I think this is a sign that atheism is becoming more accepted, for I can’t imagine a piece like the one I’m about to describe being published fifteen years ago.
Three days ago, the “Room for debate” section of the New York Times published a series of six short pieces under the title “Is atheism a religion?” (Actually, the accompanying notes said that the question was also “Can atheism replace religion?”) And while three of the six commenters groused a bit about atheism (we’re too strident, we can’t replace religion, etc.), all of them said something positive about it. Further, the other three were what religious people call “militant atheists.”
In other words, the piece takes serious note of the growing prevalance of nonbelief in the U.S. Those who say that nonbelief won’t spread until we propose a replacement for religion are wrong; it is spreading. And I think the internet is largely responsible for it, as it gives isolated atheists an online community and a sense that they aren’t alone.
Here are snippets of the six pieces, but they’re short, so go read them yourself.
- Penn Jillette: “(you know him), Don’t replace religion; end it“:
Religion cannot and should not be replaced by atheism. Religion needs to go away and not be replaced by anything. Atheism is not a religion. It’s the absence of religion, and that’s a wonderful thing. . . . Religion is faith. Faith is belief without evidence. Belief without evidence cannot be shared. Faith is a feeling. Love is also a feeling, but love makes no universal claims. Love is pure. The lover reports on his or her feelings and needs nothing more. Faith claims knowledge of a world we share but without evidence we can share. Feeling love is beautiful. Feeling the earth is 6,000 years old is stupid.
- Phyllis Tickle (founding editor of the religion section of Publishers Weekly and author of Emergence Christianity: What It Is, Where It Is Going, and Why It Matters:”What atheism lacks is mystery“:
What atheism does not have is the architecture of mysteries. One might even argue that, to the extent that atheism lacks sacred story and narrative thrust, it also lacks transcendence and beauty, both of which are hallmarks of religion. Likewise, the perspective of atheism is caught within the created order, while that of religion, by definition, exceeds it.
It follows, then, that atheism cannot replace religion. . .
- Pippa Anderson and Sanderson Jones (founder of an atheist church in London), “At atheist church, no faith required“:
Will atheism replace religion? That is not our goal (obviously), but neither is it our concern. We started The Sunday Assembly – think of it as part foot-stomping show, part atheist church – because the idea of meeting once a month to sing songs, hear great speakers and celebrate the incredible gift of life seems like a fun, and useful, thing to do.
What’s more, church has got so many awesome things going for it (which we’ve shamelessly nicked). Singing together in a group? Super. Hearing interesting things? Rad. (Our first reading was Theodore Roosevelt’s Man in the Arena bit.) A moment to think quietly about your life? Wizard. Getting to know your neighbors? Ace.
Somehow that church just doesn’t do it for me.
- Cord Jefferson (West coast editor of Gawker), “Atheism can have the worst traits of religion“:
Unfortunately, a great number of atheists do seem to cling to heterodoxy the way the most toxic of believers cling to orthodoxy, turning their irreverence into a stubborn religion unto itself. These are the people you see in online forums calling churchgoers “morons” or “brainless,” displaying the same hubristic arrogance they claim to despise when it comes from the other side. Still, I think the lion’s share of the new era of atheists understand that atheism should be less about the degradation of religion and more about a celebration of the power and potential of the human being sans any omnipotent higher authority.
Nothing new here. “Celebrating the “power and potential of the human being sans any omnipotent higher authority” means the rejection (via “degradation,” if you will) of religion.
- Jason Torpy (president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers),“Show atheism the respect that religions get“:
We should create a culture that affirms a secular world view, alongside religious world views. For example, the U.S. military suffers from daily suicides and a rising epidemic of post-traumatic stress. In response, the military has developed “spiritual fitness” solutions that emphasize gratitude to God, a supernatural connection with the living beings and a higher power, and reliance upon prayer and scripture. This approach leaves out a crucial element of fitness: approaches that apply to nontheists as well. Atheists, humanists and other nontheists struggling with the difficulties of military life feel ostracism rather than assistance when spiritual remedies are tailored to traditional religious belief.
- Diana Butler Bass (author of books on religion), “A rival, but not a threat“:
As for atheism replacing religion, even Christopher Hitchens said that religious faith was “ineradicable” as long as human beings fear death and each other. Atheism is — and will continue to be — a lively alternative for those weary and wary of institutional religion, those who find transcendent explanations meaningless or intellectually unsatisfactory, and fret over the dangers of religious triumphalism. As there is no shortage of people in the United States who find religion worrisome in public life and tedious in private, there is an ever-larger audience willing to entertain the possibility of a post-religious life. Atheism might never replace religion, but it certainly is giving bad and boring religion a real run for the money.
Reading these pieces, you’ll find none of the condescension of people like Terry Eagleton and none of the specious arguments of people like Alvin Plantinga. What you’ll find are people struggling to come to grips with the tide of history.