According to a recent article in the “Washington Post,” atheism is on the rise in America. Margaret Downey, president of the Atheist Alliance International, reports that her organization’s membership has doubled in the last year. She also reports that the Alliance’s annual convention already has a 500-person waiting list.
The Barna Group, an organization of pollsters that specializes in religious issues, conducted a survey and found that about 5 million adults in the United States refer to themselves as atheists.
Their poll also found a number of additional people who say they have no religious faith or that they are agnostic. Combine these folk with the 5 million atheists, and the number of Americans detached from any sort of religious life rises to around 20 million.
This may explain why several recent books promoting atheism and criticizing all forms of faith have managed to become best sellers. Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, Sam Harris’ The End of Faith, Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell, and Christopher Hitchen’s God is Not Great, have all appeared on the New York Times best-seller list. In fact, Publisher’s Weekly reports that titles attacking faith have sold a combined 750,000 copies.
We cannot help but ask, why? Why this sudden interest in atheism?
Part of the answer, according to Sam Harris and others, is the rise of militant Muslim fundamentalism. In his book The End of Faith, Harris quotes long passages from the Qu’ran arguing that anyone who takes those selected words literally, and seriously, has no choice but to be at war with the rational world. For Harris, fundamentalist Muslims and Christians are but two different sides of the same coin. Each serves as examples of why the world would be better off if there was “an end to faith.”
Others believe that atheism is on the rise because of the secular influence of American culture. Dennis Prager, writing at Townhall.com, makes the case that “from elementary school to graduate school, only one way of looking at the world–the secular–is presented.”
There may be some truth to that, but that is precisely what the framers of the U.S. Constitution had in mind. They had seen in Europe the disastrous results of state supported religion and official orthodoxies mingled with civic duty and wanted none of it for America. The Constitution establishes a secular society but with a guarantee of religious freedom for all.
If it turns out that children go through life not knowing their faith heritage, as Prager asserts, that is not a failure of the public school system. If children do not learn their faith at home and at church, we cannot be surprised if they emerge into adulthood with low expectations about the role of faith in their lives.
We must also be willing to admit that some of this turning away from religion may be a form of running away. The aggressive attacks on science from many quarters of the faith community have left some people feeling great resentment towards faith.
It could be that certain expressions of faith have made God too small to be embraced by those who experience the universe as vast and great. A person who looks at the universe through the Hubble telescope is going to have trouble taking the first two chapters of Genesis literally. And when told that being faithful to God requires such belief, unbelief may feel like the only option.
James L. Evans, a syndicated columnist, also serves as pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.