Wednesday, 22 June 2011

The Differences Between American and British Atheism

New Atheism as an American Phenomenon

It has for a long time been my suspicion that New Atheism's crude characature of religion can be attributed to the American context in which it flowered. Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett are themselves American; Christopher Hitchens is British but has been based in the USA since the early eighties; and Richard Dawkins, although based in Britain, spends most of his time railing against creationists - who are a much more significant cultural and political force in America than they are in Britain.

In this specific American context, faced with a vocal anti-scientific, biblical-literalist enemy in what is otherwise one of the most advanced nations on Earth, I can sympathise with the New Atheists and their analysis of what religion means; I can just see that they have been mistaken in extrapolating this to religion in general. I suspect that for liberal Americans, having read The God Delusion is more about making a statement of anti-fundamentalism and progressive politics than it is about carefully reading and agreeing with Dawkins's dubious claims about the impact of religion in general throughout history.

Atheism as a Statement of Identity

I have been searching on Twitter in recent days for fellow atheists with whom I hope to engage in discussion - my PhD idea is intended to be an analysis of New Atheism and I would like to get a sense of what it means to individuals to label themselves as atheists. As the New Atheists generate a lot of media coverage in Britain, I didn't expect the majority of self-declared atheists to be American, and for there to apparently be relatively few Brits who make atheism a central part of their identity. This is not to suggest there are few British atheists; it just seems that atheism is relatively marginal as a component of identity here.

Questions for Atheists

So, as a Brit to my American readers - what does atheism mean to you? Is it just a statement of your (non-) beliefs? Is it an important component of your wider political views? Are there any self-declared Republican atheists? And what does atheism mean in terms of your close relationships: are you part of atheist groups, or does your non-belief separate you from any religious friends and family? And aside from the general argument that there is no evidence for God, what do you think of what are, to me, highly dubious claims like 'religion is the cause of all human conflict'?

Any thoughts and comments - from Brits and Americans - would be much appreciated!


  1. I think because america works in the realm of identity politics that it's become an us vs. them situation. where you have to necessarily identify yourself as atheist because if you don't no one listens.

    However, I also think it has something to do with news casters and pundits saying that america is a christian nation and talking about how damn important it is to be a religious person in america. That it's important to put out there that yes I am an American and despite what the pledge of allegiance might say you don't have to believe in god to be a real american.

  2. PART 1/2

    Firstly, I do believe you have a valid point, in that 'new atheism' (a term I don't care for--more on that later) in the states is somewhat more outspoken and strident in the US than in the UK, and for the reasons you describe. Non-theists are forced to be more vocal in the States because we are under a greater assault for their non-belief than our counterparts in the UK. Religious fervor has experienced a tremendous resurgence in recent years in the US, & the rise of 'new atheism' in the US is a response to that.

    As to the term 'new atheism,' and what atheism means to me, I agree with Sam Harris: 'atheism' is a word that shouldn't need to exist. We shouldn't have to have a word to describe the lack of belief in a supreme being any more than we'd have a word describing non-belief in astrology or the non-belief that Elvis is alive. In terms of the role of atheism in my life, I don't consider it central to my life, but it is more prominent and present in my thinking and my worldview precisely *because* of the danger that religious belief presents to peace and freedom as it is manifested in the 21st century (and how incompatible the apocalyptic nature of the three Abrahamic religions are with the survival of humanity, given 21st-century technology & weaponry).

    My lack of belief in a supreme being would occupy the same tiny, dusty, neglected corner of my mind as my lack of belief in faeries, unicorns, and Elvis being alive, were it not for the significant influence that religious belief has on some of our elected officials--and thus, on public policy.

    You asked if there were any atheist Republicans. Yes, there are. They are few and far between (at least publicly--I suspect their numbers are greater in private), but they definitely exist. I was one. I identify as Libertarian now, but I am still very much on the conservative end of the spectrum. I espouse most 'conservative values' as they relate to strong defense, fiscal responsibility, individual freedom & self-reliance.

    The Republican party used to be the party of the individual, the party that wanted to keep government out of the way of "the little guy" to the greatest degree possible. Just as the Democratic party has been hijacked by extremists on the left, the Republican party has been hijacked by extremists on the religious right. I firmly believe that the religiously-motivated agenda of social conservatives, which motivates them to crusade against abortion, gay marriage, and a host of other *entirely* personal and private issues, is directly contrary to the central ideal of conservatism--empowering the individual. You can't rail against government intrusion in matters of health care, business regulation, states' rights, and other issues of individual liberty on one hand, while advocating government intrusion into the most private matters of all, like what you do with your body or with whom you have sex. This is a schizophrenic worldview, one that is a constant source of internal friction within the political right in the US, and one that can be entirely lain at the feet of religious belief.

  3. PART 2/2

    As far as the assertion that religion or religious belief is the cause of ALL violence and strife in the world, I flatly reject that notion as ludicrous, as would the atheists I know. I have never asserted that, and I do not recall that Dr. Dawkins has ever made that assertion either. Religion is not responsible for ALL war, violence, etc, but it is responsible for quite an extraordinary amount, and that is, in my view, undeniable. It is, of course, not ALL religious views that have been responsible for the evils of the world, either.

    Divorced from the political considerations with which religious belief and the lack thereof have become so intertwined, I simply believe that religious belief is wholly unnecessary to human life. Religion of any stripe is an attempt to explain the unknown, and make order of the mysterious. We have a tool for that now--it's called science. We are far from unraveling all the mysteries of the universe, but science has, in a relatively short time, given us a far greater and far more reliable knowledge of ourselves and our world than religion ever did. Science offers us a concrete methodology for testing our assertions about the world. Religion offers only the assertions. Even in areas where it doesn't threaten the security of the world, belief in the supernatural is superfluous, restricts our search for REAL answers, and curbs our growth as a species.

    In terms of how it has affected me personally, it has not alienated me from family, but I am extremely quiet about it in my work life, as I work for people who are enthusiastically Christian, and my atheism would almost certainly put me at odds with them. I have joined some atheist groups in my newly-adopted hometown, but that is more for social interaction as any kind of activism.

    I hope that I have answered your questions, and will be happy to clarify.

  4. I feel the need to clear up some basic misconceptions you and many others have about atheism, at least in America. I’m not an atheist because I follow a specific person’s teachings, or because of any particular literature. In fact, I have never read a book or attended a lecture on the subject. With the exception of twitter friends, I’ve never kept track of who else is an atheist. I’m not a liberal and rarely agree with liberals/progressives/socialists on anything. I am in fact a ‘self-declared Republican’ as you put it. More specifically, I am a self-declared conservative-libertarian who votes Republican. I have always been atheist. I have always voted Republican. The two have nothing to do with each other. There has never been a time I thought God was real. I have never practiced a religion of any kind. This goes back to childhood. I also have never belonged to any atheist organization. For me, being atheist is as much a part of me as gender, skin color, being American, etc. It’s who I’ve always been. I believe in science and the provable. I’ve never been gullible or prone to believing fairy tales. God is just a complex fairy tale, invented my men who couldn’t explain why the sun set at night and the sky lit up with lightning and the earth shook from quakes. Science has explained all the things gods were created for. IMO, the myth persists as a vehicle to control the behavior of the masses. As for claims like 'religion is the cause of all human conflict', it certainly has caused a lot of it, but not all. Happy to answer further questions if you like. MikeyDog