atheism

Losing My Religion

RECENT POLLS SUGGEST that America’s vaunted religiosity is slipping, including the percentage of people willing to identify themselves as evangelicals. At the same time, the percentage of avowed secularists has risen. A movement calling itself the “New Atheism”—those adamantly opposed to religion—has attracted a considerable following.

The oracles of this movement—including Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and the late Christopher Hitchens—deny any possibility of the supernatural, assert that religious belief is irrational, and posit that religion has caused untold evil and suffering throughout history. Because of their dogmatism and their refusal to countenance views other than their own, I refer to these people as “secular fundamentalists.”

Hard data may be elusive, but the latest generation of American young people is much less religious than the last, and the growing secularism they represent could be a byproduct of the polarizing effect of the Religious Right. With evangelical fundamentalism being the dominant and most public form of U.S. Christianity over the last generation, young seekers would rather turn away from all religion than adapt to the harsh expression of faith that excludes so many of their peers and often stands against their aspirations for fairness and equality.

Religious fundamentalism has tainted the reputation of Christianity. For many, unbelief has become more palatable than belief, if believing requires an embrace of the distortions that have so characterized U.S. Christianity over the last several decades.

What prompted the emergence of this New Atheism or secular fundamentalism? What historical forces contributed to its rise? The roots of this phenomenon go back more than three decades—to the political mobilization of a different species of fundamentalism that became the movement commonly known as the Religious Right.

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Atheist TV: Coming Soon to a Television Near You

David Silverman, president of American Atheists, talks atheist-only television. Religion News Service photo by Kimberly Winston.

Move over, Christian televangelists. Atheism is coming to television.

Speaking at a gathering of local atheists, humanists, freethinkers, and other nontheists in a chemistry lecture hall at Stanford University, David Silverman, president of American Atheists, a national advocacy group for nontheists, announced Tuesday (May 6) that his New Jersey-based organization would launch the first television channel dedicated to atheism in July.

“Why are we going to television?” he asked the audience, a mix of about 100 students and people from the local community. “It’s part of our strategy of going where we are not.”

Atheists Use Popular Bible App to Evangelize About Unbelief

Tom Amon, a 37-year-old atheist, opens his YouVersion app nightly to engage believers. RNS photo by Beatriz Wallace.

Like lots of college students, Lauren has a smartphone loaded with some of the most popular apps around — Facebook, Twitter, and eBay. And like a lot of unbelievers, she asked to not use her full name because her family doesn’t know about her closet atheism.

One of the apps she uses most regularly is YouVersion, a free Bible app that puts a library’s worth of translations — more than 700 — in the palm of her hand. Close to 115 million people have downloaded YouVersion, making it among the most popular apps of all time.

But Lauren, a 22-year-old chemistry major from Colorado, is not interested in the app’s mission to deepen faith and biblical literacy. A newly minted atheist, she uses her YouVersion Bible app to try to persuade people away from the Christianity she grew up in.

“I know of a lot of atheists who have come to their nonbelief by actually reading the Bible rather than just the fluffy stories they choose to tell you about in church,” she said. “Reading the full story with all its contradictions and violence and sexism, it should make you think, ‘Is this really what I believe in?’ At least it did for me.”

Lauren is not alone. No one knows how many atheists have downloaded YouVersion and other smartphone and tablet Bible apps, but it is enough that word of the phenomenon has reached the Edmond, Okla., headquarters of LifeChurch.tv, the evangelical megachurch that created the app.

Help Thou My Unbelief

LAST YEAR on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” I heard the story of Teresa MacBain, a United Methodist pastor who came to the conclusion she was an atheist. The situation was scary and awkward for her. Who could she tell? What would she do now for a living?

She wasn’t trained for any other occupation, but neither could she continue her double life of preaching and public praying while knowing she didn’t believe in any of it.

Lacking someone to confide in, MacBain secretly confessed to her iPhone, “Sometimes I think to myself: If I could just go back a few years and not ask the questions and just be one of the sheep and blindly follow and not know the truth, it would be so much easier. I’d just keep my job. But I can’t do that. I know it’s a lie. I know it’s false.” Eventually, she left the ministry.

As I listened to MacBain’s interview, I empathized with her. After 30 years of serving as a Mennonite pastor, I often wonder whether I still believe the things I’ve always said I believed. My questions about God have become deeper, while my previous answers now sound shallow. The thought that I might not believe in God is frightening. It threatens my identity and worldview—not to mention my occupation. And yet I haven’t arrived at MacBain’s atheism. Instead, my doubts have been folded into my faith.

When I was 16 years old and discovered that several of my school friends had become atheists, I was racked with questions about God’s existence. I tried to resolve the issue by reading every book I could find on Christian apologetics. I piled up a mountain of highly dubious evidence and then spent the summer writing a 60-page defense of the Christian faith. But when I was finished, I made an awful discovery—I still had the same doubts. No amount of proof had made any difference at all.

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Richard Dawkins Under Fire for ‘Mild Pedophilia’ Remarks

Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly
Richard Dawkins, seen here at a book signing. Religion News Service file photo courtesy of Religion and Ethics Newsweekly

Richard Dawkins, one of the world’s best-known and outspoken atheists, has provoked outrage among child protection agencies and experts after suggesting that recent child abuse scandals have been overblown.

In an interview in The Times magazine on Saturday, Dawkins, 72, he said he was unable to condemn what he called “the mild pedophilia” he experienced at an English school when he was a child in the 1950s.

Referring to his early days at a boarding school in Salisbury, he recalled how one of the (unnamed) masters “pulled me on his knee and put his hand inside my shorts.”

He said other children in his school peer group had been molested by the same teacher but concluded: “I don’t think he did any of us lasting harm.”

Questioning the Bible: What I Would Have Said to Bill Maher

Jim Wallis appears on 'Real Time with Bill Maher'
Jim Wallis appears on 'Real Time with Bill Maher'

Sojourners president Jim Wallis was recently a guest on HBO's  "Real Time with Bill Maher." In the course of the show Maher confronted Wallis on the Bible, asking him some very pointed questions about some of its more troubling texts. You can watch the exchange HERE.

Maher asks, "How do you reconcile this idea that it all comes from the Bible, but the Bible is so flawed... I mean, it's just so full of either nonsense or viciousness." In response, Wallis steered the conversation back to the topic of social justice and compassion, often overlooked Biblical mandates. Maher objected several times, accusing Wallis of "cherry-picking the good parts" of the Bible while ignoring the bad parts. 

I'm a big fan of Jim Wallis (heck, I blog for Sojourners!), and I appreciate that he moved the conversation away from Maher's attempted divisiveness and back to caring for the poor and immigration reform in this country. He's totally right that caring for the marginalized should be the priority of us Christians, and I understand that he wanted to stay focused on that.

At the same time, I think the question Bill Maher was raising is an important one, too, because it ultimately has to do with caring for the marginalized as well. That is, when the Bible is read in a hurtful way, it can and has been used throughout history to justify horrendous violence and mistreatment. That matters, and consequently it matters how we read the Bible. So as someone who has focused on confronting those "bad parts" in Scripture, I wanted to take a stab at addressing Maher's questions.

Lifetree Cafes Offer Space for Tough Topics

Axel Lauer/Shutterstock.
Avenue of blossoming trees. Axel Lauer/Shutterstock.

On a recent Monday evening, a room inside Christ Community Church was transformed into a coffeehouse with fresh-brewed coffee, plenty of popped kettle corn and the thorny subject of racism on the table.

For an hour, about 20 people gathered around tables, shared personal experiences about racism, watched a short documentary and answered questions meant to stimulate conversation.

The event is called Lifetree Cafe, and it’s a new evangelical tool gaining popularity with churches reaching out to potential members.

One Scouts Ban Remains Intact: Atheists

RNS photo by Gregory A. Shemitz.
A Boy Scout marches with his troop during the Memorial Day parade in Smithtown, N.Y. RNS photo by Gregory A. Shemitz.

The decision by the Boy Scouts of America to accept openly gay Scouts has raised the question: Are atheists and other nonbelievers — the only remaining group BSA still bans — next?

No one is holding their breath, least of all Neil Polzin, an Eagle Scout who was fired from his job in 2009 as an aquatics director at a Boy Scout camp in San Diego after he admitted to being an atheist.

“I don’t see that happening, at least not in the immediate future,” Polzin said. “The focus has always been on the Scouts’ discrimination against gays and it seems atheists were always on a back burner or not discussed at all.”

But that doesn’t mean nonbelievers — atheists, humanists, and other nontheists — have abandoned their quest for inclusion. In the wake of the BSA’s May 23 vote that led to the inclusion of gay Scouts — but not gay scoutmasters — every major organization of nonbelievers has issued a statement condemning their continued exclusion.

A BSA official declined to comment, but issued a statement that said, in part, that since the organization had “just completed a lengthy review process, there are no plans for further review on this matter.”

The problem for atheists lies in an oath in which scouts promise to “do my duty to God and my country.” Some nonbelievers have suggested their sons change the word “God” to “good,” but the BSA has remained firm. Some atheist children have been asked to leave after years in Scouting when it was revealed that they did not believe in God.

Meet Robert Ingersoll, America’s Most Famous Forgotten Atheist

Print shows Robert G. Ingersoll speaking from a stage in an auditorium. Photo courtesy RNS/Library of Congress.

Meet Robert Ingersoll, the most famous American atheist you’ve probably never heard of.

A self-educated attorney and atheist, Ingersoll was a Victorian-era rock star who could pack theaters from Texas to New York with people who came from hundreds of miles around to hear “The Great Agnostic” lecture against religion.

He was courted by politicians, his likeness was carved in stone, and when he died in 1899, newspapers around the country carried his obituary. A Civil War veteran, he was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Does Pope Francis Endorse Heresy? No, But He Does Raise Questions

RNS photo courtesy Graphic News.
RNS photo courtesy Graphic News.

Is Pope Francis endorsing heresy?

It might look that way from the eye-catching headlines this week that made it appear everyone was bound for heaven — “even atheists!” — thanks to Jesus’ death on the cross.

The passage that prompted the reports came from Francis’ brief homily at the informal morning Mass that he celebrates in the chapel at the Vatican guesthouse.

Speaking on Wednesday, Francis said that as human beings created in the image of God, everyone has a “duty to do good.”

“The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists,” he said, answering his own query. “Everyone! And this blood makes us children of God of the first class! We are created children in the likeness of God and the blood of Christ has redeemed us all!”

Cue the jaw dropping and head scratching. Atheists were pleasantly surprised, conservative Catholics were dazed and confused, and the pope’s comments raced around the Internet; for a while they were the second-most shared piece on Reddit.

So was Francis preaching a form of “universalism?" That is the unorthodox teaching that says, essentially, that all faiths are equal and all are going to heaven, especially if you are nice to people here on earth. It’s also a heresy that Francis’ predecessor, Benedict XVI, spent a career quashing every time he thought he thought he spied a hint of it in some theologian’s writings.

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