The American Interest
Religion & Other Curiosities
Published on July 17, 2013
Angry Atheists


Atheists have been in the news lately, often in connection with lawsuits in defense of their right to the free exercise of their worldview and for equal treatment with religious worldviews. Such litigation has occurred in both the United States and Europe, but the latter is more secularized, which makes for a rather different situation. I will focus on the American situation here.

Avowed atheists are part of a larger community of secularists—that is, those who, whatever their personal worldview, take a very strict position on the constitutional separation of church and state. Their secularism is political rather than philosophical. An institution that typically represents this version of secularism is the American Civil Liberties Union, which often supports the aforementioned lawsuits by atheist plaintiffs. I have described this secularism as Kemalist, alluding to Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish Republic who blamed Islam for the backwardness of his country and who had little liking for any religion. This means that, while permissible in private, religion must be kept out of the public sphere. Atheists can certainly agree with this policy, but their view of religion is philosophical rather than just political: Religion is an illusion, and the illusion is dangerous and must be opposed on the battlefield of ideas.

Atheists in the United States have become aggressive. A case in point: On June 6, 2013, Religion News Service reported that American Atheists (an organization claiming 4,000 members, with headquarters in New Jersey) has announced plans to erect a 1,500-pounds granite bench in front of the Bradford County Courthouse in Storke, Florida, with engraved quotations supposedly supporting an atheist worldview. This monument was the result of a settlement ending litigation over a similar granite display of the Ten Commandments in the same location. The settlement was made to conform to an earlier Supreme Court decision that a religious monument was constitutional in public space if it was privately funded and if other religious groups are allowed to erect their symbols in the same space.

The recent activities of angry atheists are related to but distinct from two other developments: The flurry of books subsumed under the heading of the “New Atheism”, and the sharp increase of Americans who say “None” when asked in surveys for their religious affiliation. The series of “New Atheist” books began in 2004, when Sam Harris published The End of Faith. Harris was motivated by the event of September 11, 2001, which he blamed on Islam, seen by him as emblematic of all religion. Other authors took similar lines, prominent among them Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. These books do not amount to a broad cultural change, but they probably helped to make atheism more respectable. The other development was highlighted by a 2012 poll by the Pew Research Council (the most productive and reliable source of survey data on religion). The Pew data indicate that 20% of adult Americans are now “Nones”, an increase from 15% in less than five years. It would be clearly wrong to describe all “Nones” as atheists: Two thirds of them say that they believe in God, and one fifth that they pray daily. Only 2.9% in the sample explicitly identify themselves as “atheists”, though again it is not clear that this term is understood uniformly. But this development does show that more Americans now feel free to disavow any affiliation with organized religion.

It is one thing when atheists insist on their right as individuals to reject religion. It is another thing when, even if for purposes of litigation, they claim the right to be treated themselves as a sort of religion—calling for atheist chaplains in the military or setting up a monument to stare down the Ten Commandments in front of a courthouse. As the historian Richard Niebuhr showed many years ago, every religious group in America sooner or later becomes a denomination, imitating the Protestant pattern of continual splitting into competing churches. Atheists are now catching up. But I think that the strategy of acting like a church goes beyond the requirements of litigation. It involves the appropriation of the symbols of one’s opponents in order to acquire equal legitimacy. This is why homosexuals now insist on the word “marriage”, even if an institution labeled “civil union” or “domestic partnership” would bestow the exact-same privileges as heterosexual marriage. An atheist chaplain in the military, wearing the same uniform (and presumably having the same rank) as his theistic colleagues would be a walking symbol of the equal legitimacy of the atheist worldview. A general metaphor for the appropriation of the symbols of “the other”: When Napoleon had himself crowned as emperor, he put on a crown. The champion of the French Revolution appropriated a central symbol of the monarchy it had overthrown, and now used it to bestow legitimacy on the new monarchy that defined itself as embodying the ideals of the Revolution.

I think that aggressive atheists are an expression, not so much of secularization, but of pluralism—the co-existence in the same society of competing beliefs and values. This undermines the taken-for-granted status of all of them, religious or secular. Put differently, certainty becomes harder to attain. Some people find that unbearable. They are the market for every fundamentalist movement that offers an alleged certainty. But it is very difficult indeed to re-establish the calm certainty of a pre-pluralist homogenous society. There is always a residual doubt that must be repressed. That is why fundamentalists cannot afford tolerance, must be angry and aggressive. What we see today is an atheist fundamentalism, its psychology a mirror image of the religious fundamentalists they oppose.

This atheism must be sharply distinguished from agnosticism. The atheist claims to know that there is no God; the agnostic admits that he is uncertain. Put differently, an atheist is someone directly told by God that God does not exist.

I am making two distinct points here. One is that one must understand the (supposedly new) atheism as a variant of fundamentalism. The other is that, most of us, if we are honest, are agnostics (even if we profess a religious faith). And let me quickly add: There is nothing contradictory about this.

Max Weber made the useful distinction between “religious virtuosi” and the “religion of the masses”. The virtuosi are those who report supernatural experiences that carry absolute conviction. Someone like Julian of Norwich (my favorite medieval mystic) had no doubts that God spoke to her directly (she argued with him, rather timidly, but that is another matter). Weber understood that no empirical science can assess the truth of these supposedly supernatural communications. Divine intervention can be neither verified nor falsified by any scientific method. This is not the place to discuss whether there may be other methods to do so. As a social scientist, I can only note that these virtuosi hold these beliefs, and then look at their historical context and consequences. But most of us are not religious virtuosi—especially not in a modern pluralist society. [For the record: I emphatically include myself in this agnostic category, even though I profess a Christian faith.] When it comes to God, we don’t know; we believe—a very different matter. Luther used a Latin wordplay to make this point: He described faith (fides) as trust (fiducia). The distinction applies to ordinary life as well as to religion: When I board a plane, I know that the airline has trained its pilot to be technically competent; but I must trust him to be able and willing to follow this training during the forthcoming trip. Faith in the putative creator of the universe requires a more intense (and ipso facto more precarious) trust.

Preachers commonly posit faith against unbelief. The latter is a species of sin. This is unfair: If God exists, he has not made it easy to believe in him. But the counter-position is also inappropriate. A more adequate distinction is that between faith and knowledge. I don’t need faith for that which I know. Right now I am sitting at my desk; from the window I can look at the skyline of Boston. I know that I am in Boston, not in Vienna where I was a few days ago. No trust or faith is required. In a philosophy class the instructor may be able to show me that I cannot prove that what I see from my window is not a dream, or that my desk is still standing there when I turn my back to it. But after class I don’t take the instructor’s argument seriously; it was an intellectual game, nothing real. What Alfred Schutz called the “paramount reality” of everyday life imposes itself with overwhelmig force. Unless we have experiences like Julian of Norwich, nothing in our encounters with religion has that degree of verifying power. Our religion is a matter of faith—a fragile mix of memories, habits, intuitions and choices. [I would propose that this condition is preferable to one in which religion is taken for granted, as is one’s hair color, allergies or musical ability.]

In a democracy the rights of atheists, as indeed of religious fundamentalists, must be zealously defended. This does not mean that one takes them seriously.

  • Jim__L

    Wouldn’t equal treatment of the Atheist worldview involve refusing to allow Atheism to be established as the official religion of the United States, and applying to it all the legal impairments that religions in this country now experience?

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    The erection of an granite bench with atheistic scripture inscribed on it on the grounds of a county courthouse in Florida reminds me of Robert Owen’s construction of the Hall of Science in Manchester England in the 1800′s which held Sunday services attended by Friedrich Engels.

    The new “religionless” socialism of Robert Owen needed a sanctuary, rituals, scripture, and meetings on sacred days for its legitimation. Little did anyone know that this “church” would serve as the springboard for world wide socialism, a movement that brought mass murder, starvation, and tyrannical totalitarianism.

    What will spring from a seemingly innocent sitting bench located on the grounds of a county courthouse in Florida is unlikely to repeat the history of the Hall of Science.

    But historian and sociologist Max Weber described how social forces work by “elective affinity” of various ideational and material elements that “come together” by near accident to form revolutionary ideologies.

    What does the atheist movement portend? No one knows. But the fact that they are embracing government for their legitimacy already gives us a clue that the movement wants to get rid of the separation of the private and public spheres that is the defining social structure of modernity.

    Atheists are alienated and “homeless” in marginalized social locations mainly in academia and are seeking a “home” and a place to sit at the table with the pantheon of religions. By their fruits we will know them.

    • The self-misunderstood fox

      I don’t think that there is evidence that atheists want to eliminate the separation of private and public spheres at all. It seems that the bench thing is actually trying to spell out the logical consequences of pluralism within the current system that allows a sort of limited public approbation. That is, if this bench thing is an attack on the separation of public and private, then *so are our already existing legal norms*.

      • Wayne Lusvardi

        The atheist movement described by Berger says they want separation of church and state while they paradoxically want a small shrine erected on government property and want the U.S. Air Force to grant them paid chaplain-ships and sinecures. My guess is most atheists are young and products of higher education that may rethink their stance toward religion if they marry and have children. How will they transmit their values to the next generation without an institution to do so? And what if they die in an accident leaving their children; who will raise them in the values they want inculcated in their children? In say 100 years no one will remember any of us let alone will there be much if any record of our existence. But we can leave an institution that perpetuates our values.

        • The self-misunderstood fox

          I should have stuck to the second point. Some atheists may want separation, some appear to want equal treatment with religions. One could want both, just to prove a point about the consistency of our existing norms. Neither of these positions is anti-pluralist.

          “Most atheists are young….” Maybe. What about the academy? As someone who’s seen philosophy and math/ science/ econ/ engineering graduate education in several places, I’m pretty sure that the majority of elite academicians of all ages are atheists. They adhere to the enlightenment ideology, which has become atheistic.

          I agree that the lack of value-transmitting institutions is a legitimate issue that some atheists concern themselves with.

    • foobarista

      As an agnostic, this has been my basic gripe with hardcore atheism: it too often descends into worship of the state. I’d frankly rather see people worshiping a remote God who may not exist than an all-too-real bureaucracy, particularly when that bureaucracy argues that with the right mix of policy, Heaven can be achieved on Earth.

      • The self-misunderstood fox

        I think the best thing going for this point is in Protestantism and the Lockean tradition. If we assert that there *is* a private, sanctioned relationship with a basically unknowable divine, then we carve out a space for legitimate disagreement over values. That makes pluralism fairly natural in Western modernity.
        If this particular private source of authoritative value is undermined, then that does make room for totalitarian ideology etc (among other things).

        Communism is an example of that. But I don’t think that contemporary Western atheism is really anti-pluralist, except maybe about things like global warming, vaccines and dinosaurs.

        WW2 and the cold war were wars of ideologies, maybe analogical to the wars of religion. Their resolution could very plausibly be an impetus for a new era of pluralism, or a post-ideological age. I’m thinking on analogy with the standard story (e.g. Mark Lilla) of the consequences of the wars of religion etc for laying the foundations for modern pluralism.

        So that’s my position: atheists want more public authority for science, but nothing particularly monolithic or authoritarian in the realm of pure values.

        • ThomasD

          ” That makes pluralism fairly natural in Western modernity.”

          It also makes ‘a private, sanctioned relationship with a basically unknowable divine’ anathema to the committed collectivist.

      • s_c_f

        “it too often descends into worship of the state”

        You don’t know that. In fact, that is false. Some states (communist) have proclaimed atheism, and that is the reverse, that is not individual atheists proclaiming worship of the state, that is the state declaring official atheism.

        The fact is there are atheist liberals and atheist conservatives. I am an atheist libertarian.

        And few people know anything about atheism because atheism is treated with disrespect in society and you must hide it in most spheres. So people like you, making blanket statements about something you know nothing about, are usually wrong.

        • Loader2000

          You are right that foobarista over-generalizes. However, I know they type she is talking about.

  • Hiwa Mala Ali

    I’m interesting to your sentence: religion must be kept out of the public sphere. Atheists can certainly agree with this policy..
    atheists in pluralistic society want to decrease the religious attitude and minimize its effects. this is really dualism. they are ignoring the importance of religion to human enterprise.

  • The self-misunderstood fox

    1) I think the comparison between atheism as a religion and gay marriage is very interesting. I’ve wanted to use religion in an analogy for gay marriage for a while (because a demand for the right to marry is a demand for a a public symbol of social sanction for a facet of our private life), and I think this is a very informative one.

    2) Painting atheism as a pathologically extreme claim of certainty makes a tacit assumption about the the set of reasonable candidate beliefs (that you are trying to enforce). If atheism is a kind of epistemic extremism, should we also be agnostics about Superman, Ganesh, witches and ghosts? No: they’re not live issues; society doesn’t demand that we take those things seriously. And the presumption of the existence of God might have practical social/political consequences that legitimately concern an atheist (although the consequences might depend on the specific kind of belief more than some new atheists would want to concede). Anyway I’m not saying that belief in God is as silly as my analogy implies, just that your characterization is very loaded.

    “The atheist claims to know that there is no God; the agnostic admits that he is uncertain. Put differently, an atheist is someone directly told by God that God does not exist.”

    • Loader2000

      I’m not sure your analogy makes sense. I’m a pretty skeptical person but I do not completely rule out the possibility of ghosts or of females who seem to have abilities to affect the world around them in ways that science cannot currently explain (witches). I’ve never encountered either, but there is so much about the universe that is unexplained that I would be a fool to bet my daughter’s life (for example) that ghosts do not exist. I’m probably an atheist of the character superman, though I don’t completely rule out the possibility that a man with perceived super-human abilities could ever exist.

      • The self-misunderstood fox

        Actually I think that your comment underscores the strength of the analogy and fleshes out its content. I’m not trying to say that believing in God is stupid, but rather that not seeing it as a live possibility isn’t a form of epistemic extremism.

        Maybe there *is* a useful way to talk about witches existing as you describe. I doubt it, but I don’t think it’s impossible. Similarly (sort of), I’m open to changes in the definition of “God” that make God’s reality more worth asserting for me. I could be persuaded to use looser/alternative definitions, like, “a teleological principle in the universe”, or “an aspect under which we can/should take the non-animal universe in the second person”. But to normal Christian americans, it’s probably most useful to say I’m an atheist and I don’t believe in witches, at least to a first approximation.

        And what is the level of certainty required by the term ‘atheism’? I tend to say that I’m an atheist, but I might have a 2% subjective probability of the existence of a personal God, and be willing to discuss other definitions per the above.
        Defining “I don’t believe in X” to mean 100% certainty of non-existence of X (and therefore willingness to take arbitrarily long odds in bets) seems too strong to me. I don’t believe in ghosts, but I also wouldn’t bet a life on it. If most people say “I don’t believe P” when they hold a nonzero subjective probability that P, then I would say that the definition of atheism should be similarly permissive.

        Given our modern way of thinking of knowledge, there is probably nothing that we are 100% certain of. But I think our response should be (and in most language contexts has been, outside of a few idiosyncratic Descartes enthusiasts etc.) to qualify or revise our concept ‘to know’, not to say that we don’t know anything at all.

      • The self-misunderstood fox

        it looks like I probably have been influenced by this Russell essay somehow:

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    Let’s say that the “atheist movement” wants to perpetuate their worldview and values for the next generation. To do that they would likely have to define certain secular principles and values (such as rationality) as sacred and religious world views as profane. As soon as they do this they paradoxically will have what sociologist Emile Durkheim might call a religious system.

    In Durkheim’s paradigm, the sacred represents the interests of a group embodied in sacred symbols and totems (such as granite benches built to last forever and with sacred inscriptions).

    Using Berger’s “Fundamentalist — Relativist” paradigm (see his book Between Fundamentalism and Relativism), atheists are just the other side of the same coin of fundamentalist religion. Thus, the New Atheism can be seen as a secular form of fundamentalism.

  • ThomasD

    ” If God exists, he has not made it easy to believe in him.”

    While perhaps true for you, this is by no means universal. As surely as you can look out the window and see evidence of Boston there are those of us who can likewise look out a window and plainly see evidence of God.

    That we might also be the sort who do not consider those existential issues, issues that steadfastly resist being pulled from the realm of philosophy into the sciences, to be nothing more than ‘intellectual games’ is perhaps not a coincidence.

    That the combined effect of both does leave room for the sort of agnosticism you describe is most certainly not a coincidence.

  • s_c_f

    This is the usual overblown assessment of atheists. Most atheists just want to be treated equally, nothing more and nothing less. There is no such thing as fundamentalist atheism. Atheism, by definition, is absent of fundamentalist. Take it from an atheist.

    • moronuki

      I have always considered myself an atheist, and you are quite wrong. Atheists can be extremely aggressive, extremely fundamentalist in their interpretation of the First Amendment and the separation of church and state, and atheists are generally incredibly intolerant. It is possible that this was not always so, and surely there are at least some other atheists out there now who are, like me, incredibly freaking appalled by the behavior and attitude of other atheists.

      Take for example one of my very favorite cases. There is a small town called Tijeras in New Mexico (very small–less than 500 people). Their town seal featured, among other symbols of their rich history, a conquistador helmet, a sword, and a cross. The ACLU sued them, because in their fundamentalist mind (yes, one mind), having a cross in the seal represents an endorsement of Christianity and marginalizes others, including atheists. The obvious corollary to this, of course, is that the Tijeras government must, therefore, also endorse conquistadors. It should be clear to anyone who cares to look at it, that the seal is meant to represent the history of the town, not an encouragement to any particular behavior or belief. But it isn’t clear to the tolerant, passive, “nothing to defend” atheists, apparently, so they have to sue a tiny town in New Mexico no one has ever heard of.

      Just, you know, one atheist to another.

      • s_c_f

        I agree that the suit was improper.

        However, the ACLU is not an atheist organization. Why you would characterize them as atheist, I have no idea.

        This is reminiscent of campaigns against the Washington Redskins and Atlanta Braves to change their names, and such campaigns are usually led by liberals, not libertarians nor conservatives nor defenders of civil rights.

        Not only that, the ACLU organization has done far more good than harm. The purpose of the organization is to defend constitutional and civil rights, and they defend the rights of many people who could not defend themselves.

        But the ACLU has nothing to do with atheism. The writers of the constitution were not all atheists and neither were the authors of the national civil rights laws. Yet you try to pin those who defend such laws as atheists, and you choose one of their less admirable campaigns to do so, when in fact the organization has done much good in most campaigns.

        Like I said before, atheists are treated with disrespect, and you are a prime example.

  • Gary Novak

    When Berger looks out his window and sees evidence that he is in Boston, not Vienna, he is not suggesting that that is all he sees. He once wrote an essay on New York as a signal of transcendence. His point is not that it is difficult to believe in God because there is so little evidence of his presence in the world (a claim atheists would readily endorse) but that the evidence for God’s existence seems to be in our peripheral vision. When we look straight at it, we see the paramount reality of death and taxes. Berger concedes that Julian of Norwich and the other religious virtuosi may have direct experience of God with verifying power. But most of us require an act of faith to give our religious experience the accent of reality. The experience of an infinite God occurs in a “finite province of meaning.” In the
    course of our lives, we encounter “multiple realities”—the world of dreams, art, religion, sex, science—each with its own “relevance structure”—but we all come back to the “home room” of the paramount reality of everyday life. And Berger prefers it that way. By not making his majesty the paramount reality, God leaves room for faith, excluded as irrational from the best of all
    possible worlds by the prejudicial Voltaire (who was reliably informed by God that the Lisbon earthquake is incompatible with Providence).

  • The self-misunderstood fox

    I think the section called Proof of God in this essay, “Am I an atheist or an agnostic?” by Bertrand Russell, is pretty good / useful. Specifically, your choice of self-description might depend on the audience.

  • FrankArden

    I hope my following of this thread has not gone stale, but I would suggest a reading of an essay by Theodore Dalrymple in the Autumn 2007 edition of City Journal: What the New Atheists Don’t See.

    You can find it here: