July 1, 2007

The Atheist Revival

This post from 2007 was edited in 2020 to remove broken links and correct a couple of typos.

The results of a new Gallup poll (update: link no longer active) indicate that public trust for organized religion is nearing the record low obtained during 2003. Could it be that Americans are finally starting to tire of TV preachers, Christian extremist pundits, and other purveyors of hatred and irrationality? Could it be that they are beginning to understand what theocracy really is and to realize that they want no part of it?

It is unlikely to be mere coincidence that this decline in trust of organized religion is happening at a time when atheist-oriented books are flying off the shelves. There is growing talk of an atheist movement or atheist revival, and one gets the sense that it is likely to strengthen.

The consensus explanation for what is happening is fairly simple, perhaps deceptively so. According to Tom Harpur's recent article in The Star,

This reaction to the gross excesses of religious rhetoric, not to mention the crimes against humanity, committed today in the name of God by factions and members of virtually every faith community, was as predictable as tomorrow's sunrise. Each of the attackers of belief in God is venting, among other things, the growing disillusionment and yes, disgust, of the many millions around the world who are aware not just of the scandals rocking religious institutions but of the pious veneer hiding not-so-subtle attempts by religious literalists to thwart the progress of science and to belittle human reason itself.

Without question, this is a large part of what is fueling the atheist revival. Harpur also notes that a common complaint of American atheists concerns "the spectacle of a 'born-again' U.S. president, George W. Bush, ignoring completely a centuries-old Christian tradition of the so-called 'just war' and its principles in favour of a pre-emptive invasion of another sovereign nation."

I agree that this is another important factor fueling both the growing wave of atheism and a more general tendency toward activism. Of course, the atheist community has been nearly as united (or at least as vocal) in opposing Bush's crusade in Iraq as the spectre of Christian extremism behind virtually every aspect of his presidency. I see the core issue as one of ideology over competence. The American people have been given a taste of what happens when policy is based on theology instead of science and when appointments are based on loyalty rather than competence. We see America moving closer to theocracy, and we've had enough. We long for reality-based politics.

The atheist revival is taking place at the grassroots level as more and more Americans begin to question the influence of religion in national politics and global conflict. These questions and the increasing availability of atheist-oriented material in book stores and on the Internet are leading increasing numbers of people to examine the effects of religion in their local communities and daily lives. The dissatisfaction has been growing for some time, but it is now gaining a voice. Perhaps it is okay to question religion. Perhaps these atheists are on to something.