A POINT OF VIEW
By Tim Egan
The US may be one of the most religious countries in the West but is it undergoing a period of doubt.
The pledge of allegiance says 'One nation under God'
A few days ago, I attended a memorial service for a friend who died far too young, of throat cancer. The service was held at a history museum, and it was packed - standing room only.
What was curious, initially, was the lack of any reference to religion. My friend had left a final set of instructions: he wanted to be remembered first as a husband to his wife of more than 20 years, and second as a citizen of his city, and third as a lover of history.
During the tributes, there were many references to how the past can inform our decisions in the present. There were nods to reason and friendship and love.
The closest anyone came to mentioning God or spirituality was when someone told the widow, as an aside, that you often visit the deceased through dreams - when they can appear at no particular prompting.
Even if the formal religion was absent, the habit of expressing a hope for spiritual optimism remains. The secular funeral is still somewhat of a novelty, at least to me.
But it may be something that we see more and more of in the future - particularly on the West Coast, the most unchurched part of the United States.
It may be daring to say it but America seems to be experiencing an atheist moment. Although "In God We Trust" was declared the national motto by an act of Congress more than 50 years ago and has been stamped on the currency for longer than that, some considerable doubt has developed of late.
If you look at the bestseller list over the last year, you'll find a number of books on atheism - to the surprise of the publishing industry.
God has always moved in not-so-mysterious ways when it comes to the literary world. He can sell books, especially ones that foretell an apocalyptic ending just around the corner.
The so-called Left Behind books, a series of novels envisioning the Rapture, when the good are separated from the evil in a fiery judgment day, sell in the millions. They are not for the faint of faith.
Another genre, self-help books that invoke God for the sake of making money, losing weight or finding a date, have a permanent home on the bestseller list. God is kept very busy with this segment of the market.
But until this year, there was thought to be little support - or audience - for tomes by the anti-religious. Several books changed that.
On the academic side, we have God: The Failed Hypothesis by Victor Stenger and Nothing: Something to Believe In by Nica Lalli.
The three most popular books are God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by the newly-Americanized Christopher Hitchens, The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins and Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris.
These bestsellers are not cursory academic surveys; they are full-bore polemics against religion, challenging the very idea of God.
Hitchens, the pied piper of non-believers
Hitchens, with his quick wit and his quiver of quotes from long-dead British luminaries which he carries over from his schoolboy days in England, seems to be having the most fun and the most effect.
You could call him the Pied Piper of non-believers. He makes it a point to debate with a cleric in every city he visits, and is a frequent guest on conservative and religious radio stations.
The premise of his book is that while religion may have served people well in the age of ignorance, now that science can explain the world there is no reason to attribute the sun, the moon and forces like gravity to higher beings.
As he says, the nine-year-old knows more about the natural world now than the leading scholars of a thousand years ago. What has rankled his critics most is his suggestion that religion is usually a force for bad.
Believers point out that people of faith have been at the forefront of significant improvements in human rights and in caring for fellow humans over centuries - everything from abolition of slavery to the civil rights movement in this country, to church-led efforts to reduce starvation and disease in less-developed countries.
More than anything, people without faith hate the description of them as empty or soulless
I ran into Hitchens not long ago at a book festival where he was jousting away and getting rich in the process. He looked just as the New York Times Book Review had described him: "A village atheist standing in the square trying to pick arguments with the good citizens on their way to church."
I asked Hitchens why he thought his book had such a sudden rise to the top of the bestseller charts when polls show that - at most - barely one-half-of-one-percent of Americans call themselves atheists.
He said that the polls were misleading. There is a large and fast-growing segment of the population that is lapsed or well onto its way to atheism but is afraid to admit it.
"If you're a lapsed Catholic," Hitchens told me. "You're part of a very large and fast-growing group."
Many of those people, of course, might be agnostic rather than atheist?
Revulsion at zealots
More than anything, people without faith hate the description of them as empty or soulless. They have long been singled out for a special kind of hell.
The constitution of the state of Texas, for example, allows discrimination against atheists in employment or jury duty - provisions that have been nullified by federal laws.
And even my mother used to lower her voice in the kind of whisper reserved for people with terminal brain cancer when she described a neighbour as.... an atheist.
Non-believers say they have also been aided by the revulsion of fair-minded Americans to the religious zealotry behind the September 11 attacks and the subsequent violence on behalf of radical Islam.
The latest round of atheism books point to countless wars, slaughters and massacres done in the name of My God is Better than Your God. The 9/11 attacks got people thinking about what sort of God could be summoned for such awfulness.
Social critics, dating to at least de Tocqueville and Dickens, have always marvelled at the pure number of passionately religious people in this country. Indeed, no Western democracy has so many devout churchgoers, by percentage, as the US.
Obama has talked about his faith
On the face of it, the numbers do seem to indicate that the United States is a Christian nation, as politicians often say.
The latest surveys by the Pew Centre show that 76% of the population - upwards of 230 million people - call themselves Christians. Jews make up 1.3% and Muslims are under one per cent - though fast-growing.
Atheists are near the bottom. There are seven times as many atheists in Europe as the United States, by percentage.
But the second largest group, categorized by belief, are those who call themselves secular or non-religious. They make up 13 percent of the population.
It is this group that has perhaps been afraid to call themselves atheists, for fear of shunning or other censure. They could be largely undecided or they could be searching or they could believe, as some friends say with a wink, in the Church of the Outdoors, or the Church of Baseball. They are also the people buying these books.
But while atheism may have made its way into the public discourse, it remains strictly verboten in our politics. Even though a majority of people say in surveys that a person can still be a good American without Christian values, to be an atheist and run for high office is to wear the scarlet A.
Among the presidential aspirants, half the Republican candidates do not believe in evolution, a view bounded in their religious faith and the imperatives of running in a primary heavily dominated by evangelicals.
Democrats 'more open'
One contender, Senator John McCain of Arizona, made headlines this month when he said the American founders meant to establish the United States as a Christian nation.
In truth, the constitution expressly prohibits establishment of a state religion. The founders were trying to avoid the entanglements of church with state. And perhaps the best known founder, Thomas Jefferson himself, may have been an atheist, in the view of many scholars.
No matter. The Democrats, scorned by a huge sector of the electorate for their perceived secularism, have become more open about faith this time around. Both Hillary Clinton, and Senator Barack Obama frequently mention God on the campaign trail.
But they also put some distance between themselves and the religious. Senator Clinton said last week that if she were president she would shield science and research into such things as stem cells from religion and politics.
The United States may never be as secular as Europe. If you sample even a small share of the reaction, on blogs or Christian talk radio, to these new atheist books, you sense how strongly people feel about their faith. It's not passive or abstract.
But, perhaps we have arrived at a moment where doubt is having its day - and for a time, atheists are coming out of hiding.
Below is a selection of your comments:
Hopefully this is the beginning of a world-wide movement where if a person has a religion he sees it as a personal approach to God/Goddess/Gods as opposed to a philosophy which much be imposed upon others.
Paolo, St Albans
I have long admired Europeans for their relaxed approach to religion, which sometimes ranges from the laid-back to the completely apathetic. While I myself am a devout Episcopalian, I've always thought that faith has played far too important and unnecessary of a role in public American life. I would be grateful of a societal movement that casts faith aside as such a major criterion for determining whether someone is 'a good person' or not.
Eric Campbell, Greensboro, NC, USA
Speaking as a lifelong (American) agnostic I find Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins the equivalent to how many Christians must view the likes of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell - they may be nominally on my side but their rhetoric is so patronising and repellent I often wish they weren't.
John R, London
I resent having to be pigeonholed into any kind of belief system - why should I have to choose between Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Atheism? I'm just me, I don't have a part of my being that needs to have a label to announce what I believe in, even if it's nothing. Come on you 'atheists', preaching to the faithful about how much better atheism is, is just making you as bad as them. Ignore the poor medieval moon woofers and get on with your own lives free from guilt, greedy evangelicals, suicidal fundamentalists, and then a bit more guilt.
Richard, Staffordshire, England
Watch any BBC programme about geology or natural history, from Coast to The Living Planet, and sooner rather than later the presenter will mention events of millions of years ago, or even the last Ice Age of 10,000 years ago, as a given fact. There is no debate in the minds of presenters or viewers. Do they have such programmes in the US, or do they gloss over the timescale of geological events (it all happened in 4004BC)? I fondly imagine the average Republican politician or supporter watching (to UK eyes, completely uncontroversial) presenters like Nicholas Crane or Alan Titchmarsh and going "Lies!" "Untrue!" every couple of minutes.
Ken Strong, Hornchurch, Essex
As always, "your mileage may vary..." I suppose it's just possible to have a look around America at the moment and at least suggest that this is a "period of doubt." But only in a very relative, hair-splitting, sense. Even in making this suggestion, the author can't get away from the fact that fervent and frequent references to faith in god abound in American politics as much now as ever. I'm pretty certain that most Americans would sooner vote for a Catholic, Muslim, Scientologist, Witch Doctor or even a Satanist than for an atheist. When (and if) that ever changes, then we can talk about a "moment of doubt."
MJ Kuhns, Elyria, Ohio, U.S.A.
In a world where religion causes more hurt, division and war than any other cause, this gives me hope.
Steve, London, UK
The vast majority of my friends that claim to be atheist, in my opinion, are not "true" atheists. As soon as we talk religion and they make their "view" known, they go into a discussion on why they don't believe in God or Jesus. Nine times out of ten the reasons are because of people who call themselves Christians. Basically their opinion on God is based upon his ambassadors. Therefore they say if God was real, "his" people would be representing God better. Therefore since Christians are not behaving in the manner their religious beliefs require them to, God does not exist. However very seldom do my non-religious friends ever explore, in an honest fashion, if God truly does exist. Their atheism is a surface religion. They haven't explored their belief in depth. Just like many of my religious friends.
Paul, Peachtree City, Georgia USA