Atheism is on the rise. Richard Dawkins’ books are frequent bestsellers and have popularized the belief that religious creation narratives are incompatible with the theory of evolution. In Dawkins’ wake, a whole host of professional atheists has launched frequent attacks on religious believers and has introduced atheism as a world-view into the public discourse throughout much of the world.
Those who thought that freemasonry, Darwinism and fervent criticism of the Church were a thing of the 19th century – and had been replaced by a more relaxed approach to questions of faith – have been proven wrong. Today’s atheism is more combative than before and hard to ignore.
History teaches us that atheism is largely a reactive phenomenon. In the 18th century, the first comprehensive atheist arguments emerged in Europe as a response to the dominant position of the Catholic Church and its political power. Writers like La Mettrie, Voltaire, Diderot and d’Holbach penned their books in opposition to ecclesiastical fraud and power-grabbing. Voltaire called the Catholic Church “nefarious” and demanded its destruction. After the Enlightenment, atheism remained strong in countries where the Church had secured a privileged political, legal, and financial position: France, Italy, and Spain.
A resurgence of religion – and of atheism
The resurgence of atheism today can be seen as a reaction to the proclaimed “resurgence of religion”. Atheists have started to mobilize, they have formed associations and pushed into public discourses because religion has re-gained prominence after the end of the Cold War. Many political, social, and cultural debates are now described as having religious roots. Often, this is taken to mean that religion should be opposed altogether.
We should not make the mistake of over-estimating the pervasiveness of atheist thinking. In Germany (which isn’t know to be an especially religious country), only ten percent don’t believe in any higher power. Almost 25 percent call themselves agnostic: They don’t know whether God exists or aren’t sure. If the question is re-phrased to inquire about an explicit disbelief in God, only five percent respond affirmatively. This isn’t surprising: Like the “resurgence of religion”, the “surge of atheism” has been hyped by the media. It’s less pervasive than you might think.
Church membership, church attendance rates, and religious self-identifications have been on the decline for decades. And even those who continue to attend church irregularly often place less importance on religion than previous generations. But the weak commitment to organized religion in Europe also translates into a weak commitment to atheist ideas. Fervent commitments to religious fundamentalism or combative atheism remain the exception.
Religion is often criticized for being intolerant, fanatical, and violent – but the same criticism can also be leveled against combative atheism. Indeed, the most vocal atheists always seem a bit antiquated and reminiscent of 19th century critics. Intolerant fanatics aren’t in high demand, regardless of whether their arguments are religiously motivated or rooted in atheism. The values of tolerance and acceptance of alternative cultures and beliefs are held in higher regard today than they were in the past.
We don’t need to rid the world of religion, and we don’t need to rid the world of atheism. Political religions have wreaked great havok in the 20th century under the name of fascism, nationalism, and communism. Let’s hope that their age has passed. We don’t need another ideology that proclaims to explain and cleanse the world, regardless of its guise. The European experience of totalitarianism remains fresh in our collective memory. Atheism’s future lies in its willingness to embrace pluralism and to respect the cultural contributions of religious beliefs.