young, Heather Mac Donald¯why are these all women?¯seem to be saying that as long as the religious were helping big-tent Republicanism win elections, they would hold their tongue. But 2006 showed, in this view, that the evangelicals not only didn’t win the election but they lost it, in the backlash anger over Terri Schiavo, abortion, homosexuality, etc. Heather MacDonald actually ended up badmouthing Why I Turned Right ¯a collection of essays edited by Mary Eberstadt, in which Heather herself had an essay¯on the grounds that Mary should not have allowed those awful religious conservatives to participate.

Add it all up, and there’s a perfect occasion for all these books on atheism. The fact that they won’t make any difference is another matter entirely.

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles