Kelly Baker, Lived Irreligion

Is Atheism Hip? or Lived Irreligion in America
Kelly Baker

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?


Randall said…
Enjoyed reading your entry on the subject. This *has* been a year for atheists in the media. It certainly is unclear just what this means, though.

I think its very interesting that most of the reviews I've seen have been negative and critical. I'm thinking of Jacques Berlinerblau on Hitchens and his discussion of new atheism in the Chronicle Review []; Terry Eagleton's searing piece on Dawkin’s God Delusion in The London Rev of Bks []; and H. Allen Orr on Dawkins in the NYRB []. All, to some degree, find the "new atheists" arguments to be myopic. I believe it was Berlinerblau who commented that when Hitchens fails to distinguish a suicide bomber from a socially progressive urban reformer it is not helpful.

Robert Orsi said something similar to me recently. He was a little confused by the widespread interest in these works, which they appear to be so unsubtle and lacking in much understanding of how religion is actually lived out.

That Nation piece was curious to me for its celebratory tone. But I've sensed that leaning in its pages before. I’m a subscriber and a fan. Yet Katha Politt and a few other contributors are incapable of seeing much good in religion. Makes me scratch my head.
Phil said…
To Randall's list I'd add Stephen Prothero's critical review of Hitchens from the Washington Post.
John Fea said…
I was entertained by the exchange in the Washington Post between columnist (and former Bush speech writer) Michael Gerson and Hitchens.

I also enjoyed the conversation between Hitchens and Newsweek managing editor Jon Meacham on Tim Russert's CNBC talk show. Hitchens is in rare form, but Meacham seemed to come across as a bit too milquetoasty for my taste. Judge for yourself:

My favortie review of Dawkins is Eagleton's piece in TLRB--the one that Randall mentioned in a previous post on this thread.
Anonymous said…
"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."

Even the statement of this question points out the weight of the culture -- "non-religious" equates "religious" as the norm... "Free-thinking" has a long history in US culture, and it is within that tradition that I find it possible to consider myself both athiest and patriot, and a full member of the community. I also think that the veneer of religion in the US is thinner than we pretend. I was quite comforted, for example, on a visit to Salt Lake City to find that a lot of visitors could not identify themselves for the guest books at various Mormon sites which asked for "religion" except by writing "Protestant." I suspect these --and so many others -- are passively non-religous, even if they are not yet ready to admit it to themselves or others.
But a little more on how one negotiates within the supposed society of believers: a few years ago I was getting treatment for a cancer, the kind of thing that provokes many to inform you that "we are praying for you" and the like. At the time, I just said thanks, because I didn't have the energy to discuss my atheism. But I think that it is -- as Hitchens represents best -- becoming more and more important now to continue to remind people that in fact, there is a lot of bad in religion.

Randall said…
I'm very interested in this ongoing debate about how we determine individuals' religious commitment/religiosity. I tried to get Callum Brown to write something for Historically Speaking on post-Cxn Britain. (No luck.) There's some disagreement about the "post" here. Is religious commitment dependent on church attendance, doctrinal views, prayer, Cxn apparel (witness gear), etc?

I had a discussion recently with John Polkinghorne about this. He's a Cambridge scientist and Anglican priest. (Also has a wicked cool Dickensian name). He thought that Britons were certainly not as irreligious or post-Cxn as some scholars think they are. Granted, church attendance is nil, but there are a number of other ways to understand the extent of belief.
jfahler said…
Responding to the last two comments, I wonder where sociological understandings of religion and religious belief play into this discussion. While religion is, and always has been, an important part of society, the roles of religion have changed over time, and change from culture to culture.

For this reason, while polls over religious belief are important - especially, say, in a presidential election - I would fear that they would distort and never be able to answer what competes in one's life with "being" religious... or irreligious. If someone is indifferent about their religion because of other influences... say, consumer capitalism... and they debate with their friends about baseball teams rather than theology... and don't feel the *need* to believe in a supreme being, does this make them "atheist?"

I'd say it depends on what an atheist is. Is an atheist an atheist... because of a claim in unbelief... or because they are atheist by default, if they happen to simply just not care about a supreme being's existance?