Atheist awakening: the appeal of unbelief

In a nation in which more than 80 percent of people regularly tell pollsters they believe in God or a divine power, unbelief is making an unexpectedly strong showing. While there are varying indications about whether or by how much the number of Americans who claim no belief is growing, the cultural profile of atheists – or secularists, humanists, rationalists, freethinkers or any of the labels that come under the heading of “nontheism” – is looming larger than ever.

In bestselling books, headline-making court cases, and even in an Off Broadway play, atheists are more vocal and visible, experts say, than at any time since 1963, when the late atheist leader Madalyn Murray O’Hair won a landmark Supreme Court ruling barring prayer from the public schools.

Some atheists have adopted a new branding strategy by joining the “Brights,” a group that promotes a naturalistic worldview, in an effort to lighten their image. And atheist groups in 2001 founded a holiday in late December – HumanLight Day – to rival the dominant festivals of light in Christmas and Hanukkah. They have also begun observing a “National Day of Reason” on the first Thursday in May to counter the long-standing national observance of a National Day of Prayer.

This source guide explores the unusual phenomenon of unbelief in what has been called a “religion-mad” country.

Why it matters

Belief in God has been seen as an integral part of the American DNA, perhaps more so today than ever before. So if atheism and related forms of unbelief are multiplying, that represents a landmark step in the evolution of America’s religious history. Whatever the number of unbelievers, experts say that the increasing visibility and assertiveness of atheists in the public square and the judicial arena provide this group a potential for influence out of proportion to their actual numbers. Legal challenges to the use of the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance or the motto “In God We Trust” on U.S. currency are two well-known examples. Atheists’ growing activism is also a red flag to religious conservatives, and to many believers across the spectrum, who often see in this secularist trend a new reason to mobilize. That counterreaction gives the emergence of public atheism that much more prominence.

Background

Atheism generally means a belief that there is no God or gods. But the term is notoriously difficult to define. Scholars say that the term in its most familiar current usage originated in the Enlightenment period in the late 18th century, when rationalists first began to identify themselves as having no belief in the divine or supernatural. The Founding Fathers of the United States were imbued with some of that worldview, and many of them professed no belief or held to a delimited role for God, such as that expressed by deism.

But scholars say that over time the country increasingly harked back to its Pilgrim traditions to revive a more overtly religious – and Christian – national character. Freethinkers such as Robert Ingersoll (d. 1899) in the 19th century and author Ayn Rand (d. 1982) and Madalyn Murray O’Hair (d. 1995) in the 20th century were prominent nonbelievers who reacted against that trend. While such secularists often had devoted followings, they remained profoundly countercultural figures.

Whether the prominence of today’s nontheism is anything more than a periodic vogue for unbelief is a matter of speculation. Many believe that the rise of religious conservatism, the political failures of President Bush and renewed debates over creationism and evolution helped raise the profile of atheists in a way that would not have been possible otherwise. The atheist movement also has been given a boost by the global focus on religiously motivated violence, which has sparked a debate about whether religion is inherently harmful. Breakthroughs in neuroscience, genetics and evolutionary biology have also sparked arguments that religious belief can be explained through science.

It is important to note that atheism or secularism of any stripe is not the same as secularization, a societal trend that is not necessarily associated with an anti-religious agenda or belief.

Developments

  • “New Atheism” is the term used to describe a group of early-21st-century atheist writers who believe that religion should be actively countered, criticized, and exposed by rational argument rather than merely tolerated.
  • The first Thursday in May marks the National Day of Reason, an observance started by nonbelievers to counter the well-established National Day of Prayer, in which thousands of Americans gather in public spaces to pray. The organization’s website features list of groups and individuals that support the observance, as well as a list of events in each state. In years past, many atheist groups organized blood drives to highlight what they say is a rational response to illness rather than prayer, which they say has been proven to be ineffective.
  • In June, 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that taxpayers do not have the right to challenge the constitutionality of the executive branch’s expenditures in Hein v. Freedom From Religion Foundation. In this case, the prominent secularist group unsuccessfully challenged the government’s faith-based funding programs.
  • In March 2007, California Rep. Pete Stark, an 18-term Democrat, became the first congressman in memory to publicly identify himself as an atheist. A March 14, 2007, San Francisco Chronicle story describes Stark’s declaration, which came in response to a survey he answered for the Secular Coalition for America.

Polls

It is widely debated how many Americans could be classified under the category of unbelievers. Part of the problem has to do with defining the category. Some argue that only those who affirm that there is no God or supernatural phenomenon can be classified as true atheists. Others say the category should embrace a “soft” atheism, or forms of agnosticism, or simply indifference to religion. There are others, including religious believers, who join forces with nonbelievers in advocating for an absolute separation of church and state.

As a result of these uncertainties, the number of atheists or nontheists in the United States can range anywhere from 1 percent of the country to 15 percent or higher. The figure has been bolstered in recent decades by a number of Americans who dissociate themselves from organized religion.

Here are a number of surveys on the issue of unbelief and religious intensity:

  • 2012 Gallup survey of 320,000 Americans found 31 percent to be “nonreligious”.
  • The 2008 American Religious Identification Survey, which surveyed more than 50,000 people, put the number of Americans affiliated with “no religion” at 15 percent, up from from 8.2 percent in 1990 and 14.1 percent in 2001. The survey was conducted by Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut.
  • November 2007 Harris poll of 2,455 American adults found that 82 percent of adult Americans believe in God, the same percent as in the 2005 Harris poll.
  • March 2007 Newsweek poll shows that 91 percent of Americans voice a belief in God.
  • A 2006 survey by researchers at the University of Minnesota found that atheists are the least accepted social group in the United States. The researchers found that Americans rate atheists below Muslims, recent immigrants and homosexuals, among others, in “sharing their vision of American society.” The researchers say atheists account for about 3 percent of the population. The survey was published in the April 2006 issue of the American Sociological Review.
  • February 2007 survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that nearly four in 10 Americans say they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who is “Christian,” the second most positive trait tested. Only the trait of “military service” ranked higher, at 48 percent. Moreover, 63 percent say they would be less inclined to support a presidential candidate who “does not believe in God,” which the results indicated was the most negative trait tested. Some 46 percent say that they would be less likely to vote for a “Muslim” and 30 percent say they would be less likely to vote for a “Mormon” candidate.
  • 2007 Pew survey shows that 16.1 percent  of American adults are unaffiliated with religion. 1.6 percent identified as atheist, 2.4 percent as agnostic, and 12.1 percent as “nothing in particular”.

Books

Books arguing for and against atheism:

  • The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas (ed. Robin Harvie and Stephanie Meyers)
  • The Good Book: A Humanist Bible by A.C. Grayling
  • The God Argument: The case against Religion and for Humanism by A.C. Grayling
  • Atheism: The Case Against God by George H. Smith
  • God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens
  • The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Non-Believer by Christopher Hitchens
  • Something There: The Biology of the Human Spirit by David Hay
  • The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief, edited by Tom Flynn
  • God, the Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows that God Does Not Exist by Victor J. Stenger
  • The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth is a series of letters to an unnamed Southern Baptist minister from Edward O. Wilson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning entomologist, pleading for secular humanists like himself and religious believers to work together to save the environment.
  • Letter to a Christian Nation and The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason, both by Sam Harris
  • The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins
  • The God Solution: A Reply to the God Delusion by James A. Beverley
  • Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon by Daniel C. Dennett
  • Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism by Susan Jacoby
  • Atheists: A Groundbreaking Study of America’s Nonbelievers by Bruce E. Hunsberger and Robert Altemeyer
  • The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World by Alister McGrath
  • The Dawkins Delusion? Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine by McGrath with his wife, Joanna Collicutt McGrath

Articles

Atheist, secularist and humanist organizations

Nontheists tend to be highly individualistic, and perhaps because of their mistrust of institutional religion, they have rarely coalesced into organized movements. The secularist movement was especially fractured during the heyday of Madalyn Murray O’Hair, who founded American Atheists in the 1960s and led it until her death in 1995. American Atheists was one of the most prominent atheist groups, but O’Hair’s management alienated many supporters. Some of them broke off to found other groups. Since O’Hair’s death, American Atheists has recovered its footing. But there are many other similar organizations today. The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., has become one of the leading activist groups on the nontheist scene. The Council for Secular Humanism remains one of the oldest and most established free-thought groups.

Below is a list of some of the prominent groups, most of which have state and local chapters.

  • American Atheists

    Since 1963, American Atheists has been the premier organization laboring for the civil liberties of atheists and the total, absolute separation of government and religion. It is based in New Jersey and has chapters and affiliated organizations around the country.

  • Council for Secular Humanism

    The Council for Secular Humanism is considered one of the leading free-thought groups. Based in Amherst, N.Y., the CSH is an umbrella for a range of other organizations. They include the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, which includes The Skeptical Inquirer magazine, and a publishing house, Prometheus books. “Camp Inquiry” is a summer camp sponsored by the Center for Inquiry, which is “devoted to the scientific examination of unproven alternative medicine and mental health therapies.” The CSH was founded by Paul Kurtz, who died in 2012.

  • Institution for the Secularization of Islamic Society

    The Institution for the Secularization of Islamic Society is a web-based group that aims to promote an “Islamic Enlightenment”.

  • Secular Coalition for America

    The Secular Coalition for America was founded in 2005 as the “only organization in the nation whose primary purpose is lobbying Congress on behalf of atheists, humanists, freethinkers, and other nontheistic Americans.” The SCA is endorsed and supported by numerous secularist groups.

  • American Humanist Association

    The American Humanist Association is based in Washington D.C. and includes state chapters. The AHA definition of humanism encompasses a variety of nontheistic views including atheism, agnosticism, rationalism, naturalism and secularism.

  • Atheist Alliance International

    Atheist Alliance International (AAI) is a global federation of atheist and freethought groups and individuals, committed to educating its members and the public about atheism, secularism and related issues. It is based in California and has a list of affiliates.

  • Freedom From Religion Foundation

    The Freedom From Religion Foundation is based in Madison, Wis., and has become one of the leading activist groups on the nontheist scene. The foundation publishes Freethought Today magazine.

  • Institute for Humanist Studies

    The Institute for Humanist Studies is based in Washington D.C., and aims to promote “humanism, a nonreligious philosophy based on reason and compassion. IHS advances human rights, secular ethics and the separation of religion and government through advocacy, innovation and collaboration.” Contact administrator Maggie Ardiente.

  • The Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers

    The Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers is a support organization for nontheists in the armed forces.

  • The Secular Student Alliance

    The Secular Student Alliance is based in Minneapolis and describes itself as “an umbrella organization uniting atheist, agnostic, humanist, rationalist, skeptic, and freethought students and groups on high school and campuses across the world.” The SSA has a list of affiliates around the country and the world.

  • The Secular Web

    The Secular Web is operated by Internet Infidels Inc. and is dedicated to “defending and promoting a naturalistic worldview on the Internet.” It is based in Colorado Springs, Colo. Contact through the website.

  • The Society for Humanistic Judaism

    The Society for Humanistic Judaism says it “offers a nontheistic alternative in contemporary Jewish life.” It was organized in Detroit in 1969 and has since added chapters and affiliated congregations around the United States.

International sources

  • Alister McGrath

    Alister McGrath is a former atheist and now an evangelical Christian and a theology professor at the University of Oxford’s Harris Manchester College. He is a prolific writer and public apologist for Christianity and is author of several books, including The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern WorldIn the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How It Changed a Nation, a Language and a Culture, and The Dawkins Delusion? Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine, with Joanna Collicutt McGrath.

  • Julian Baggini

    Julian Baggini is a British philosopher, writer and blogger who is the author of Atheism: A Very Short Introduction. He is also the founder of the magazine and website The Philosophers’ Magazine.

  • James A. Beverley

    James A. Beverley is a theologian and professor of Christian thought and ethics at Tyndale University College and Seminary in Toronto. He is the author of The God Solution: A Reply to the God Delusion. He is also an expert on Rev. Sun Myung Moon and the fiction of Dan Brown.

  • Robert Altemeyer

    Robert Altemeyer is a retired associate professor of psychology at the University of Manitoba. He is the co-author of Atheists: A Groundbreaking Study of America’s Nonbelievers (2006) and Amazing Conversions: Why Some Turn to Faith and Others Abandon Religion (1997).

National sources

  • Francis Collins

    Dr. Francis Collins is director of the National Institutes of Health and former director of the National Human Genome Research Institute of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md. Collins has explained his belief in God in many press interviews and in his book, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.

  • Daniel C. Dennett

    Daniel C. Dennett is a professor of philosophy and director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. He is the author of Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. A summary of his arguments can be found in this Jan. 20, 2006, essay, “Common-Sense Religion,” in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Dennett is a member of the Secular Coalition for America advisory board.

  • Edward T. Oakes

    The Rev. Edward T. Oakes is a Jesuit priest who teaches theology at the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Ill. Oakes wrote a Jan. 22, 2007, essay, “Reason and Pop Atheism,” posted on the blog of the conservative religious journal First Things.

  • Susan Jacoby

    Susan Jacoby is the New York-based author of Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism.

  • William Lane Craig

    William Lane Craig is a research professor in philosophy at Biola University in La Mirada, Calif. He lives in Atlanta, Ga. Craig wrote a chapter, “Theistic Critiques of Atheism,” for the Cambridge Companion to Atheism.

  • Erik J. Wielenberg

    Erik J. Wielenberg is an associate professor of philosophy at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind. He is the author of Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe, which argues that life has meaning and a moral structure even if God does not exist.

  • Penny Edgell

    Penny Edgell is a professor in sociology at the University of Minnesota and lead author of a 2006 study on the social acceptance of atheists in America. She is beginning new research on the moral communities of those who aren’t traditionally religious. She wrote Religion and Family in a Changing Society.

  • Alvin Plantinga

    Alvin Plantinga is John A. O’Brien Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author of “The Dawkins Confusion: Naturalism ad absurdum,” a review of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, in the March/April 2007 issue of Books & Culture. Plantinga has written several articles about faith and science

  • Joan Konner

    Joan Konner is a professor emerita and dean emerita of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism in New York City, and is author of The Atheist’s Bible: An Illustrious Collection of Irreverent Thoughts, which was published in June 2007.

Regional sources

In the Northeast

  • Steven Pinker

    Steven Pinker, psychology professor at Harvard University, formerly with the department of brain and cognitive sciences at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is the author of How the Mind Works and The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (Penguin, 2002). He says seeing morality as a product of the brain is less dangerous than the idea that morality is invested in the commands of religious authority. Sept. 11, he says, is only an example of where morality derived from religion leads. He is a noted atheist and won the Atheist Alliance of America’s Richard Dawkins Award in 2013.

  • Bruce David Forbes

    Bruce David Forbes is a professor of religious studies at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa, specializing in religion in America and religion and popular culture. He is co-editor of Rapture, Revelation and the End Times: Exploring the ‘Left Behind’ Series. Forbes also co-edited the book Religion and Popular Culture in America.

  • Harvey Cox

    Harvey Cox is the Hollis Professor of Divinity Emeritus at Harvard Divinity School and a renowned author and commentator on religious issues. He has written many books on the future of religion and theology, including The Future of Faith and The Secular City: Secularization and Urbanization in Theological Perspective.

  • John Haught

    John Haught, an emeritus professor of theology at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., believes that spiritual experiences are connected to the brain processes and dependent on them but not reducible to them. He says it is possible to distinguish between the chemical basis of experiences and the experiences themselves. Life and mind cannot be reduced to chemistry any more than the content of a written page can be reduced to the chemistry of ink and paper, he says. He has written extensively on the relationship between scientific and religious belief as well as on atheism.

    Contact: 202-687-6119.
  • H. Allen Orr

    H. Allen Orr is a biology professor at the University of Rochester in New York. He wrote a Jan. 11, 2007, essay, “A Mission to Convert,” in The New York Review of Books that critiqued recent books on atheism.

  • Stephen M. Barr

    Stephen M. Barr is a theoretical particle physicist at the Bartol Research Institute of the University of Delaware and a member of the editorial board of the conservative religious periodical First Things. He writes frequently about the intersection of faith and science, often critiquing the strictly materialist point of view of many atheists.

In the South

  • E. Brooks Holifield

    E. Brooks Holifield is a professor of American church history at the Candler School of Theology, Emory University in Atlanta.

  • Norman L. Geisler

    Norman L. Geisler is a professor of Christian apologetics and co-founder of Southern Evangelical Seminary and Bible College in Matthews, N.C. He has written on secularism and humanism from a Christian point of view.

  • Jay Geller

    Jay Geller is an associate professor of modern Jewish culture and religious studies at the divinity school at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. He has written on atheism and modern Judaism. He is also an expert on Judiams and modernity and the Holocaust on film and in literature.

  • Franklyn C. Niles

    Franklyn C. Niles is a professor of political science at John Brown University in Siloam Springs, Ark. He wrote the atheism entry for the Encyclopedia of American Religion and Politics.

  • Russell Tracey McCutcheon

    Russell Tracey McCutcheon is a professor of religious studies at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

  • Steven Weinberg

    Steven Weinberg is a noted atheist and professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Texas. He is a recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physics and the U.S. National Medal of Science, and is a foreign member of the Royal Society of London. Read his Jan. 17, 2007, review of Dawkins’ book in the Times Literary Supplement.

  • Francis J. Beckwith

    Francis J. Beckwith is professor of philosophy and church-state studies at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. He writes and comments widely in defense of traditional Christianity. He also wrote Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice.

  • George Alfred James

    George Alfred James is an associate professor in the department of philosophy and religion studies at the University of North Texas in Denton. He wrote the atheism entry for the Encyclopedia of Religion.

In the Midwest

  • Ronald Aronson

    Ronald Aronson is Distinguished Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at Wayne State University in Detroit. He is a contributor to The Nation and the Times Literary Supplement and has written on the history of atheism and its current manifestations.

  • Kelly James Clark

    Kelly James Clark is Senior Research Fellow at the Kaufman Interfaith Institute at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, Mich. He has written about atheism in modern society, including the entry on atheism for the New Dictionary of Christian Apologetics.

  • Joseph Gerteis

    Joseph Gerteis is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota and co-author of the 2006 study on the social acceptance of atheists in America.

  • Douglas Hartmann

    Douglas Hartmann is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota and co-author of the 2006 study on the social acceptance of atheists in America.

In the West

Related source guides