A blogger writes earlier this week, “I like your spirited, historically based analysis of the need for public school education and the risks inherent in state-sponsored madrassahs (Christian or otherwise). However, I hate to think that most Christians who do not agree would have stopped reading this article (or simply dismissed it after reading) due to your identification as an atheist.” I have no idea whether this comment was meant to imply that I ought to give up being an atheist in order to be taken seriously about education or whether it was expressing sincere regret about the close-mindedness of some Christians.
I don’t, however, think that “most” Christians–unless one defines all Christians as intellectually challenged bigots–are likely to reject commentaries on everything from medicine to education simply because they come from an atheist. The first strong, publicly voiced objections to sectarian teachings in what were then called common schools came from Virginia Baptists in the 18th century. Should I dismiss what they had to say because the objections arose from a concern for religious liberty rather than a desire to spread atheism throughout the new republic?
This is not to say that some Americans from the more antedeluvian precincts of religion would not dismiss anything written by an atheist–on topics ranging from footwear fashions to smoking–as a godless conspiracy. Once, in leaner economic times, I was the ghostwriter (with a podiatrist) for a book titled Your Feet Don’t Have To Hurt, that dealt mainly with the foolishness of four-inch heels with pointed toes. Why, if anyone had known that the ghost was an atheist, the book would surely have been a flop! After all, Adam and Eve didn’t have shoes in the Garden of Eden, and doesn’t everyone know that God’s second punishment for Eve (after “in sorrow shalt thou bring forth children”) was, “In torment and blisters shalt thou walk the earth in Manolos and Jimmy Choos.”
There is no doubt that atheist (and secularist) are still pejoratives in American culture. Listen to Newt Gingrich talking about “secular socialism”–and explicitly comparing it to Stalinism and Nazism–and the power of this kind of label in an idiocracy becomes clear. But the word “atheist” does not have anything like the negative force it had when I was growing up 50 years ago, or even a decade ago. This shift is due to two factors.
First, there are simply more atheists, and people who may not be atheists but have little interest in religion, than there were in the past. It is not surprising that this trend coincides with a profound sense of embattlement on the part of the minority (albeit a large minority of somewhere between 20-30 percent of Americans) that makes up the Christian right. But that perception of embattlement, while it may mean that an avowed atheist will never be elected to the presidency, can no longer deny atheists a hearing in the public square.
Second, a variety of writers–most notably, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins–have brought atheism out of the closet during the past decade. Harris’s The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and The Future of Reason was published in 2004. I consider it highly unlikely that his book, as well as Dawkins’s The God Delusion and Hitchens’s God Is Not Great, would have attracted such a large readership 25 years or even a decade earlier. In fact, no one (including Harris’s first publisher) had any idea that his book would be so successful. The End of Faithwas initially dismissed as “simplistic and misguided” by the trade journal Publisher’s Weekly, a barometer of conventional commercial wisdom. What is truly misguided is the notion, frequently expressed by outraged religious right conspiracy theorists on this blog, that writers who identify themselves as atheists are doing it to make money. If you want to make infinitely more money than any of the best-known atheist writers, direct your talents to novels that rely on the credulity of those who believe in historically cockeyed supernatural events (Dan Brown), self-help books rooted in mushy New Age spirituality (Deepak Chopra), or, above all, warnings that The End Is Near (the Left Behind series). If recent books by atheists have done better than expected in the marketplace, their success is attributable to a pent-up hunger for reason that was, until recently, vastly underestimated by American publishers.
This is not to say that atheism confers special authority in speaking about subjects (including shoes, schools, and America’s military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan) that have little to do with whether one believes in God. What atheism does do–and this is a positive, not a negative–is provide a perspective on a number of issues that differs from, and does not exist in, the works (whether fiction or nonfiction) whose basic assumptions include belief in a deity who directs human affairs and a quest for the validation of convictions that contradict the laws of nature.
I never write about atheism per se except on this blog, but there is no question that atheism is one influence–an important one–on my approach to other historical and social questions. In this respect, the atheist thinker is hardly unique. The difference today–and I do think we have Harris, Hitchens, Dawkins et al. to thank–is that religion is no longer universally considered the normative perspective, with atheists having to defend themselves from attacks by those who believe in everything from floating consciousness that survives the end of our brains to the idea that we will one day be judged by a man-god who rose from the dead some 2,000 years ago.
My next book, titled Never Say Die: The Myth And Marketing of The New Old Age, will be published in early 2011 and is a critique of the wishful baby boomer delusion–fueled by hucksters of longevity–that if we only “live right,” we can “defy” old age and make “90 the new 50.” On one level, this book has little to do with atheism–except, for rather obvious reasons, in a chapter on death and dying. On a deeper level, though, my views have a good deal to do with atheism and reason, in that I consider eternal health and youth a fantasy that has nothing more to do with evidence than belief in eternal life. Will Christians stop reading this book because of my identification as an atheist? I suspect that even some atheists may stop reading it if they have substituted faith in good behavior as the way to remain “forever young” for faith in God as the guarantor of eternal life. But I can only say, to paraphrase Darwin, that there is grandeur in a view of life that accepts aging and death as part of the natural order, even as one hopes that human reason will find a way to ameliorate the worst consequences of the degeneration that precedes our inevitable end.
There really is no such thing as The New Atheism. There is only an old atheism that now dares to speak its name and is descended from a long line of thinkers who have always maintained that to be human is enough, and that becoming a good human is a lofty and difficult enough goal, to give meaning to the finite number of our days.