Jul 31, 2013

New Atheism didn't beget the 'nones'

New Atheists can take credit for the recent increase in religiously unaffiliated people, the so-called "nones," according to Daniel Dennett. The movement of best-selling books and their readers took a country where religious identity was de rigueur and made is possible to announce one didn't have any such religious identity.

In a recent five minute debate with Guardian editor Andrew Brown, arguing for New Atheism's accomplishments, Dennett says:
It was important to turn the tide and I think we've done that. I'm really very proud to say that the New Atheism has changed the face of America, as far expression of religious belief or disbelief .... What we gave [the religiously unaffiliated] was permission to declare their lack of interest in religion, which was something people were rather afraid to do before we wrote our books. 
There are several obvious problems with this claim.

The first and most obvious problem with saying that New Atheism made it possible to "declare a lack of interest in religion" is that significant numbers began making that kind of declaration a full decade before New Atheists' wrote their books. As a matter of simple chronological fact, the claim of a link is hard to support:

There isn't a New Atheist book that can take credit for a social trend that started in the 1990s.

Dennett should know this. After all, when he was arguing people should come out and call themselves "brights," he noted that a significant number of people -- 27 million -- already didn't consider themselves religious. He was attempting to organize those people with a new name, and encourage others to take on this name too. But it wouldn't have made sense in 2003, just when New Atheism was becoming a thing, to take credit for those people's freedom to be not religious.

Nor does it really make sense now. The evidence doesn't support it.

For another thing, religious disaffiliation isn't the same thing as "lack of interest in religion." This has been extensively documented. Belief hasn't notably declined; affiliation and identification have. It's easy to misrepresent this demographic, and Dennett seems to listing into that territory.

Thirdly, it doesn't seem like an accurate representation of Dennett's own ideas to say that he worked for or was interested in getting people to not be interested in religion. In his book Breaking the Spell, one of the main targets is actually tolerance of faith. He doesn't just want people to not have faith themselves, but to reject the idea that other people's faith is good or even benign. He writes,
Are we like families in which the adults go through all the motions of believing in Santa Claus for the sake of the kids, and the kids all pretend still to believe in Santa Claus so as not to spoil the adults' fun? If only our current predicament were as innocuous and even comical as that! In the adult world of religion, people are dying and killing, with the moderates cowed into silence by the intransigence of the radicals in their own faiths, and many afraid to acknowledge what they actually believe for fear of breaking Granny's heart, or offending their neighbors to the point of getting run out of town, or worse.  
If this is the precious meaning our lives are vouchsafed thanks to our allegiance to one religion or another, it is not such a bargain, in my opinion. Is this the best we can do? Is it not tragic that so many people around the world find themselves enlisted against their will in a conspiracy of silence.
It's not at all clear how that argument connects at all to people saying they're not religious.

Even if the "nones" were, as Dennett implies, disbelieving, rather than just disaffiliating, and even if it were possible that a movement that started in the early 21st century could be credited with social change that started in the end of the 20th century, the New Atheists weren't advocating religious disinterest. They worked to end religious accommodation, the casual acceptance that faith is a fine thing to have.

To say that New Atheism "changed the face of America," making it socially safe for "nones," is a misrepresentation of the facts, a misrepresentation of the "nones," and a misrepresentation of New Atheism. Dennett's just wrong here.