religious panic and the rise of the atheist menace

Religious commentators are trying to soothe scared believers that atheism is just a fad. In reality, skepticism of organized religion is quickly growing.
chased by self restraining dog

Just in case you haven’t noticed by the brisk sales of books about atheism, skepticism and science, or by the crowds that swarm to hear Richard Dawkins’ lectures, or by the fact that some of the biggest blogs on the web are ran by atheists and agnostics for their fellow non-theists, atheism is getting big. Really big. It’s not as big as Jesus though, since some three quarters of the U.S. population still calls itself Christian, but according to a new poll, as many as 15% of Americans say they don’t follow any religious tradition. And that number has been projected to grow over the next few decades to one in four. However, before cheering for the explosion of atheism across the nation, keep in mind that the study also added deists and disenfranchised theists into the mix. Only 42% of the studied group are actually atheists or agnostics who highly doubt theistic premises.

But atheism is growing and it’s racking up demographic clout big enough to turn heads, but why? What made so many people leave religious traditions and embrace constant doubt and questioning of the universe they inhabit? The simplest reason I can think of is that we’re outgrowing today’s religious dogmas which failed to account for important scientific discoveries when they were new, much less our current body of knowledge. I don’t want to flatter us too much, but in the last few hundred years we’ve done a pretty damn good job when it comes to exploring nature for a bunch of upright apes with fancy brain wiring. However, as we kept on learning and updating our libraries and textbooks, our religious traditions have been pretty much frozen in place.

What theistic holy books try to tell us about our world tends to be wrong and at odds with observable, verifiable facts. Outside of a very closed environment in which information is censored to either strictly adhere to dogma or mutilated to fit preconceived notions, today’s religious traditions are failing to provide plausible answers to our existential questions. Even haughty, esoteric theology rooted in the deism of the Enlightenment tends to trip and fall flat on its face when confronted with serious questions about good, evil and the nature of deities, which is to be expected because by definition, theologians try to explain something that has no real definition and should fall outside our realm of perception. Put a blind person in a room and try to have her explain what sound the color blue makes. This is pretty much what theologians try to do when expounding on gods.

By not involving the supernatural and sticking to only what we can verify through experiments and observation, scientists greatly simplify matters and can come up with perfectly logical explanations. Hence, it makes more sense for people to trust the scientific method rather than lengthy pontifications involving fuzzy paradoxes and a whole lot of hemming and hawing from theologians and priests. For obvious reasons, ardent theists don’t like this one bit, which is why like all reports about the growing atheist menace on the horizon, the reporting of the poll referenced in the introduction came filled with all sorts of nasty comments intended to placate them…

While the numbers portend a dramatic change for the American religious scene — “religious nones” accounted for just 8 percent of the population in 1990 — the United States is not poised adopt the anti-religious posture of much of secularized Europe.

Europe is anti-religious? Really? Since when? Sure, it’s far more secular than the United States where every politician rushes to waive the Bible at election time, but we hardly see cathedrals getting vandalized or closed down, the Vatican being disbanded, or priests constantly harassed by rowing squads of atheist hecklers. The talking point about Europe being institutionally hostile to religious organizations is a smear, created by those who only seem capable of a with-us-or-against-us mentality. To affirm their beliefs, they insist to rationalizing that those who disagree have an evil agenda to dismantle their faith, an attitude embodied in this quote…

American religious nones tend to be religious skeptics as opposed to outright atheists. Fewer than ten percent of those identifying with no religious tradition call themselves atheists or hold atheistic beliefs, according to the new study.

Right. Atheists aren’t religious skeptics who decided that based on the available evidence there are no deities, they’re just rabid, evil anti-religious people like those snooty Europeans. We get the point. And that point is still nonsense. If you take a look at page 11 of the study itself, you’ll see where that sub 10% atheist rate appears. In a question about what the respondents think about the existence of God, responses questioning whether you could really know if a deity exists were grouped into different categories which made up 35% of all replies. While it’s a difference of opinion and wording that separates agnosticism from atheism, agnostics actually do hold many atheist beliefs. To them, God is not personal, tangible or demonstrably provable. They don’t go to church, they doubt the existence of the afterlife, they accept evolution and cosmology. They’re just not willing to completely shut the book on the idea of a deity and call it a day quite yet.

To present atheists as nothing more than God denialists is intellectually lazy and offensive. It sounds like Ray Comfort’s dialogues with Kirk Cameron before the two head off to stare at a banana in slack-jawed awe and worship it as the embodiment of God’s omnipotence. Let’s give those who are skeptical of blind faith their due because they’re trying to take charge of their lives and find logical answers to questions with which we all have to struggle. This is why they’re rejecting dogma and taking up science books. They’re intellectual explorers. To marginalize them for the benefit of those who erupt into hysterics the minute they see anything positive about atheists is just malicious and arrogantly condescending.

# politics // atheism / atheist / demographics / poll / religion

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