Why Aren’t More Americans Atheists?

Jean Meslier, 17th Century French Catholic priest who was discovered, upon his death, to have written a book-length philosophical essay promoting atheism.

“Turns out it has nothing to do with science. And everything to do with politics,” writes Nick Spencer at Politico:

Many expressed surprise recently when, in one of its periodic surveys of Americans’ views of other faiths, the Pew Research Center found that atheists fare poorly—fully 40 percent of those polled described their views toward atheists as “cold.” Jews, Catholics, Evangelicals, Buddhists, Hindus, Mormons—all are viewed more favorably than nonbelievers. Only around 2 percent of Americans identify themselves as atheists, even though religious observance, measured by things like church attendance and daily prayer, has been trending downward for decades.

You might think that America would be fertile ground for the rise of atheism. After all, the United States is the most scientifically advanced society in human existence, and as far as atheism has a history—and it is an oddly uncharted one—it is popularly believed to be of slow, steady scientific advance.

Once upon a time, so the story goes, people believed that the world was young and flat, that God made everything including people in a few, frantically busy days, and that earthquakes and thunderstorms were examples of his furious rage, which you ignored at your peril. Into this sorry state of affairs, emerged a thing called “science” and, despite the best efforts of ignorant, self-serving clerics who wished to keep the people in utmost darkness, “science” proved that none of the above was true. Gradually, wonderfully, the human race matured, with every confident scientific step forward pushing our infantile, crumbling ideas of the divine closer to oblivion. “Extinguished theologians lie about the cradle of every science, as the strangled snakes besides that of Hercules,” as Thomas Huxley, the English biologist known as “Darwin’s bulldog,” memorably put it.

The problem with this particular creation myth is that whilst it is true enough to be believable, it is not true enough to be true. “Science”—if we can treat that collection of disparate disciplines as one single, coherent enterprise—did have something to do with the growth of atheism in the West, but very much less than most imagine. Those three great moments of scientific progress—the Copernican revolution in the 16th century, the scientific revolution in the 17th and the Darwinian in the 19th—were hardly atheistic at all. Copernicus was a priest; Francis Bacon, the father of modern science, devout; and Charles Darwin incredulous that anyone could imagine evolution demanded godlessness. “It seems to me absurd to doubt that a man may be an ardent Theist & an evolutionist,” he wrote in 1879.

In reality, the growth of atheism in Europe and America has much more to do with politics and, in particular, ecclesiastically backed politics, than it has with science, something that is clear even from its earliest days…

[continues at at Politico]


Majestic is gadfly emeritus.

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15 Comments on "Why Aren’t More Americans Atheists?"

  1. HowardBrazee | Aug 6, 2014 at 9:45 am |

    Unlike most of Europe, the U.S. didn’t have a state run church. That meant when we got disenchanted with our political leaders, we didn’t necessarily get disenchanted with our churches. Instead, we saw our local churches as something personal and family like.

    • Ffejtball | Aug 6, 2014 at 1:33 pm |

      Until those churches and families decided to proselytize and try to convert other people (not to mention force their beliefs on people who don’t practice their religion).

      • VaudeVillain | Aug 6, 2014 at 6:07 pm |

        At which point we started seeing a spike in practiced atheism so massive we actually came up with a word for it.

  2. Education.

  3. Liam_McGonagle | Aug 6, 2014 at 11:42 am |

    Apart from the Civil War, American territory has never been occupied by a foreign military power. The Revolutinary War, War of 1812 were like jokes by contemporary standards–little more that glorified hit-and-runs. And although the South deeply deserved what they got, the North was never ruthless enough in Reconstruction to make the lesson stick–gave up after 7 years of tepid half-measures.

    In short, we’re spoiled. We haven’t suffered enough to realize that cooperation is a necessary survival strategy; we consider it “optional”. We still need the threat of an invisible bogeyman to keep us from murdering one another.

  4. BuzzCoastin | Aug 6, 2014 at 1:20 pm |

    the primary reason would be
    atheism requires a belief/commitment
    counter to the herd’s accepted belief/commitment program
    with no payoff for atheists
    other than arguments with belivers

  5. Opposite Day | Aug 6, 2014 at 1:24 pm |

    I don’t believe in any of the various religions out there. However, I would not consider myself an atheist. There’s just way too much phenomena that science has yet to explain. I also believe in beings that have evolved to the point where they have become transdimensional. Typical religions may consider these beings angels or gods, but I don’t. I think the “God” people believe is out there is just a cosmic consciousness which is a minute portion of our own consciousness. We are the universe realizing itself, studying itself, manipulating itself. We are just tiny parts of one thing and our purpose is as plain as day. I don’t think it’s so black and white when trying to determine what people believe. Because there’s not really a category for people like me when they hand out polls.

    • mannyfurious | Aug 6, 2014 at 6:01 pm |

      For me it’s just a matter that anything exists at all. Ultimately, when you’re trying to get to the bottom of existence, belief in no God(s) is just as much a leap of faith as believing in a God(s). No amount of “science” will ever convince me that “something” springing out of “no thing” isn’t absolutely absurd.

      Some people say, “Well, where did God come from, then?” But the simple fact is that question is a “scientific” one based on ideas of causality and materialism. If there is a “God” then it probably isn’t beholden to science and human logic and other such things, so the question is nonsensical.

      This isn’t to say that I’m religious or that I even believe is some kind of entity or power or impulse that we would call a “God” it’s just to say that the atheists are hysterically delusional if they belief that their BELIEFS are any less absurd than a fairly rational religious person’s.

    • I don’t see any obvious purpose. Can you spell it out for me?

  6. Some of you have said what I already feel:

    Atheism requires too much faith.

    Not trying to be cute or clever. That really was the conclusion I came to years
    ago when I considered this for myself.

    • It seems to me that theism requires substantially more faith than atheism. But then I’m agnostic, which requires even less.

      • Fortunately you used the word ‘seems’. Also being agnostic, the way it seems/appears to me is that it doesn’t matter if it’s a belief in something or a belief in nothing, it still requires faith. Atheism claims evidence of no greater intelligence, something coming from nothing (as someone else said). The idea that the Universe came from nothing, and aimlessly rushes nowhere is as hard to accept as some sort of gaseous invertebrate of astronomical heft.

  7. I try to be a good atheist, but I backslide. I’ve noticed that the Almighty seems to be taking a break, letting his asshole brother run the family business into the ground.

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