Books on Science and Religion #29: Atheism for Dummies Part 2

Books on Science and Religion #29: Atheism for Dummies Part 2

Stephen Friberg

To believe in God means to see that the facts of the world are not the end of the matter. To believe in God means to see that life has a meaning.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

[This is the 2nd of two blogs looking at Dale McGowan’s book Atheism for Dummies.]

Dec 28, 2014

The MIT Technology Review recently published an article called How the Internet is Taking Away America’s Religion. It describes a dramatic rise in those who have no religious affiliation – the “nones” – in the United States:

Back in 1990, about 8 percent of the U.S. population had no religious preference. By 2010, this percentage had more than doubled to 18 percent. That’s a difference of about 25 million people, all of whom have somehow lost their religion.

internet-300x300Allen Downey, whose Religious Affiliation, Education, and Internet Use is the source for the MIT article, claims the increase in the number of “nones” (meaning those who say “none” when asked for their religious affiliation) is statistically and causally correlated with three factors: (1) the changes in religious upbringing in American homes (20%), (2) the increase in the number of college students (5%) and, (3) the dramatic rise in the use of the internet (25%). The remaining 50% is due to “other factors”. (For additional details, see “Nones” on the Rise from Pew Research.)

Religion Among the Millennials – also from Pew Research – accredits most of these changes to millennials in the 18 – 29 age bracket:

By some key measures, Americans ages 18 to 29 are considerably less religious than older Americans. Fewer young adults belong to any particular faith than older people do today. They also are less likely to be affiliated than their parents’ and grandparents’ generations were when they were young. Fully one-in-four members of the Millennial generation – so called because they were born after 1980 and began to come of age around the year 2000 – are unaffiliated with any particular faith.

What these reports show is that there is a large rise in the number of people – especially young people – in the United States who lack a connection with religion. And these people – not always, but often – no longer belong to the extended communities that religions and churches provide. Often, they are alone and isolated.

Atheism, Irreligion and Ritual

christmasIn Religion Without God, a recent New York Times op-ed column, T.M. Luhrmann, a Stanford professor who studies the way that people experience God, tells the story of her mother. She “is the daughter of a Baptist pastor and the black sheep, theologically speaking, of her family. She wants to go to church, but she is not quite sure whether she wants God.”

For Christmas, her mother goes to a Unitarian Universalist church where God is not mentioned. Other like her go to Sunday Assembly meetings, started in England by two atheists. They draw “thousands of people to events with music, sermons, readings, reflections and (to judge by photos) even the waving of upraised hands.”


Luhrmann answers that “part of the answer is surely the quest for community.” We will get to this later when we look at Atheism for Dummies. But first, consider what Luhrmann says about why rituals like a Christmas worship service are so important. They “change the way we pay attention as much as — perhaps more than — they express belief. … ritual focuses your attention on some moment and deems it worthy of respect.”

Rituals have very real effects – they work – says Luhrmann:

Moreover, these rituals work, if by “work” we mean that they change people’s sense of their lives. It turns out that saying that you are grateful makes you feel grateful. Saying that you are thankful makes you feel thankful. To a world so familiar with the general unreliability of language, that may seem strange. But it is true.

Religion is fundamentally a practice that helps people to look at the world as it is and yet to experience it — to some extent, in some way — as it should be. Much of what people actually do in church — finding fellowship, celebrating birth and marriage, remembering those we have lost, affirming the values we cherish — can be accomplished with a sense of God as metaphor, as story, or even without any mention of God at all.

MassMy guess is that this is only partially true – it is hard to maintain discipline if you believe your topic is a sham. And it strikes me that it is unlikely that it will be effectively passed to offspring.

Interestingly, the Baha’i Faith emphasizes the importance of avoiding rituals, seeing them as an “outward form” easily mistaken for inner truth and the cause of superstition and dissension. `Abdu’l-Baha, in Paris Talks says that

Forms and rituals differ in the various churches and amongst the different sects, and even contradict one another; giving rise to discord, hatred, and disunion. The outcome of all this dissension is the belief of many cultured men that religion and science are contradictory terms, that religion needs no powers of reflection, and should in no wise be regulated by science, but must of necessity be opposed, the one to the other.

The Baha’i faith has a minimum of rituals. Here is how Shoghi Effendi, the head of the Baha’i Faith from 1921 to 1957, characterizes it:

The Faith … is free from any form of ecclesiasticism, has neither priesthood nor rituals, and is supported exclusively by voluntary contributions made by its avowed adherents.

Atheism, Community, and Lack of Community

Atheism for Dummies by Dale McGowan – as I pointed out in Books on Science and Religion #28: Atheism for Dummies – is not an effective advertisement for atheism, or at least the traditional type of atheism that appeals to reason, toleration, science, rationality, intellectual knowledge, and a sense of responsibility for the future.

atheism for dummiesIt is, however, effective at addressing evangelical atheism, a term that can be applied to the views of atheists like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris and their adaptation of evangelical sales techniques. This form of atheism seems to be persuading Christian evangelicals to abandon their faith. But there is a price. Those who have converted from evangelical to atheism have very often severed their connections – sometimes vital human connections – with their churches, their church-based communities, and given the American propensity to move away from family for education and work, often from their families as well.

How many people are we talking about here?

In absolute terms, the numbers of atheists in the United States is small. According to Pew Research (“Nones” on the Rise) atheism belief rates increased from 1.6% of the US population to 2.4% of the US population since the beginnings of new Atheism, i.e., about 2.5 million. But whether or not more people were convinced of atheism’s merits or whether they felt more comfortable coming “out of the closet” is hard to tell. Wikipedia in Demographics in Atheism estimates that “atheists comprise around 2% of the world’s population and the irreligious (non religious) a further 16%”. Worldwide growth in atheism is balanced by the growth in religion in formerly communist countries.  But even those numbers feel wrong.  Many in the United States and in Europe are nominally Christian – at least they will say they are if asked – but church attendance is often very low and a secular spirit predominates.

What does McGowan suggest that atheists do?

  • First of all, he suggest that atheists get acquainted with the worldwide atheist movement.  Learn about atheism, study its history, recognize the diversity within the movement.
  • Learn about morality – what is it? – what does it mean to be good? And recognize that you be good without God.
  • See the world naturally. I think that he means to avoid superstition and escape from dogma, setting aside outdated dogma.  But, he also seems to be, evangelically, suggesting that you internalize evangelical atheist dogmas – materialism, anti-theism, and the like. It does raise the suspicion that instead of encouraging you to think openly, rationally, and scientifically, he is encouraging you to replace one dogma with another.
  • Recognize that you are living in a religious world. Learn about religion, make peace, don’t battle unwisely, learn how to live with others. This is very important and is meaningful for someone who experiences are very limited and who is from a strongly evangelical community rather than a secular or educated background. But, it does suggest that McGowan is unaware that we live in what is essentially a secular world, one where religion plays only a very limited role.
  • Get the best from religion, discard the rest.  He suggests an embrace of community, recognizing the importance of commemorations, rituals to mark life transitions, and holidays, an understanding for the need for wonder and transcendence, learning how to deal with hardships and loss, and volunteering and serving.

And finally he offers information, addresses, suggestions for joining like minded people in supportive organization.  Clearly, many of these suggestions are worthy of a hearing and maybe even important for those in transition.

But it has a strong out-of-the-frying-pan-and-into-the-fire feeling to it to me. There are many organization where belief or lack of belief plays no part – most community organizations, volunteer organizations, and NGOs for example. There is no need to go to groups that embrace an ideology or quasi-religious atheism unless pre-occupied with the topic.  And those organizations help create disunity rather than healing the wounds that religion can sometime create.

So I have a decided ambivalence about many of his suggestions, even while recognizing that they may be good for some.

Next Blog

In the next blog, we talk about yet another book on science and religion.

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This is the 29th in a series of blogs on the modern science and religion literature. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked in Japan for 10 years before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.

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One thought on “Books on Science and Religion #29: Atheism for Dummies Part 2

  1. What does irreligious Nones have to do with Atheism exactly? According to polls, agnostics and atheists make up a small percentage of nones. A more common designation is SBNR. They make up 25-30.5% of Russia and at least 10% of Americans but American polls vary more wildly (up to 24-33%) than Russian polls. I haven’t studied the stats of too many other countries to know fully the percentages elsewhere. Agnosticism, Atheism, Secular Humanism, SBNR, Deism, and Ethical Culture all are demographics that get lumped into the Nones category as well as the vaguely defined noting in particular (people who don’t label themselves either way regardless of what that actually means).

    I will look through the data more in depth with more discussion of it. I like the info on the generational divide in particular. I find several of the various correlations also interesting. One of the surveys fails to mention that being liberal on social issues while supporting smaller government and lesser services is called being classically liberal, but other than that no issues to report.

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