Rise of the “Nones”
In the two years leading up to his death this past February, the legal and political philosopher Ronald Dworkin was completing a slim volume with a weighty title. Religion without God, which began as a series of lectures in 2011, set a lofty goal: to propose a “religious attitude” in the absence of belief. Dworkin’s objective was not just theological. The book, he hoped, would help lower the temperature in the past decade’s battle between a group of scientists and philosophers dubbed the New Atheists and an array of critics who have accused them of everything from Islamophobia to fundamentalism to heresy.
Although the New Atheists are part of a long and distinguished tradition, including (but not limited to) philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche, Ludwig Feuerbach, and Bertrand Russell, they are notable because they have made atheism a pop success in the U.S. Since the 2004 publication of Sam Harris’s post–September 11 polemic, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, the kingpins of the movement—Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens, Daniel C. Dennett, and A.C. Grayling, to name a few—have launched diatribes against God and belief. To them, religion is at best superfluous, at worst (in Hitchens’s words) “allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children.” This zealous attitude has earned the New Atheists high-profile critics, including Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of Great Britain, who recently wrote in a column for The Spectator:
Where is there the remotest sense that [the New Atheists] have grappled with the real issues, which have nothing to do with science and the literal meaning of scripture and everything to do with the meaningfulness or otherwise of human life, the existence or non-existence of an objective moral order … and the ability or inability of society to survive without the rituals, narratives and shared practices that create and sustain the social bond?
For a religious leader like Sacks, who has staked his career on interfaith cooperation, the New Atheists’ antagonism is obnoxious. But it turns out all the public sparring may have been missing the point. Thanks to an even more seismic shift, nonbelievers in the U.S. are already leaving the New Atheists behind.
Americans are abandoning organized religion in droves. Data from the Public Religion Research Institute shows that while only 7 percent of Americans were raised outside a religious tradition, nearly 19 percent are religiously unaffiliated today. According to the General Social Survey, the number of Americans who say they have “no religion” has more than doubled since 1990.
Although they are one of the fastest-growing groups today, the unaffiliated are just one wave on a sea of religious change. Minorities are playing a greater role in shaping Christian denominations traditionally dominated by whites. The Catholic Church is hemorrhaging followers—by some estimates, 12 percent of Americans today are former Catholics—but recent immigrants from Latin America have buoyed its membership, making at least some changes in leadership and emphasis inevitable. Latino Americans are also converting to evangelical Christianity, which is sure to jostle the old alliances of the Christian conservative movement. The Christian right has battened down the hatches for a long tussle with the forces of secularization. But Christian pollsters warn that evangelical churches are losing followers, too, in part because Christianity is gaining a reputation for touting shallow, anti-science, and sexually repressive teachings.
One-third of Americans under age 30, meanwhile, say they have no religion. This group, though still majority-white, is substantially more diverse than the older unaffiliated. Many of its members are choosing other nonbelievers as life partners, raising new questions about non-religious families and child rearing. Amid this churn, demographers and sociologists have no reason to believe that Americans’ flight from organized religion will ebb anytime soon.
The New Atheists are eager to claim the transformation. In a recent video debate, Daniel Dennett, a New Atheist patriarch complete with a venerable-looking white beard, declared, “We gave [the unaffiliated] permission to declare their lack of interest in religion … and we have significant numbers of converts on our tally sheets. We get e-mailed from them all the time.” Yet atheists—especially those bold enough to e-mail Dennett—are only a vocal minority. According to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, more than two-thirds of the unaffiliated believe in God; nearly four in ten say they are “spiritual” but not “religious”; more than one-fifth say they pray every day.
Pollsters and demographers strain to arrange the swelling numbers of nonbelievers into categories that make sense. But their rapid growth—and our lack of a language to identify their convictions—makes every hypothesis feel obsolete before it’s published. After decades of surveys that use church attendance as the primary measure of religiosity, what can we say about Americans who rarely set foot in a sanctuary but nevertheless believe in God? Or who disavow God but call themselves spiritual or say they’ve had a religious or mystical experience? Pew and others still unsatisfyingly refer to the unaffiliated as the “nones.” They’re hard to organize (as liberal political operatives have discovered, to their chagrin) and even harder to convert—whether those evangelizing are atheists or believers. In fact, the unaffiliated are blurring the line between religion and atheism.
Online, the intrepid seeker can find secular wedding vows and baptism alternatives, as well as links to support groups and defenders of nonbelievers’ rights like the Secular Coalition for America. There is also an increasing amount of information about how to raise children in a nonreligious household, how to say a godless grace, and how to grieve without God or an afterlife. None of this pretends to be definitive. Rather, it’s a collective effort to grapple with a widely shared set of questions and anxieties. Among the unaffiliated, the will to create non-religious community is humming. But rather than being handed down from on high, it’s being crowdsourced.
Atheist churches are a topic of perennial media interest—although the media appears more obsessed than anyone else with hyping this phenomenon. Comedians Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans, the creators of the Sunday Assembly, a London-based weekly gathering for nonbelievers of all stripes, recently landed in the news after announcing that they were taking their project global. Goofy marketing was almost certainly part of the appeal: In one YouTube video promoting the assembly, Jones promises, smiling manically, that the gathering will be “livelier than an eel in your underpants.” Pop philosopher Alain de Botton, the author of Religion for Atheists, takes credit for pioneering the concept of the “atheist church.” But de Botton’s effort to spell out all the rules feels out of step with the moment, and his grand plan to raid religious traditions for source material is a mixed bag. Ultimately, the book reads more like an ode to his favorite things—museums, Madonnas, Zen Buddhist retreats—than a replacement for the structures that for centuries have helped people express gratitude, cope with loss, and search for meaning and purpose.
Nonbelievers’ efforts to create a moral, happy life in the face of prejudice has created, for some, a kind of angry optimism. PZ (Paul Zachary) Myers, an associate professor of biology at the University of Minnesota, Morris, and one of the proprietors of the blog Pharyngula—where you can read his take on science, current events, and cephalopods—is one of the latest to revel in the “joys of reality” and the folly of faith. His new book, The Happy Atheist, is a gleeful, self-righteous celebration of life without belief. Much of Myers’s happiness, at least according to the book, is derived from mocking the spectacle of religious hypocrisy. But Myers seems distressed by the outsider’s perception that atheists subsist on glib patter. “What we atheists are saying,” he writes, “is that we need to turn away from the powerless rationalizations of the holy books, no matter how poetic they might be, and recognize that their power and their appeal flows from their humanity, not from their religiosity.” Far from missing the point, he proposes, atheists are even more deeply embedded in the sorrows and joys of human experience because they sidestep the “magical thinking” of religious belief.
Myers won’t win brownie points from those who want the New Atheists to temper their tone. Near the end, he calls believers “lazy-minded”—for him, that’s charitable. In his last essay, he seems almost ready to call a truce: quoting from The Epic of Gilgamesh, he declares that grief is “the touchstone, the common element that atheists and theists share.” But he can’t bring himself to admit that the concept of God might be anything but comical.
Ronald Dworkin is more willing to compromise. Religion without God is a genuinely thoughtful attempt to expand the categories of both “atheist” and “religious.” Far from sneering at the supernatural, Dworkin proposes that religion is too important to be discarded by nonbelievers. Many atheists, Dworkin writes, “have convictions and experiences similar to and just as profound as those that believers count as religious. They say that though they do not believe in a ‘personal’ god, they nevertheless believe in a ‘force’ in the universe ‘greater than we are.’ They feel an inescapable responsibility to live their lives well, with due respect for the lives of others; they take pride in a life they think well lived and suffer sometimes inconsolable regret at a life they think, in retrospect, wasted.” This faith—unconnected to God but no less profound because of it—provides the opportunity for an unrealized communion between believers and nonbelievers.
The premise for Religion without God may be its most valuable contribution. Elsewhere, Dworkin’s personal and aesthetic obsessions color the book in a way that is both endearing and frustrating. He explores physicists’ quasi-religious belief in the beauty of the universe for more than 50 pages. But for all of his reflections on the harmony of the heavens, Dworkin offers no sense of how mortals can achieve accord with one another.
The book also skirts the ache for ritual and community among the unaffiliated. Dworkin makes a point of dismissing prayer and worship as mere “godly convictions.” Yet on a basic level, rituals are habits that remind people, religious or not, who they are and what they hold important. Prayer and meditation can help cultivate self-discipline or ease stress. Rituals are social, not just individual; community members can participate in grief and help draw the mourner toward a sense of acceptance.
At the end of Religion without God, Dworkin briefly reflects on death. Religious atheists, he argues, should think of lives well lived as works of art—accomplishments that constitute an “achievement in just having been made, whether or not they continue to be admired or even survive.” The honesty of this section is touching, as is its stark brevity; in his last paragraph, Dworkin confesses that he knows “that may not be good enough for you: it may not even soften a bit the fear we face.” But it opens the door to a faith that does not rely on miracles.
Despite their potential for political influence, nonbelievers have yet to breach the deep levels of antipathy toward the notion of nonreligious elected officials. Nearly half of Americans say that the growing numbers of people who are not religious is a bad thing, while only 11 percent say it is a good thing. Fully two-thirds of Americans are uncomfortable with the idea of an atheist in the White House. In July, a vigorous debate over whether atheists and humanists should join the Army Chaplain Corps illustrated the dangers of voicing sympathy with the nonreligious. Republican congressmen, declaring that such chaplains would “make a mockery” of the institution, darkly hypothesized that atheist chaplains would tell grieving families that their sons were “worm food.” Hostility toward nonbelief is still recommended for lawmakers who want to keep their jobs; since 9/11 it’s become hard to imagine a speech that doesn’t end with “God bless America.” Nor does it help that the unaffiliated are one of the most politically disengaged groups in the country.
Dworkin turns his legal eye to this uncomfortable reality. Historically, he says, courts have assumed that a “religion” must have a God, or at least something that resembles a deity. But what privileges should theists receive in a country with a rapidly growing number of religiously unaffiliated citizens? For Dworkin, the solution is simple: Replace the right to religious freedom with the right to something he calls “ethical independence.” This, according to Dworkin, “limits the reasons government may offer for any constraint on a citizen’s freedom,” without providing a special right that fixes on a particular subject (in this case, religion). To receive a religious exemption, in other words, belief in God would be beside the point.
Adjusting the scope of freedom of religion is a controversial move for any legal scholar to make, and Dworkin’s argument has its critics. In an article for the Oxford Journal of Law and Religion, Rafael Domingo dismisses Dworkin’s view as reductive, unable to encompass “a conception of religion as a fact and a value.” In a practical sense, Dworkin’s approach is also a pipe dream. For his proposition to succeed, religious institutions and individuals would have to relinquish their significant legal clout and, in so doing, admit that the United States is no longer a nation “under God.” But the spirit of the argument points toward a laying-down of arms in the culture wars that Dworkin cautiously hoped might soon be on the horizon. Even if the right of religious exercise isn’t reframed, transformations in the country’s religious landscape may convince believers to accept that faith in God does not give them the moral high ground, at least in the public square. The next few years will tell whether his optimism was justified.
Atheists may come to see the benefits of compromise as well. Earlier this year, Juan Mendez, an atheist lawmaker in the Arizona House of Representatives, standing up to give the daily invocation, asked his colleagues to look around and take a moment to acknowledge their shared humanity. Mendez’s action was powerful (one might even say Dworkinian) because it undermined the notion that the statehouse is a place for Christian prayer but did not insist that ethical reflection be removed.
Dworkin is right: A broader conception of religion and values will not result in chaos. This is something that countless religiously unaffiliated Americans have already discovered. Attitudes toward atheists and nonbelievers in public office, while still frosty, are thawing just a little. Last fall, the election to Congress of two secular lawmakers—Arizona’s Krysten Sinema and Wisconsin’s Tammy Baldwin—signaled that Americans can accept political campaigns in which the candidates’ religion does not play a central role. Meanwhile, the New Atheists’ attitudes are softening, too: Sam Harris, a linchpin of the movement, is writing a defense of spirituality.
Yet a tension remains between the necessary loneliness of an individual’s hunt for the secrets of the universe and the desire for companions along the way. Clearly we’re not all looking for the same answers. In Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead, an aging preacher contemplates his relationship with his friend’s estranged son, writing:
Every single one of us is a little civilization built on the ruins of any number of preceding civilizations, but with our own variant notions of what is beautiful and what is acceptable. … We take fortuitous resemblances among us to be actual likeness, because those around us have also fallen heir to the same customs, trade in the same coin, acknowledge, more or less, the same notions of decency and sanity. But all that really just allows us to coexist with the inviolable, untraversable, and utterly vast spaces between us.
The search for kinship among the unaffiliated will be an exercise in communication, because no assumptions can be made about shared values or priorities, at least not at first. But without the shared language of belief or an ethical script handed down through religious tradition, the unaffiliated can engage—either together or alone—in exciting acts of reinvention. We’re hurtling toward a new moment in the American religious experience—one in which, for many, belief and nonbelief will exist side by side.
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