Richard Dawkins at the 34th American Atheists Conference in Minneapolis in March 2008. Photo courtesy of Mike Cornwell via Wikimedia Commons.
Richard Dawkins at the 34th American Atheists Conference in Minneapolis in March 2008. Photo courtesy of Mike Cornwell via Wikimedia Commons.

Are Richard Dawkins and Bill Maher responsible for the rise of the 'nones'?

Richard Dawkins at the 34th American Atheists Conference in Minneapolis in March 2008. Photo courtesy of Mike Cornwell via Wikimedia Commons.

Richard Dawkins at the 34th American Atheists Conference in Minneapolis in March 2008. Photo courtesy of Mike Cornwell via Wikimedia Commons.

The number of American “nones”—people who don't claim a religious affiliation—has grown significantly in recent years. Why?

Salon recently published an excerpt of sociologist Phil Zuckerman's new book about the lives of the religiously unaffiliated, and the headline they gave it—“We’re putting an end to religion: Richard Dawkins, Bill Maher and the exploding new American secularism”—suggests that the loudest voices in atheism may be responsible for this growth.

But reading the excerpt, Zuckerman seems to suggest other factors like the politicized religious right, high profile Catholic Church scandals, increasing numbers of women in the workforce, growing acceptance of queer people, and widespread Internet access.

In fact, this is the only time Zuckerman’s excerpt actually mentions Dawkins or Maher:

[The work of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Bill Maher, and others] have had some impact on American culture… But the larger reality is that for the many millions of Americans who have joined the ranks of the nonreligious, the causes are most likely to be political and sociological in nature.

Still, the idea that the so-called “New Atheist” bestsellers are primarily or largely responsible for the rise of the “nones” is a common refrain among some atheists. So I reached out to Zuckerman, author of several books on secularism (including "Living the Secular Life") and founder of Pitzer College’s first-of-it-kind Secular Studies program. Below, he tells me about the rise of the “nones” and how it will impact religion, atheism, and American culture.

CS: Why do you think some people seem to be think a more aggressive approach to atheist activism is primarily responsible for the growing number of nonreligious Americans?

Phil Zuckerman: That is hard to say. In fact, I’d go a step further: [tweetable]It is almost impossible to know if aggressive mocking of religion actually does any good, or has much of a societal impact.[/tweetable] There are simply too many variables as play to really know.

Personally, I agree that absurdities deserve to be mocked—and I am all for deriding and aggressively challenging the more heinous, obnoxious, dangerous, or inane forms of religion out there in the world. I have noticed that the more aggressive atheistic books get more attention than the more open-hearted or kinder books. And I have noticed that my more snarky or angry blogs get more views and comments than my more gentle or non-combative ones. Being polemical, strong-toned, or harsh seems to get people more interested. But whether or not this directly helps the growth of secularism is an open question.

CS: Can you say more about the causes you identify in your excerpt? What can we gain by developing a greater understanding of the different reasons more and more Americans say they aren't religious?

PZ: The backlash against the Religious Right, for example, is undeniable. And it is warranted. Shame on all the conservative Christians out there who claim to love Jesus and yet push a political agenda that is so counter to what Jesus presumably taught and preached. Jesus was about peace and helping the poor. The Religious Right in this country is all about war and helping the rich. So it is good to see a lot of Americans rejecting that.

Ultimately, we can never say 100 percent for sure what is causing secularization; multiple factors, no doubt.[tweetable]Just as there are many reasons that people are religious, so too are there many reasons that people are secular.[/tweetable] The more we understand about the different reasons that cause people to live their lives without religion, the more clear and insightful will our grasp of the human condition be.

CS: How will the growing number of “nones” impact the American religious landscape?

What I expect to see happening is more and more Americans accepting atheism and agnosticism as legitimate orientations. [tweetable]More "nones" will mean greater political power—but also an easier time around the Thanksgiving dinner table.[/tweetable]

CS: What are some of the most important things nontheists can do right now to support the growing number of nonreligious Americans? What should we prioritize?

PZ: [tweetable]In my opinion, the best thing atheists can do right now is to make the world a better place.[/tweetable] That means fighting inequality, racism, sexism, homophobia, religious fundamentalism, and global warming. When life is hard—when people face suffering—religion tends to be strong; it offers comfort in the face of life’s troubles. But when life is more manageable and secure, people can find meaning and purpose in the here and now.

Phil Zuckerman, photo by Flora Elliott Zuckerman.

Phil Zuckerman, photo by Flora Elliott Zuckerman.

We also need to bring in more voices into the secular tent: more people of color, more people from differing political viewpoints, more families with children. But we have been making progress: Twenty years ago, if you wanted to find a community of secular humanists, it wasn’t always so easy, especially if you weren’t in a big city. Or didn’t just want to hang out in a room with ten whites guys in Members Only jackets and glasses with ugly frames. Today, the diversity of a plethora of options for finding secular community is truly amazing.

Finally, we need to help our secular brothers and sisters in regions of the world where being secular isn’t so easy. They desperately need our support.

CS: It’s great that communities for nontheists are on the rise. But what about the religiously unaffiliated individuals who are still, in some meaningful sense, believers?

PZ: If someone is a religious believer, but lacks a religious affiliation, then that is clearly by choice and not by circumstance. There are so many options out there if one wants to be religiously affiliated: congregations of every shade, type, hue, persuasion, orientation, style. But not everyone wants to be affiliated. That’s okay. [tweetable]For some people, a solitary walk on the beach is far more of a meaningful religious experience than any religious gathering.[/tweetable]

CS: What can people of faith learn from your book?

PZ: That to be godless is not to be immoral, that to be secular is not to be un-American, that the least religious societies on earth today have not descended into chaotic anarchy, and that secularism is a noble and highly principled orientation to life that should not be feared or fought, but rather, understood and accepted.[tweetable]If your sibling, spouse, child, neighbor, or co-worker is nonreligious, don’t pity them or feel threatened by them.[/tweetable] Rather, get to know them. You’ll be surprised by how principled and sound their lifestance is.