(For previous posts in this series, see here.)
The idea that religion is in a period of inexorable decline is, unsurprisingly, not one that is shared by religious apologists. In fact, Alastair McGrath in his book The Twilight of Atheism argues the opposite, that it is atheism that is in decline. I have not read this book but Keith Parsons, a professor of philosophy at the University of Houston, has and in an essay that is well worth reading in full, challenges McGrath and in the process reinforces my case that it is atheism that is ascendant.
Parsons says that what is remarkable about the current debate on atheism is that it has generated enormous and widespread interest, extending far beyond the small intellectual circles that were the normal range for such controversies.
These days, says McGrath, we hear not faith’s but atheism’s withdrawing roar. Now, early in the 21st century, we are told that atheism is in decline and religion is resurgent.
How odd, in that case, to find atheist books recently heading up the bestseller lists and atheists showing up on the TV talk shows to make the case for unbelief. Is atheism becoming chic? The public response to Sam Harris’ The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation, as well as Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion and Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell, appears to indicate a swelling interest in arguments for unbelief. A bestselling atheist book is really quite a novelty. Speaking from my own personal experience, an atheist book typically sells in the dozens, and its author will die of old age long before seeing a royalty check.
But it is not simply the popularity of atheist books that makes me think that atheism is winning. Another sign is that the more sophisticated believers (theologians and lay) no longer even try to convince us that we are wrong. They do not try to persuade us that god exists apart from half-hearted appeals to the need for faith and the wonder and seeming inexplicability of nature. This is because atheists know these arguments as well as those of Aquinas and Augustine and why they fail. Believers realize that their idea of god in unsupported by science and history. So instead they plead with us to not be too direct and straightforward about why we don’t believe, which is what all this deploring of our ‘bad tone’ is all about.
For example, Ricky Gervais recently wrote a holiday message in the Wall Street Journal. Gervais is, of course, an outspoken atheist and his essay does not hide the fact. He makes the case succinctly saying “I don’t believe in God because there is absolutely no scientific evidence for his existence and from what I’ve heard the very definition is a logical impossibility in this known universe.” You can’t get more blunt and direct than that.
His essay raised a lot of questions that resulted in him being invited to a follow-up Q&A with readers which was quite hilarious. In it Gervais provides the perfect response to the criticism of where he thinks he gets off, a mere comedian, making pronouncements about god. This response can be used by anyone who is snootily told that they have no right to opine about such a weighty subject as the existence of god until they have studied the works of the major theologians, something that I hear a lot. Gervais says, “Since there is nothing to know about god, a comedian knows as much about god as any one else. An atheist however is alone in knowing that there is nothing to know so probably has the edge.”
In response to the common assertion that atheism is as much a belief system as religion, Gervais responds: “Atheism isn’t a belief system. I have a belief system but it’s not “based on” atheism, it’s just not based on the existence of a god. I make none of my moral, social, or artistic decisions based on any god or superstitions. Saying atheism is a belief system is like saying not going skiing is a hobby. I’ve never been skiing. It’s my biggest hobby. I literally do it all the time. But to answer your question I am constantly faced with theories of God, and angels, and hell. It’s everywhere. But unless there is an ounce of credibility to it, I reject.” (My italics)
He also points out the problem with agnosticism, a position that I too have trouble understanding when it comes of the existence of god:
An agnostic would say that since you can neither prove the existence nor the non-existence of God then the only answer to the question “Is there a God?” is “I don’t know.” Basically they are saying just because you haven’t found something yet doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Well firstly we have to know what definition of God we are asking about. Many can be dismissed as logical impossibilities. In the same way that if you were asked can you imagine a square circle the answer is of course “No.” Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt. Let’s just say there is a definition of a God that is possible. Does he exist? “I don’t know” in this case is indeed the correct answer. However this must also be the answer to many other questions. Is there an elephant up your a—? Even if you’ve looked you can’t say “no.” It could be that you just haven’t found it yet. Please look again and this time really believe there is an elephant up there because however mad it sounds no one can prove that you don’t have a lovely big African elephant up your a—.
The position of agnosticism makes sense for an issue in which the lack of knowledge is temporary. For example, if you ask me if dark energy exists, I could reasonably say “I don’t know”, that I am an agnostic in that I do not know at the moment but advances in science may provide an affirmative answer in the future or that scientists will declare that it is an unnecessary concept. But to say “I don’t know” to question that is unknowable even in principle (you can never prove the non-existence of god) seems to me to be an evasion. The bases of agnostic actions are indistinguishable from that of atheists. There is no observable difference in the behavior of someone who, in Gervais’s more colorful framing, is sure that there is no elephant up his a— and one who is agnostic on the question.
Even though Gervais is as forceful an atheist as any new atheist, Mary Elizabeth Williams, a religious believer, does not try to defend her belief or say why Gervais is wrong but actually praises him as the most persuasive of atheists because he says it is fine with him if people believe in god as long as their beliefs don’t ending up harming others and because he uses humor to get his point across. But almost all the new atheists are just like Gervais in that we do not demand that people stop believing, an absurd and unrealistic demand at the best of times. We are all like him in denouncing the harm that religion does to others. We are all like him in that we think believing in a god is silly and say so. The only difference is that we do not have Gervais’s deft comedic touch.
Is using humor while propagating the new atheist message all that it takes to placate believers? Believers seem to have given up on defending the truth of their beliefs and seem to be merely seeking to be let down gently, to be allowed to laugh as their religious world collapses all around them. If that is not a sign of religion in decline, I don’t know what is.
Next: More objective measures of religion’s decline.