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.