Most of America's religious 'nones' aren’t atheists, and aggressive 'new atheism' isn’t new

With a growing chunk of Americans identifying as “nones” unmoored from religious identity, The Atlantic’s Emma Green says we often hear the following: “As science became a more widely accepted method for investigating and understanding the physical world, religion became a less viable way of thinking -- not just about medicine and mechanics but also culture and politics and economics and every other sphere of public life. As the United States became more secular, people slowly began drifting away from faith.”

That’s too simple, Green continues, “arguably inaccurate,” and “seems to capture neither the reasons nor the reality.” Many “nones” believe in God and pray regularly, so it’s much more a drift from “organized religion” than from faith.

Though polls show outright atheists who reject belief in God remain a tiny minority, organized atheism is becoming more prominent and aggressive. A July federal lawsuit by American Atheists goaded Kansas City into withholding on short notice its promised $65,000 to provide shuttle transportation for 20,000 attendees at the National Baptist Convention session Sept. 5-9, causing headaches for that huge African-American group. Such city aid is a standard means to help visitors and foster convention business.

Another federal lawsuit was filed August 25 by American Atheists and three groups of Pennsylvania non-believers, alongside Americans United for Separation of Church and State. It challenges the ban on non-believers delivering opening prayers for Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives. (Old gag: How does a non-believer begin a prayer? “To whom it may concern.”)

And “new atheists” have won best-seller status with polemical books. However, the freethinkers at Prometheus Books remind us that the fervent cut-and-thrust strategy is nothing new. That’s evident in the reissue of what Prometheus promotes as a “classic” continuously in print since 1979, the hot-blooded “Atheism: The Case Against God” by George H. Smith.

In a new epilogue, Smith says “few academic philosophers liked” his work because it’s so outspoken, not “respectable,” aimed at general readers instead of  scholars, and written by a then 24-year-old of “singularly unimpressive” education (he’s both a high school and university dropout). In retrospect, he admits there are  rough spots but decided the latest edition would reprint  the original text.

Smith wants other atheists to join him in reaching broad audiences rather than academicians, and in taking the gloves off. He assails Christianity’s “reprehensible” teachings and “sins” that aren’t just foolish but immoral, while examining alleged absurdities in the Bible.

Smith depicts his own boyhood belief in Jesus despite having non-religious parents, followed by growing disillusionment during high school. Key influences have included the American revolutionary Thomas Paine (a deist, not an atheist) and atheistic free market guru Ayn Rand and her “objectivism." Smith's freelance writing includes regular libertarian pieces online.

Rather interesting. If Smith’s old brief against God is worth some coverage, journalists in fairness will want to seek other views and might wait to incorporate a November release, “Rational Faith: A Philosopher’s Defense of Christianity.” The Guy hasn’t yet read this but prospects are promising since publisher InterVarsity is known for quality and the author is well-qualified: Stephen T. Davis, Ph.D., a philosophy of religion veteran at Claremont McKenna (just listed among America’s top 25 private colleges by Business Insider).

Davis’s chapter titles cover much of Smith’s standard terrain: “Is there any such thing as objective truth? Why believe in God? Is the Bible’s picture of Jesus reliable? Was Jesus raised from the dead? Does evolution disprove Christianity? Can cognitive science explain religion? Is Christianity unique? Do evil and suffering show that God does not exist? Can we be happy apart from God?”

Hard to think of bigger questions. But is reading two books too burdensome for harried newswriters? Are such topics too heavy for today’s superficial media universe? Perhaps, though we can be certain that come Nov. 8 writers and readers will hunger for just about anything that’s not political.

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