Kelly Baker, Lived Irreligion
Is Atheism Hip? or Lived Irreligion in America
An interesting trend has been presenting itself in American news magazines in recent months: attention to atheism in America. Most of this can be attributed to books written by the so-called “New Atheists.” These “new” atheists, for the most part, include at least one “old” atheist Richard Dawkins, whose new book The God Delusion much lives up to its title. The rest of the gang include Sam Harris (The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation), Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Great) and Daniel Dennett (Breaking the Spell). This books have caused a little bit of a sensation and have left many wondering “how many atheists are there in a nation know for its religiosity?” Nation contributor Ronald Aronson wrote a piece, entitled “The New Atheists”, pondering this very question. He writes:
We commonly hear that only a tiny percentage of Americans don't believe in God and that, as a Newsweek poll claimed this spring, 91 percent do. In fact, this is not true. How many unbelievers are there? The question is difficult to assess accurately because of the challenges of constructing survey questions that do not tap into the prevailing biases about religion. According to the American Religious Identification Survey, which interviewed more than 50,000 people, more than 29 million adults--one in seven Americans--declare themselves to be without religion. The more recent Baylor Religion Survey ("American Piety in the 21st Century") of more than 1,700 people, which bills itself as "the most extensive and sensitive study of religion ever conducted," calls for adjusting this number downward to exclude those who believe in a God but do not belong to a religion. Fair enough. But Baylor's own Gallup survey is a bit shaky for at least two reasons. It counts anyone who believes in a "higher power" but not God as believing in God--casting a vast net over adherents of everything from spirit to history to love. Yet the study allows unbelievers only one option: to not believe in "anything beyond the physical world," leaving no space for those who regard themselves as agnostics or skeptics, secularists or humanists. Contrast this with a more recent and more nuanced Financial Times/Harris poll of Europeans and Americans that allowed respondents to declare agnosticism as well as atheism: 18 percent of the more than 2,000 American respondents chose one or the other, while 73 percent affirmed belief in God or a supreme being.
Aronson notes that part of the problem with determining numerically how many atheists are present in America is the “social desirability effect,” which means that folks generally want to give a popular rather than unpopular answer when polled. If America is known for her religiosity, who really wants to be described as “non-religious”? Interestingly, Aronson believes that the non-believing population is being to become unhappy with their marginalization and protest their treatment, which is why these “New Atheists” are so popular.
Additionally, Newsweek highlighted a new parenting book for atheist parents, who are not quite comfortable using “higher power” justifications for why the goldfish has to be flushed. Parenting Beyond Belief strives to provide guidance to parents, who consider themselves “free thinkers” on a variety of moral and ethical questions. In March of this year, Rep. Stark, a Democrat from California, declared his belief in no higher power, much to the pleasure of American Humanist Association. Atheism might appear to be in vogue.
Yet Joseph Gerteis, a sociologist at the University of Minnesota, published a paper with Penny Edgell and Doug Hartmann in the American Sociological Review called "Atheists As ‘Other': Moral Boundaries and Cultural Membership in American Society," which has provoked some controversy. In "Atheism, Morality and Belonging in American Life," he writes that atheists received a larger portion of rejection from the general public than any other group he researched. Gerteis attributes this to a common understanding that morality is tied to a belief in God, and that atheists, with an avowed disbelief, are judged to be immoral. The term has also become a catch-all that includes other “unsavory” types from Communists to homosexuals (again, for the general public). Gerteis, of course, asserts that atheists can be and often are moral individuals in spite of the assumption (with parenting books to guide one on the subject). What I find fascinating is that atheists are seen as an anomaly because of America’s fervent religiosity. The question becomes how do atheists, then, fit into larger tropes of patriotism and nationalism without a belief in a higher power. The better question, I think, is how do individual atheists understand their place in American culture. A study into the lived irreligion of atheists could highlight how religion and nationalism are melded together in American life, and it would provide insight into how the non-religious negotiate a supposed society of believers. Is anyone out there working on such questions?