Atheist History

First, the latest Carnival of the Godless is up. I’m of course mortally offended by being only fourth to be linked to, after being first last time. Isn’t it obvious that everyone who fails to link to me at the top of the page hates Jews, immigrants, young people, mathematicians, and people whose name starts with an A?

More on-point, No More Mr. Nice Guy writes about uppity atheists. He says,

The massive immigration and “Great Awakening” of the 19th Century changed the character of the country for the worse in many ways. Ever since, politicians have tended to be less educated and much more religious and/or inclined to pander to the fanatical religiosity of their constituents. Though atheists had always been looked on with suspicion, now it was open season on them. Since then, atheists have had to ride at the back of the bus and “pass” as believers if they wanted to be left in peace.

Today, religious-right fundamentalism has a near-monopoly on political, judicial and media power in the US, and often uses that power in incredibly backward and destructive ways. But a small number of atheists have had enough and are calling bullshit. Some high-profile nonbelievers like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris have actually managed to pierce the protective force-field with which the media surrounds organized religion, and have been able to get their points across that religion should be open to criticism like any other human invention, and that it is in fact harmful and dangerous.

Not quite. The USA was deeply religious even before the American Revolution. Massachusetts was founded as a theocracy, and the First Great Awakening only strengthened religious fervor in the soon-to-be country. The leadership of the American Revolution happened to be very secular due to general liberal influence, but that was by pure chance. Even in that supposed golden age, atheism was considered a character flaw, just like drinking or being poor.

The infusion of religion into American politics began with the rise of Jacksonian populism, which predated the Second Great Awakening. Religion was later used in the debate over slavery, and then in the populist movement of the Gilded Age, but had firm roots in the rise of populist politics.

The “atheists are fighting against a nearly-invincible religious machine” meme sounds nice, but isn’t really true. Institutions that are dominated by popular decisions, like Congress, are predominantly religious. Institutions that are based on merit or talent, like the media and the academia and the Courts, are only to the extent that the political system affects them.

If you don’t believe me, look up the ten most popular shows on American TV and count how many leading characters are born-again Christians. Despite the qualifier “popular,” it’s important to note that mass media productions only reflect the owners’ beliefs of what will sell; hence the rise of Christian, black, or feminist alternatives, which cater to niche markets.

A few months ago, I sincerely said that there was no real radical atheism. Today, I won’t even think of saying that. There are too many atheist activists, led by Dawkins and Harris, who go beyond agitating for separation of church and state and good science education, and construct fictionalized histories in which religion is responsible to all that’s wrong with the world. Anarchists have their noble savages; radical atheists have their noble 18th century US.

25 Responses to Atheist History

  1. An interesting read. Dawkins is definitely as fanatical as any right wing fundamentalist. Harris, I can’t comment on, as I don’t believe I’ve ever heard the name before today.

  2. Dawkins is definitely as fanatical as any right wing fundamentalist.

    What exactly does he do that qualifies him as such?

  3. Alon,

    There are too many atheist activists, led by Dawkins and Harris, who go beyond agitating for separation of church and state and good science education, and construct fictionalized histories in which religion is responsible to all that’s wrong with the world.

    I haven’t seen either Dawkins or Harris make any claim to that effect.

  4. One thing I will agree on is that the piece you link to exaggerates the rise in popularity of atheism. From time to time in America there have been niche openings for anti-religious, rationalist writings in popular, but it’s almost always been a part of a reaction to an excessive political empowerment of religious fundamentalists. I don’t think the numbers of who believe what have really changed at all. It may in fact just be a flash in the pan.

    I will say one thing though, it’s a flash in the pan I’m enjoying.😀

  5. I’m especially irritated by this nonsense:

    The United States was founded by men who were highly educated, very much products of the Enlightenment, and decidedly progressive in matters of religion and its proper relation to the state. Many of them were deists and freethinkers, even outright atheists.

    Anyone familiar with our founders knows that none of them were atheists. They all proclaimed belief in god. A few were outright deists, but most of those regarded as deists were actually theistic rationalists or Unitarian types. Hardly any of them could agree on what exactly the proper role of religion with regard to the state was (some were strict separationists, some were accommodationists, and a few, like Patrick Henry, were outright theocrats who wanted to establish Christianity), and needless to say not all of them were progressive. This is the mirror image of Bartonian revisionism.

  6. Alon Levy says:

    Dawkins and Harris’s analyses of conflicts totalize religion and ignore politics entirely. It takes that level of radical delusion to say some views are so debased it might be okay to kill people for them, as Harris seems to say.

  7. Dawkins and Harris’s analyses of conflicts totalize religion and ignore politics entirely. It takes that level of radical delusion to say some views are so debased it might be okay to kill people for them, as Harris seems to say.

    Perhaps this criticism holds water for Harris, but not Dawkins. I have never seen him make any claim that religion is the root of all bad things that happen. He also explicitly says in the opening to “The Root of All Evil?” that the fact that politics is at issue is indisputable, but that religion is “the elephant in the room”. (As a side note, he argued against his production crew for “The Root of All Evil?” primarily because he didn’t want to give the mis-impression that he was claiming religion was, as it implied, the root of all evil.)

  8. SLC says:

    Re DiPietro & Levy

    Although it is hard to characterize the relifious views of the “founding fathers,” it is quite clear that none of them would be described as atheists as we understand that term today. It is also quite clear that many of them were not Christians, as we understand that term today. In fact, Madison was strongly anti-Christian (in fact he was negative about organized relition in general). Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin were certainly not Christians as they did not believe in the divinity of Joshua of Nazareth. Washingtons’ also appears to have not believed in the divinity of Joshua of Nazareth. Certainly, not of these men could be elected to public office in the US today with these beliefs.

  9. SLC says:

    religious, not relifious

  10. whig says:

    religiouf, maybe. I always liked those stylized lower-case s characters.

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