New Atheism Not a Cause Behind the Rise of the Nones

Peter Boghossian and his activist allies wrote:

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.

[reposted from 9/2016]

This entry was posted in Culture, New Atheism, Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to New Atheism Not a Cause Behind the Rise of the Nones

  1. Mechanar says:

    It cant be said enough “None” does not mean atheist It only means that what It says no affiliaction with any religion. If one looks at the statistics than it is pretty obvious that people have not stopped having faith it is just expressed in a different way

  2. pennywit says:

    My own sense is that few of the “nones” are atheist, let alone Atheist. Most likely, they’re simply indifferent. There’s always been a contingent who attended church services because they felt it was a social obligation. I suspect that sense of social obligation is fading.

  3. Dhay says:

    If Peter Boghossian’s claim does include a claim to have caused the increase of the ‘nones’, that’s claiming correlation without establishing causation.

    To Michael’s counter-claim I could add a competing claim: that the rise of the ‘nones’ is correlated with (and perhaps caused by) the rise of the mobile phone (and especially of the smartphone) and apps such as FaceBook etc — so that, increasingly, the “local” community is not now the Church but “the cloud”.

    That I give no more (nor less) credence to my own or to Michael’s version of the story — and I feel sure others could come up with rival stories about what’s happening and why — than I do to Boghossian’s version serves to emphasise how weak Boghossian’s claim is. It’s just one of several junk theories, the alleged or implied causation not established.


    In the months since Boghossian et al wrote that silly article Boghossian has expounded his “holy grail of critical thinking” idea of “defeaters” in an Areos and a Left of the Valley radio interview; “defeater” is a well-known philosophical term with an established usage and application — a well-known philosophical term with an established usage and application which Boghossian has ignored, keeping the name but with his own highly ideosyncratic usage and application; as I explained in more depth at:

    As the term is used by Boghossian, both Michael’s competing “rising divorce” and my own (half tongue in cheek) “cloud” explanations are valid “defeaters” to Boghossian’s own claim that it is New Atheism which is responsible for increasing secularism (etc).

    Even little green men, alien tricksters, is a “defeater” to, well, just about any claim whatsoever, so far as I can tell, Boghossian’s claim that New Atheism is a major contributer to secularism likewise:

    There we have it: Boghossian gives weight to the idea of trickster aliens being a “defeater” because … because he is a credulous ready believer in alien tricksters; he has been a weight-giving believer in alien tricksters for at least the last couple of years.

    Contrary to established philosophical usage and application, for Boghossian a “defeater” is any old flight-of-fancy crap, any whatsoever; Boghossian’s usage has little resemblance (apart from borrowing the term’s title) to “defeater” as understood by philosophers..

    As properly used, “defeater” is one of those words like “bus stop”, which say what they are: in established usage, a defeater does actually defeat a claim.

    I can make no sense of how Boghossian uses the term, except for a very strong suspicion that he’s using it as a propaganda buzz-word: his “defeaters” don’t defeat, they are (merely) possible alternative explanations; so to call them “defeaters” is misleading, and surely deliberately so.

    I imagine his credulous readers and listeners are expected to pick up the impression that a Boghossian type “defeater” is a “Ker-Pow!!” delivered by a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu expert. Or something along those lines. That’s good advertising sales talk for weak epistemology; it presents that strong sound-image, “defeater”, to distract from an actual lack of substance.

  4. Tim Lambert says:

    but why assume that those who are ‘indifferent’ are indeed atheists? It’s just as likely that they are agnostic, or even that they do believe that a God exists… just that it’s not worth their time to attend church; or maybe their conception of God leads them to think he wouldn’t care about church attendance.

  5. roninapologetics says:

    The point is not that the “nones” are atheists. The point is that the 2000s hammered the public with atheist propaganda such as the writings of Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, and Dennett. If this propaganda was the reason people were abandoning religion, the nones should have increased much faster 2000-2010 than any other period. They did not.

  6. pennywit says:

    but why assume that those who are ‘indifferent’ are indeed atheists?

    Read my comment. I don’t assume that.

  7. TFBW says:

    If they’re going primarily on the basis of church attendance, I’d probably be classified as a “none”.

  8. FZM says:

    If they’re going primarily on the basis of church attendance, I’d probably be classified as a “none”.

    I think sometimes it is just how a person chooses to identify or label themselves, but it depends on the survey.

    I wonder if its the case that when a government and its state apparatus tends to ignore or make no reference to religions in its activities there will probably be a decline in the number of people who label themselves as belonging to particular religions. Conversely if the government and state do things which suggest that particular religions have some importance or relevance, the number self identifying as religious will probably increase, on the basis of this alone.

  9. Dhay says:

    The ideological ‘purity test’ seems to be a problem for New Atheism; here’s from a recent post by David Smalley entitled “Reasonably Controversial: How the Regressive Left Is Killing the Atheist Movement”:

    This article, and those individual podcast discussions, are long-time coming wake-up calls to liberals, leftists, and everyone in the barely surviving “Secular Community” about what it means to be reasonable.

    We’re eating our own. We’re destroying our message. We’re disintegrating.

    And this is an article on why it’s happening and how we can fix it.In this world of black-and-white thinking, just refusing to be extreme in any direction will have the mob headed your way.

    The secular community is allegedly “barely surviving”, in the opinion of someone who seems to be one of the big names and an atheist conference speaker.

    Looks like New Atheism is pulling itself apart.

  10. pennywit says:

    I still don’t understand why atheists should agree 100 percent on political issues any more than Christians should agree 100 percent on political issues.

  11. Dhay says:

    Quite right; amend that to: Looks like some New Atheists think New Atheism is pulling itself apart.

  12. Dhay says:

    Here’s The End of Faith (P 129):

    What will we do if an Islamist regime, which grows dewy-eyed at the mere mention of paradise, ever acquires long-range nuclear weaponry? If history is any guide, we will not be sure about where the offending warheads are or what their state of readiness is, and so we will be unable to rely on targeted, conventional weapons to destroy them. In such a situation, the only thing likely to ensure our survival may be a nuclear first strike of our own.” He continues, “Needless to say, this would be an unthinkable crime—as it would kill tens of millions of innocent civilians in a single day—but …”

    If there’s anyone who considers Donald Trump is a dangerous person capable of unleashing unthinkable horrors by a pre-emptive first strike on North Korea …

    … would you vote for President Sam Harris.

  13. pennywit says:

    would you vote for President Sam Harris.


  14. Michael says:

    I still don’t understand why atheists should agree 100 percent on political issues any more than Christians should agree 100 percent on political issues.

    It’s a function of their rhetoric. According to most atheists, they became atheists because of reason and evidence. Okay. But the activist go further and argue that atheists are people who are guided by Reason, Evidence, and Science. It’s just this great love for Reason, Evidence, and Science that happened to blossum into atheism.

    Er, I would think a group of people guided by Reason, Evidence, and Science would not be at each other’s throats when the topic is anything other than bashing Christianity.

  15. FZM says:

    Er, I would think a group of people guided by Reason, Evidence, and Science would not be at each other’s throats when the topic is anything other than bashing Christianity.

    In the context of New Atheism there never seemed much inclination to look at any length into what terms like Reason, Evidence and Science actually mean.

    New Atheism could then attract support and approval from a broad range of people who think of themselves as being guided by Reason and Science and who want to criticise Christianity without it becoming immediately apparent that they held conflicting and incompatible views of what Reason and Science are and where being guided by them leads.

  16. Dhay says:

    FZM > In the context of New Atheism there never seemed much inclination to look at any length into what terms like Reason, Evidence and Science actually mean.

    Science, Evidence and Reason — often capitalised when used by atheists, so by implication they are different from science, evidence and reason — never seem to get defined, nor is it possible, usually, to work out what is (or might be) meant from the context; they seem to be buzz-words.

    Then there’s a recent blog post by New Atheist Richard Carrier:

    … when you check the science and find that even in comparable one-to-one situations, on average women get paid about 6 cents less on the dollar than men …
    [My added emphasis.]

    Science?! Research on pay inequality — the collection and collation of pay information and the production of simple statistical correlations based thereon — is hardly more than a survey and some very basic maths; if we dignify it by the name of Social Science, we but undignify Social Science and highlight why Social Science is not science. Science it ain’t.

    To give an idea of how informed Carrier is about the genuine sciences:

    Just to add that Carrier has tried to present himself as a better cosmological physicist than the physics community, getting very shirty and abusive when they wouldn’t listen to and heed his ignorant ideas — so ignorant they appear to ignore something so basic to his topic of Big Bang Denial as the cosmological standard model.

    And he has tried to present himself as a better physicist than Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, Erwin Schroedinger and [insert names of modern great physicists here], because he has presented a paper — a paper which contains no formulas and which ignores the issues which made the problem insoluble for these great physicists — claiming to unify quantum mechanics and relativity.

    Seems the Physics community ignored Carrier and inexplicably decided not to award him his double Nobel Prize for his startlingly original understanding of cutting-edge science. That he now apparently considers Social Science is science does not surprise me at all.

    Returning to FZM, even when New Atheists do define science, either explicitly (eg as something plumbers do when leak-checking) or as in Carrier’s case, implicitly (as including pay surveys and schoolchild level maths), they get it wrong.

  17. Dhay says:

    If Peter Boghossian & co are claiming that “New Atheism has already succeeded in shifting the cultural landscape of Western civilization” and is a cause behind the rise of the ‘Nones’, I note a similar rise in New Age Gullibles, the type who believe in the Lost City of Atlantis, hauntings, aliens past and present, telekinesis, psychics and fortune tellers and, last and least, Bigfoot.

    If the rise of the number of ‘Nones’ can be attributed to New Atheism, why cannot the rise of the ‘extremely credulous’ with equal certainty be attributed to New Atheism.

    The one is as credible (or as implausible) as the other.

  18. Dhay says:

    That Chapman University survey of paranormal beliefs got me thinking: what’s the essential difference between a paranormal belief and those miracles which some atheists either deny or demand. Confidence that miracles can occur and have occurred is certainly not confined to Christians or other religious people.

    Paranormal Belief……………………………..Percent Agree or Strongly Agree
    Ancient, advanced civilizations, such as Atlantis, once existed…..55.0%
    Places can be haunted by spirits…………………………………………..52.3%
    Aliens have visited Earth in our ancient past…………………………..35.0%
    Aliens have come to Earth in modern times…………………………….26.2%
    Some people can move objects with their minds………………………25.0%
    Fortune tellers and psychics can foresee the future…………………19.4%
    Bigfoot is a real creature………………………………………………………16.2%

    Playing only a little loosely with the term (and ‘paranormal’ doesn’t fit perfectly, either), all of these can be called miracles. (As in, it would be a ‘miracle’ if it were true.)

    I note that only 25% of Americans have “No paranormal beliefs”; so 75% believe in some kind of miracle.

    If the rise of the number of ‘Nones’ can be attributed to New Atheism, why cannot the rise of the 75% ‘rather or extremely credulous’ with equal certainty be attributed to New Atheism.


    I posted this response because a recent He Lives blog post got me thinking. (See panel of blog links, top right.) It documents, with a Pew graph, that atheists are but a small portion of the ‘Nones; and:

    My second comment is that the previously mentioned atheist blogs like to imply that the “new atheists” are winning, and science is somehow winning (presumably in its make-believe war against faith) and rationalism and modernism are fueling this unprecedented abandonment of religion.

    Um, no. Sorry, at least according to a recent USA Today article, millennials are not scampering from the superstitions of religion into the out-stretched welcoming arms of Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins. They are embracing witchcraft and astrology: …

    And there’s links to a recent MarketWatch article (not USA Today) entitled “Why millennials are ditching religion for witchcraft and astrology” which tells us “more than half of young adults in the U.S. believe astrology is a science”.

    That’s the 18-29 age range, the age range which surveys show are most likely not to be ‘Nones’.

    Are these ‘Nones’ devotees of atheist/Humanist ‘Science and Reason’?

    According to a new survey by the National Science Foundation, nearly half of all Americans say astrology, the study of celestial bodies’ purported influence on human behavior and worldly events, is either “very scientific” or “sort of scientific.”

    Well, looks like they would self-report as devotees of ‘Science and Reason’, when astrology is included under that heading; but, objectively, it looks like a large proportion of the ‘Nones’ are quite clueless about ‘Science and Reason’.

  19. Talon says:

    Sort of OT but not really: The increase in paranormal beliefs is probably due to an increase in public familiarity with such topics. The process has been gradual, since the late 70s television documentary style programs like “In Search Of”, “Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World” and “Unsolved Mysteries” made efforts to discuss the paranormal without the almost reflexive ridicule which accompanies such topics on MSM outlets. AM Talk Radio star Art Bell spent decades covering paranormal and government conspiracy topics on at least two major networks (Clear Channel, Sirius) and internet radio/podcast. Coast to Coast AM, which Bell started, continues to this day, though Bell has retired. With successful TV series like the X-Files, the paranormal entered popular culture. Ghost Hunter type investigative programs and more witness/re-enactment style documentary programs became a fad, and Ancient Aliens and hobbyist Sasquatch hunter programs started popping up on cable. Entertainment and educational programming has become thoroughly saturated by the paranormal and the topics themselves are no longer taboo.

    Over the years, previously classified documentation relating to US Government programs experimenting with Remote Viewing (Stargate Project), and investigations of UFO related topics (Blue Book, Grudge, Sign) were revealed suggesting ESP and UFOs/ETs were topics the US Government took seriously. Military veterans shared accounts of UFOs visiting American bases, with one losing control of its nuclear assets, the craft apparently disabling the base’s entire compliment of missiles simultaneously. Pilots, law enforcement and other seemingly credible witnesses have shared personal accounts and sightings of UFOs. At least 1 American president has inquired about Area 51 and UFO secrecy while in office (Clinton) and 2 have related personal sightings.

    Meanwhile, skeptical organizations have lost influence. Organized skepticism is seen as an old, white man’s club, with it’s members retiring or dying faster than they can be replaced, and others having lost public credibility due to sex scandals or embarrassing social media goofs. Carl Sagan is gone. UFO debunker Philip J. Klass is dead. JREF has faded from public view, the Million Dollar Challenge discontinued and Randi outing himself as a global warming skeptic and social Darwinist. CSI (PSICOP) has since merged with the scandal ridden Richard Dawkins Foundation. Michael Shermer has multiple accusations of sexual harassment against him.

    Decades of outreach and efforts to paint the paranormal as mere crackpottery has mostly been for naught, skeptics are seen as elitist, close-minded and out of touch, so committed to Materialism they are largely biased and ignorant of the evidence related to the topics they debunk. Modern “internet skeptics” or “guerilla skeptics” use many of the same tactics New Atheism does, mostly personal attacks, vulgarity, appeals to ridicule and the manipulation of Wikipedia to argue, which has been about as effective in the creation of paranormal skeptics as it has in the creation of rational atheists.

    Paranormal beliefs are common because “paranormal experiences” are common, people now feel more comfortable sharing them and because there are few credible skeptics left to argue against them. Christianity is insufficient to inoculate American society from these topics: there are more than a few paranormal podcasts/youtube channels by evangelical bible-belt types suggesting UFO occupants, ghosts or Bigfoot are Nephilim or the product of demonic activity. The paranormal is becoming mainstream and the worldview of many Christians has simply adapted to include it.

  20. TFBW says:

    Talon said:

    The increase in paranormal beliefs is probably due to an increase in public familiarity with such topics.

    I have a passing familiarity with the popularity of occultism in Victorian times, so this explanation seems like a complete non-starter to me.

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