By Stephen Prothero
A few years ago, I wrote that in America, atheism was going the way of the freak show. I was wrong. Today Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and other "New Atheists" are regulars on best-seller lists and college lecture circuits, and unbelief is enjoying a new vogue.
In his inaugural address, President Obama referred to the United States as a "nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus and non-believers" – a formula he repeated in his Nov. 7 radio address about the Fort Hood massacre. Recently, various humanist and free-thought groups have announced their presence on billboards across the country. "Don’t believe in God?" read bus signs in Des Moines. "You are not alone."
Today, most Americans associate unbelief with the old-boys network of New Atheists, but there is a new generation of unbelievers emerging, some of them women and most of them far friendlier than Hitchens and his ilk. Although the arguments of angry men gave this movement birth, it could be the stories of women that allow it to grow up.
In October, a new group calling itself the United Coalition of Reason rolled out an ambitious nationwide campaign timed to coincide with the release of a book, Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe, by Harvard University’s humanist chaplain Greg Epstein. The signs I saw in Boston read, "Good Without God? Millions of Americans Are." A month ago, I attended a coming-out party at Harvard for a local offshoot of UCOR called the Boston Area Coalition of Reason. Emceed by Epstein, this event had the vibe of a revival meeting, and while faith was obviously absent, the place was riding a big wave of hope. There was much genuflecting to Hitchens, Harris, Dawkins and Dennett as "The Four Horsemen" – a moniker that seems to be sticking despite the allusion to the biblical book of Revelation (not to mention the Catholic backfield of Notre Dame’s 1924 football team).
UCOR’s Fred Edwords gave the altar call, speaking of a "godless tsunami" sweeping the country and, in a voice that seemed to lift with what he referred to as the "rising tide" of reason, urged his appreciative anti-congregation to "catch the wave."
I heard two very different arguments at this event. The first was the old line of the New Atheists: Religious people are stupid and religion is poison, so the only way forward is to educate the idiots and flush away the poison. The second was less controversial and less utopian: From this perspective, atheism is just another point of view, deserving of constitutional protection and a fair hearing. Its goal is not a world without religion but a world in which believers and nonbelievers coexist peaceably, and atheists are respected, or at least tolerated.
These competing approaches could not be further apart. One is an invitation to a duel. The other is a fair-minded appeal for recognition and respect. Or, to put it in terms of the gay rights movement, one is like trying to turn everyone gay and the other is like trying to secure equal rights for gay men and lesbians.
As Edwords was taking potshots at born-again Christians and his audience was snickering on cue, I was counting heads, so I can report that the male/female ratio at this anti-Mass was at least 2 to 1. This is not surprising. Females predominate in the overwhelming majority of religious groups in the United States, so it makes sense that males would predominate here. But XY types also dominated the rostrum, which saw a parade of white men joining John Lennon in imagining no religion.
There was one female speaker, however, and she spoke in a different voice. Amanda Gulledge is a self-described "Alabama mom" who got on her first plane and took her first subway ride in order to attend this event. Although Gulledge stood up on behalf of logic and reason, she spoke from the heart. Instead of arguing, she told stories of the "natural goodness" of her two sons who somehow manage to be moral without believing in God or everlasting punishment. But the key turn in her talk, and in the event itself, came when Gulledge mentioned, in passing, how some neighborhood children refuse to play with her sons because they have not accepted Jesus as their personal savior.
The New Atheism stands at a crossroads. Until now it has been spearheaded by the sort of white, male firebrands that led the charge for evangelicalism during the Second Great Awakening of the early 19th century. Dawkins rails against faith as "one of the world’s great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate." Hitchens calls the Protestant reformer John Calvin "a sadist and torturer and killer." In perhaps the unkindest cut of all (at least for a Frenchman), Michel Onfray reports in his Atheist Manifesto that the Apostle Paul was impotent and "unable to lead a sex life worthy of the name." But there is a different voice emerging – call it the new New Atheism – and with it a very different agenda from that of Hitchens and his angry acolytes. This friendlier atheism sounds more like a civil rights movement than a crusade. And it is far more likely to issue from the lips of friendly women than from the spittle of angry men.
Let women lead
If the hope is to pummel into submission the 93% of Americans who believe in God or a higher power, then this movement has about as much of a chance as an evangelical revival in the National Assembly of France. But if the hope is for a country where children can play with other children without regard for the religious (or non-religious) beliefs of their parents, then this is a wave many of us would happily catch.
There are plenty of female atheists and agnostics out there. The comic Julia Sweeney goes after God with humor, and Nica Lalli’s memoir, Nothing: Something to Believe In, isn’t out to de-convert anyone. Some men, Epstein included, also speak in this different voice, but it is time that groups such as UCOR found a way to put such women on their platforms. I wouldn’t walk around the block to hear Fred Edwords take cheap shots at Christians. But I’d get on the subway, and maybe even a plane, to hear Amanda Gulledge tell me why her kids are Americans, too.
Stephen Prothero is a professor in Boston University’s religion department and the author of Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know – and Doesn’t.