The Pew Research Center’s new “Religious Landscape Study” says persons who identify as atheists have reached 3.1 percent of the U.S. population (versus only 1.6 percent in 2007) and now outnumber Jews and Muslims combined. They’re lopsidedly male (68 percent), young (77 percent under age 50), and single (40 percent have never married).
Whether due to affinity, or novelty (“Man Bites God!”), the media have cultivated an atheism chic this past decade. The non-believers have been getting their share of soft features, alongside news coverage of ongoing political activism and those caustic “new atheism” best-sellers by Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens.
These four horsemen are now joined by Jerry A. Coyne, an evolutionary geneticist at the University of Chicago, in his “Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible.”
Exactly what Protestant fundamentalists have been telling us.
Coyne disputes the late Harvard evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, who sought to accommodate religion alongside science as two ways of knowing. Coyne rejects any truce and brands religion “the most widespread and harmful form of superstition.”
In the Wall Street Journal, science writer John Horgan complains that Coyne “overlooks any positive consequences of religion,” but such take-no-prisoners combat is the very essence of the new atheism. Coyne’s ally Harris wants “every college on earth” to require that students read this polemic. Yet Harris himself, while still devoutly atheistic, distinguishes between “religion” (bad) and “spirituality” (good), and is quite taken with godless meditation these days.
Most mainstream-media professionals have missed that concepts preached by publicized atheists have been answered by such heavyweights as Eastern Orthodox layman David Bentley Hart (“Atheist Delusions”), ex-atheist and biologist Alister McGrath (“Dawkins’ God,” “The Twilight of Atheism”), and star philosophers Alvin Plantinga (“Where the Conflict Really Lies”) and Richard Swinburne (“Is There a God?,” “Mind and Cosmos”).
Speaking of skeptics and best-sellers, a friend calls attention to related remarks by conservative pundit Charles Krauthammer, Pulitzer Prize winner and author of “Things That Matter,” toward the end of a long online interview with Bill Kristol. Krauthammer received an intensive Orthodox Jewish education as a youth, but unlike his father cannot believe in a personal God who hears prayers or cares about us individually. He says: “Faith is a gift and I don’t have it.”
But he denies press reports that he’s an atheist. “The one theology I cannot accept is atheism,” which is “sort of the most illogical of all, because there’s so much in the real world, in the physical world, that we cannot explain.” Moreover, “the greatest minds in history were theists.” Thus he recommends intellectual humility on the God question, and respect for those who do believe. Call him agnostic (along with 4 percent of Americans, according to Pew).
Talk about a great story theme: Is faith mere foolishness perpetuated by nincompoops and naïve traditionalists? Or is “scientism” too rigidly limited, unable to explain the uncanny origin of the cosmos and -- yes -- of species including homo sapiens, the quest for meaning or apprehensions of beauty and morality? After all, two astrophysicists took to The New York Times June 7 to report that evidence-based science may be hitting “a dead end” because new explanations of physical reality are by nature “untestable.”
The necessary second stage of atheism coverage should re-examine the substance of the debate. Problem is, that means digging through weighty books in order to boil down the essentials for a broad readership -- requiring more time and mental energy than most journalists are able to invest.