New Atheism has already succeeded in shifting the cultural landscape of Western civilization, making it far more acceptable to be openly atheist, giving atheists unprecedented public visibility, buttressing the legal boundaries of secularism and changing the nature of public discourse about faith, belief, God and religion.
I’m not surprised that New Atheist activists would believe in their own self-importance. But this is delusional. The problem is that there is no evidence New Atheism shifted any aspect of our cultural landscape.
While it is true that the rise in the number of religiously unaffiliated Americans (“Nones”) has been significant, there is no evidence New Atheism had anything to do with this. Consider the data:
As you can see, the growth of the Nones began in the early 1990s, long before Harris and Dawkins started to write their books. So what might explain this change?
As Julie Zauzmer notes in her Washington Post article, the divorce rates in America hit record high levels in the 1980s, when about half of all marriages ended in divorce.
She then points to a new study from the Public Religion Research Institute which argues “people whose parents divorced when they were children are significantly more likely to grow up not to be religious as adults.”
As one researcher noted, “We wanted to focus on the way millennials were raised, which is different from any previous generation. And part of that is they’re more likely to have grown up with parents who are divorced.”
While divorce may not completely explain the rise in the Nones, it is a much better explanation that New Atheism.
New Atheism itself was never a causal factor in the rise of the Nones. Instead, it is likely more and more people became non-religious because of the childhood tensions associated with divorce (along with other cultural changes). With the appearance and growth of the internet, these people were able to begin networking with each. Eventually, this population became large enough that a niche for New Atheism emerged, making it possible for atheist writers to begin making some serious money offering regurgitated, yet polished, talking points of people like Madalyn Murray O’Hair.
Further evidence that I am right is the disconnect between the increasing numbers of Nones and the decline of the New Atheist movement. If New Atheism was somehow behind the rise of the Nones, you would think the New Atheist movement would be larger and more powerful than ever. But while the number of secularists continues to increase, New Atheist book sales and rally attendance continue to drop.