The New Unbelievers
Books on atheism are hot. But do they have anything fresh to say?
'Atheism is unknown there; Infidelity rare and secret; so that persons may live to a great Age in that Country, without having their Piety shocked by meeting with either an Atheist or an Infidel."
Little seems to have changed since Benjamin Franklin penned those words of advice to would-be immigrants in 1782. Most polling data suggest that some 90 percent of Americans believe in God or a supreme spirit. And a recent University of Minnesota study finds that atheists-or at least that lonely 1 percent of the national mix that dares to identify itself as such-are the least trusted group in America.
So why in this land of the God-fearing have the gloves-off arguments of a few God-denying intellectuals been garnering such wide popular attention? Consider book sales alone: Richard Dawkins's well-stocked arsenal of antireligious thought, The God Delusion, currently claims the No. 7 spot on Amazon and No. 10 on the New York Times list, while Sam Harris's polemical Letter to a Christian Nation bids fair to equal the sales of his 2004 bestseller, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. Meanwhile, Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, though published last winter, continues to spark controversy with its Darwinian take on the all-too-human urge to believe. Beyond the world of books, magician Penn Jillette's paean to godlessness, first broadcast a year ago on NPR's This I Believe, continues to be among the most frequently visited stories on the NPR website
Rising skepticism? Do the polls simply have it wrong when it comes to Americans and religion? British-born pundit Christopher Hitchens, author of the forthcoming God Is Not Great, thinks so. "People lie about their beliefs all the time," says Hitchens, who adds that he never gets more praise for his talk-show appearances than when he goes after religion. Anecdotage may not trump polling, but surveys exploring religious convictions in more nuanced terms lend some credence to Hitchens's skepticism. One recent Harris Poll study found that 42 percent of adult Americans were not "absolutely certain" about the existence of God, up from 34 percent three years ago.
If doubt is on the rise, Dawkins, the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, thinks he knows why: "Six years of Bush, which seems to be a step in the direction of theocracy, and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism seem to suggest that the world is moving toward two extreme religious views." Confessing to surprise at the size of his audiences on his current U.S. book tour, Dawkins suggests that even moderate and liberal believers are beginning to see that the slide into extremism may not be an aberration but a recurrent tendency within religion.
Possibly. But do Dawkins and the other atheists add anything to a vigorous tradition of skepticism and unbelief that includes the witty satire of Voltaire and the brilliant cultural and psychological probings of Friedrich Nietzsche? What is so new about "The New Atheism," as the November cover story of Wired magazine dubbed the phenomenon?