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Atheism(s) in the public sphere

Date:10 November 2015
A Billboard along a motorway in California
A Billboard along a motorway in California

In more and more parts of the world, atheism is becoming publicly visible, yet the ways in which this occurs are many and varied, related to differences in politics, culture, histories of secularism and secularization and a host of other factors. Until now the focus of researchers who study atheism has perhaps been too much on similarities between atheist movements and organizations, encapsulated in a supposedly unified phenomenon called ‘the New Atheism’. But how unified are atheists? Where do they diverge and go separate ways in their activities and ideologies? And is atheism solely or primarily a Western phenomenon?

On Tuesday 17th November, the Centre for Religion, Conflict and the Public Domain will host a seminar by Terrell Carver & Jeroen Weggen to address this topic. Leading up to this event, in the next few days The Religion Factor will be publishing several contributions to the question of diversity in atheism by scholars who study atheism. These scholars include Stephen LeDrew, postdoc at the Centre for the Study of Religion and Society at Uppsala University, Dr. Teemu Taira, senior lecturer at the Department of the Study of Religions at the University of Helsinki, and Prof. Dr. Johannes Quack of the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology of the University of Zurich.

In this introductory post, Terrell Carver and Jeroen Weggen will introduce the topic of public atheism, why it is an important contemporary issue, and why there should be more focus on diversity between different atheist movements and atheisms.

Atheism is on the rise in the West.[1] For a long time, nonbelief in God was something that wasn’t spoken about publicly but was something that atheists maybe expressed in private, if they expressed it at all, and for good reason. Historically, ‘atheist’ has been an insult – for example, the early Christians were sometimes called ‘atheists’ by the Romans – and up until quite recently in the West, admitting that you are an atheist carried considerable social or even legal consequences. In many places today, atheists still experience discrimination on account of their nonbelief in God, such as in the USA.[2] Yet today it is also very much part of public discussion concerning religion. This prominent role of atheism cannot be neglected by anyone interested in public discussions on religion or in the role of religion in public life. Books by Sam Harris (The End of Faith, 2004 and Letter to a Christian Nation, 2006), Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion, 2006), Daniel Dennett (Breaking the Spell, 2006) and Christopher Hitchens (God is not Great, 2007) quickly became bestsellers, and these authors became celebrities in a sprawling movement that is often called ‘The New Atheism’. And not long afterwards, the scholarly community started paying attention to these authors and to the New Atheism as well, as a phenomenon to be studied.
Before discussing the road that many scholars studying atheism have taken, it is important to reflect on the terminology used when talking about atheism. As will soon become clear, it is often the case in scholarship on atheism (and even more so in general discourse about atheism) that various terms are conflated and used interchangeably: atheism, secularity, secularist, non-religious, and so on. It doesn’t help that many atheists at the same time will call themselves agnostic, freethinker, secularist, humanist and other things, and make all of these descriptions mutually exclusive with being religious (and many religious people then use the exact same vocabulary). The result is that they implicitly promote a very narrow understanding of ‘religion’ (namely, as being solely about belief in God/the supernatural), and associate all those other categories with being anti-religious.
But such conflations are unhelpful because many people identify as agnostic, freethinker, humanist or something similar without necessarily regarding themselves as atheist or anti-religion. And, for example, many Buddhists are atheists – does that mean they are not religious and that Buddhism is not a religion? Whatever the answer to that question, in order to make better sense of atheism’s place in the public sphere it is important to keep terms such as atheist, secularist/secularism, humanist and non-religious distinct and to clearly define them. The term ‘secularism’, for instance, usually refers to the promotion of separation of church and state, something which was an invention of religious people to solve the conflicts between different religious groups.[3] Yet secularism is also sometimes taken to mean something like the promotion of the secular (as a binary opposite of ‘religious’) over the religious. Similarly, a ‘secular country’ can mean a country that has separation of church and state, but it can also mean a country in which many/most people are nonreligious.[4] In the rest of this introduction we will be using ‘secular’ and ‘secularized’ as a synonym for ‘nonreligious’ (but not necessarily anti-religious), though at any given point where these terms are used it is good to ask what the underlying assumptions are, since the debates are often quite heated. As we will see, various scholars do not really make clear distinctions between terms such as atheist, secular, nonreligious, secularist, and so on, or simply copy how these groups use these terms themselves.[5]
In any case, one of the first questions to be asked by scholars about the newly arising atheism was: why is this happening now? Why were these books so successful, and why is the New Atheism especially successful in a country like the USA, which is generally seen as much more religious than other Western countries, indeed as the exception demographically (though not constitutionally) to the secular rule? Answers will of course be speculative, but one of the main reasons is probably that while the West has (on average) become more secularized over the course of the 20th century, the ‘rest’ has not; in the words of eminent sociologist Peter Berger, “The world today is as furiously religious as ever it was and in some places more so than ever”.[6] In various places in the world, there has been a big resurgence of religion in the public sphere, an important example being the dominant role the religious Right has played in the American political scene since the 1980s; in other places religion has never really gone away. Secularization theory plays an important role here, since one of its core ideas (which is now generally regarded as being disproven) was that as a society became modernized, religion would gradually become more and more marginalized and eventually disappear. For this reason, most atheists were content with keeping their personal ideas on religion quiet, since they assumed religion would go away by itself as secularization theory predicted. With the return of religion in the public sphere, this viewpoint has been shaken, and many atheists feel the need to go public with their atheism in order to combat (what is seen as) the negative role of religion in the world.[7]As an example, Sam Harris claimed that he started writing The End of Faith the day after the terrorist attacks of 9/11.[8]
So why is the atheist movement especially vibrant in a place one would not expect: the predominantly Christian USA? The answer perhaps has to do with the ambiguous relationship that America has with religion. Yes, the USA is a very religious nation, but if one looks at the American government it is in principle very secular: consider the first amendment to the US constitution, which “prohibits the making of any law respecting the establishment of religion”.[9] And there seems to be a disconnect between the general populace, who are more religious, and the intelligentsia who are more secularized. Especially with the rise of the religious Right, the tensions between the religious and the secular elements of American society have become apparent. Atheists in countries in Western Europe generally don’t encounter any problems in everyday life on account of their nonbelief, but studies have shown that atheists in America often encounter discrimination, and that atheists are the least trusted minority in the USA – less than Muslims and homosexuals, for instance.[10] Some American states still have laws that prohibit someone who doesn’t believe in God from exercising a public function.[11]
The American atheist movement should be understood in the context of this secular-religious tension. Richard Cimino and Christopher Smith, studying atheist and secular humanist groups (note that these two groups are being conflated here), have argued that instead of trying to work directly toward a wholly nonreligious America, atheists and secular humanists operate from a ‘secularist’ subculture that they try to protect.[12] This subculture functions as a market niche in the American religious economy in which atheists try to appeal to the growing amount of Americans who identify as nonreligious (the billboard in the picture above is a good example of trying to attract non-religious people to the atheist cause). Minority discourse and identity politics are other strategies that American atheists make use of. The discrimination and distrust that a lot of atheists face in America makes them more likely to stick together and defend each other, to share stories and form bonds.[13]
There are, for example, thousands of ‘deconversion narratives’ to be found on the internet, where atheists share the story of how they lost their faith and came to accept the truth that God doesn’t exist. (Another question about terminology to be asked: why are these stories called deconversion narratives and not simply conversion narratives?) Most of these narratives are very similar, and they are almost uniformly negative about the role of religion. Couple this with the unanimous picture that the New Atheist books of Dawkins, Hitchens and others paint of religion, and you have a very active ‘imagined secularist community’ that has a clear list of ideas on which they all agree: God is not real, religion is bad because it conflicts with science too often and gives people bad moral ideas, religion should not have any influence on politics, and preferably not in the private sphere either; and so on.[14]
But is there such uniformity and unanimous agreement among atheists? The name “The New Atheism” suggests a unified phenomenon whereas there is arguably much diversity. As Richard Dawkins has famously said, “organizing atheists is like herding cats”; apart from their disbelief in God there won’t be anything that 100% of all atheists will agree upon.

Back and front of a sign put up at the Wisconsin State Capitol by the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
Back and front of a sign put up at the Wisconsin State Capitol by the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

While the New Atheist authors (Dawkins, Hitchens etc.) are currently dominating the discourse within the American atheist movement, there are several points of tension on which there is significant disagreement, sometimes occasionally conflict between different atheists. Steven Kettell has identified several of these points of contention:

– Should atheism be conceived of as merely a lack of belief in God, or should it also include a positive identity?
– Should atheists solely criticize and attack religion, or should atheists also sometimes work together with religious groups, for example with liberal churches on common political causes such as gay marriage?
– Atheism in America is currently disproportionately white and male. Should atheists pay more attention to issues of sex and race in their community, or is that just a diversion from what atheism is really about?
– Finally and related to the previous point, should atheism be connected to social activism? In this regard it is worth mentioning “Atheism Plus”, a movement started by prominent atheist blogger Jen McCreight in response to sexual harassment she and various other female atheists have faced in the atheist movement and the lack of engagement with this issue she perceived within the atheist community.[15]

Kettell’s analysis shows that there is a lot of diversity within atheism just in the USA. What about diversity in atheism between different countries? Unfortunately there is as of yet very little research to be found on this topic. Sociologist Phil Zuckerman, who has studied nonreligious people in both Scandinavia and in the USA, has done one of the few comparative studies (although this is research on nonreligious people in general and not focused on atheists specifically). Zuckerman writes: “Atheism and secularity are not static, fixed orientations … [They] are contoured, malleable, and deeply shaped by cultural and social forces.” He goes on to argue that nonreligious people in the USA see their loss of faith as very significant and usually have very negative views on religion, whereas nonreligious Scandinavians don’t think loss of belief in God had very significant implications in their life and express a neutral, sometimes even positive view of religion. Nonreligious Americans were also much more likely to identify as atheist, whereas Scandinavians were reluctant to adopt the label of atheism.[16]
Zuckerman’s explanation for the difference is similar to what was noted earlier in this blog post: for American atheists, their religious identity or lack thereof is a lot more important in everyday life than it is for Scandinavians. Nonreligious Scandinavians are not distrusted or discriminated against; religion is practised differently in Scandinavia compared to America. Thus the shape that religion takes influences the shape that nonreligious identities (which often are responses to religion) take.
There are other examples of international diversity in atheism. One of the most significant news items involving atheism of the past few years is about atheism in the East, not atheism in the West. From February 2013 up until very recently, there has been a string of murders of atheist bloggers in Bangladesh.[17] The BBC article is interesting here, because it contains a short reflection on how different groups tend to be conflated under the banner of atheism: “There is also a more complex backdrop to the killings. Islamic groups label all these bloggers “atheists” – and many did indeed use the internet to criticise those who believe in God. But in fact, not all the bloggers were atheists. What they did have in common was they were part of a wider, secular movement that took to the streets in protest in 2013.” In any case, the murders seem to have begun after these protests, which were intended to criticize the government of Bangladesh for sentencing an Islamic war criminal to life in prison instead of the death sentence.[18] In other words, the murders began after secularists (only some of whom were atheist) publicly criticized the privileged role of religion in Bangladesh – in this case, a notable religious figure receiving a less severe punishment.
While atheism in Bangladesh has not been studied by scholars as of yet, there has been a study of atheism in India done by anthropologist Johannes Quack, who has done fieldwork among Indian atheist organizations. He argues that there are clear differences between Western atheist groups and Indian atheist groups. Whereas Western groups are mainly in the business of organizing debates and discussions on the topic of religion, Indian atheists are more focused on integrating their atheism with concerns of injustice and inequality. The reason for this seems to be that religion in India is expressed less as a belief system and more as a way of life. As a consequence there is less focus on conflicts between religious ideas and scientific ideas, and more attention for the social problems that religion is involved with – in the case of India, the caste system is an obvious example.[19]
There are other examples of atheist organizations as well. The last 15 years have seen various new atheist organizations and movements spring to life. In this regard one could mention: Giordano Bruno Stiftung (Germany, founded in 2004); Iniciativa Atea (Spain, 2008); Philippine Atheist and Agnostic Society (2011); Atheist Ireland (2008); Center for Civil Courage (Croatia, 2011); Atheism UK (2009). In some cases these organizations are the first of their kind in their country, in other cases (such as the Giordano Bruno Stiftung and Atheism UK) these organizations were founded in a country that already has a well-established humanist association. Again, there is an unfortunate lack of studies in this regard, the main focus until now having been on atheism in America and the phenomenon of “New Atheism”. By focusing on these two things one is led to believe that there is more unity than there actually is.
Clearly there is a lot of diversity. This blog series aims to explore some aspects of this diversity. In the next post on Wednesday, Stephen LeDrew will explore the diversity of American atheism (which was already touched on a little bit in this introduction) in more detail. He traces current tensions within the American atheist movement back to the 19th century when the first atheist and ‘secularist’ organizations came into existence, and considers the role of the internet which has been a focal point of atheist activity. Following that, on Friday, Teemu Taira will compare the rates of belief in God and atheism of neighbouring countries Finland and Sweden, and try to explain the differences in terms of national histories and contexts. Next week Monday, drawing on his fieldwork on atheism in India, Johannes Quack will discuss some methodological issues in the study of nonreligion. Following the seminar next Tuesday, we will publish a final concluding piece, summarizing the key points from this series and the seminar and highlighting possible research directions for the future.

Terrell Carver is Professor of Political Theory at the University of Bristol. He can be reached at t.carver Jeroen Weggen is Research Masters student at the Faculty of Religious Studies of the University of Groningen. He can be reached at

[1], last checked 5 November 2015.

[2] Ryan T. Cragun et al., “On the receiving end: Discrimination toward the non-religious in the United States.” Journal of Contemporary Religion 27.1 (2012): 105-127.

[3] Jeff Spinner-Halev, “Hinduism, Christianity and Liberal Religious Toleration”, Political Theory 33:1 (2005), 28-57.

[4] For a discussion of the meaning of the terms secular, secularism and secularization, see Jose Casanova, “The secular, secularizations, secularisms”, in: Craig Calhoun, Mark Juergensmeyer, and Jonathan VanAntwerpen eds., Rethinking secularism (Oxford University Press, 2011), 54-74.

[5] For a discussion of how atheism is defined, see Stephen Bullivant, “Defining ‘Atheism’”, in: Stephen Bullivant & Michael Ruse eds., The Oxford Handbook of Atheism (Oxford University Press, 2013), 12-20.

[6] Peter Berger, The Desecularization of the World: Resurgent religion and world politics (1999), 2.

[7] Stephen Bullivant, “The New Atheism and Sociology: Why here? Why now? What next?”, in: Amarnath Amarasingam ed., The New Atheism: A critical appraisal (Leiden 2008), 109-124.

[8] Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason (New York 2004), 333.

[9], last accessed 10 November 2015.

[10] Cragun et al., “On the receiving end”.

[11], last accessed 9 November 2015.

[12] Richard Cimino, and Christopher Smith, “Secular Humanism and Atheism beyond Progressive Secularism*.” Sociology of Religion 68.4 (2007): 407-424.

[13] Ibidem.

[14] Richard Cimino and Christopher Smith, “The new atheism and the formation of the imagined secularist community.” Journal of Media and Religion 10.1 (2011): 24-38.

[15] Steven Kettell, “Faithless: The politics of new atheism.” Secularism and nonreligion 2 (2013): 61-72.

[16] Phil Zuckerman, “Contrasting irreligious orientation: atheism and secularity in the USA and Scandinavia.” Approaching Religion 2.1 (2012): 8-20.

[17], last checked 9 November 2015.

[18], last checked 9 November 2015.

[19] Johannes Quack, “Organised atheism in India: An overview”, Journal of Contemporary Religion 27:1 (2012): 67-85.


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