Remember the New Atheists? Of course you do. How could you forget the gleefully provocative insults packed into Sam Harris' The End of Faith, Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, and Christopher Hitchens' God is Not Great? Starting in 2004, these books bounded up the bestseller lists in quick succession, and together they spawned a million articles, reviews, and blog posts about faith and its supposedly undeniable follies. The New Atheist message, without exception, was that religion is utter nonsense and unwaveringly, unambivalently bad for us in all forms, in all times, in all places.
There was just one problem: The faith that the New Atheists set out to mock, refute, and dispel was invariably the least impressive, least informed, least sophisticated, most easily dismissed form of the world's great religious traditions. If faith for you is believing in the most scripturally literalistic, doctrinally fundamentalist, ahistorical, credulous, theologically illiterate variant of devotion, well, then Harris-Dawkins-Hitchens probably rocked your world. But as any reader with even a cursory religious education discovered by about page 3 of any of their books, the not-great God of the New Atheists was nothing more than a big old Straw Man in the Sky.
Now, more than a decade later, the New Atheists look played out. Harris devotes his time to writing books about the virtues of self-erasure via meditation and psychedelic drugs. Dawkins has become a caricature of himself freely mocked even by his allies. Hitchens faced cancer with stoic resolve and died without joining any faith (much to the disappointment of the many Christians who took to praying for his conversion). Today, the cultural conversation surrounding faith and its faults has evolved in a more nuanced direction, with less strident and more adequately informed defenders and critics contributing to the debate.
Apparently, no one bothered to tell Daniel Dennett, the Tufts University philosopher who has long had the distinction of serving as the dunce in the New Atheist's classroom of theological underachievers. Dennett's contribution to their first volley of books (Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon) distinguished itself by its complete contempt for and prideful ignorance about its ostensible subject. It was an altogether shameful performance.
And now Dennett is back with an encore performance in The Wall Street Journal titled "Why the Future of Religion Is Bleak." America's atheists really do need to demand better representation than this.
When the title of your op-ed proclaims that it will answer why something is a certain way, you'd better provide solid proof. What is Dennett's evidence that religion is about to go the way of the buggy whip? A new Pew Research Center study predicts that by 2050 one out of four Americans will be "religiously unaffiliated" (up from one in six today).
What Dennett doesn't mention is that the Pew study also predicts that 66.4 percent of the country will call themselves Christians in 2050 — down from 78.3 percent in 2010. That's a noteworthy drop. But it still has Christians, along with smaller religious groups (which make up 8.1 percent of the total), amounting to roughly three-quarters of the U.S. population.
Three quarters of the country amounts to a "bleak" future for religion?
But Dennett's failure to substantiate the core contention of his essay is just one of the op-ed's many faults.
Another is Dennett's failure to note that the "religiously unaffiliated" aren't necessarily a-religious or anti-religious. They are people who don't belong to or consider themselves members of a specific church, congregation, denomination, or religious institution. Of that group, a Pew poll from 2012 found that only 2.4 percent are atheists and 3.3 percent are agnostic. That's a grand total of 5.7 percent of the U.S. population, with the rest of the unaffiliated probably affirming a range of vaguely spiritual and religious views — all of which would probably give Dennett a bad case of the hives.
The point: Even if the unaffiliated population grows to 25 percent by 2050, a large portion of that group will still be confusedly religious in some way, and certainly not Dennett-style atheists.
The biggest problem of all with Dennett's op-ed is the fact that it purports to use a new Pew poll to make a claim about the coming decline of "religion" as such, and yet that very poll directly contradicts the claim. Yes, the ranks of the religiously unaffiliated are growing modestly in the United States (and France). But the poll also includes the following top-line prediction about the religious profile of the planet as a whole in 2050: "Atheists, agnostics, and other people who do not affiliate with any religion…will make up a declining share of the world's total population."
That's right: The "bleak" future of religion likely includes the proportional decline of the religiously unaffiliated relative to the religious, with the number of unaffiliated growing slightly (from 1.13 billion to 1.23 billion), but their share of the global population falling from 16.4 percent to 13.2 percent. That decline will largely be the result of substantial growth in the number of Christians (from 2.17 billion to 2.92 billion) and Muslims (from 1.6 billion to 2.76 billion).
If that's a decline in religion, what would a boom look like?
Now, it's possible that Dennett would respond by attributing much of the relative growth of religion and relative decline of the unaffiliated to fertility rates. Muslims have an average of 3.1 children per woman, while Christians have 2.7. That contrasts with 1.7 for the unaffiliated, a rate significantly below replacement level. If only the religious would restrain their breeding, Dennett might say, education and the technological proliferation of information would work their wonders and produce a global decline in faith. But as it is, every person who sees the light ends up being replaced by two (or more) who are raised to believe in the old superstitions. The atheistic truth just can't keep up.
If fertility levels were held constant, no higher or lower than replacement level across all groups, it's certainly possible that the solvent of scientific skepticism would lead to slow relative growth among the unaffiliated and slow relative decline among the religious. But viewing it that way is, of course, hopelessly, comically hypothetical. Yes, beliefs matter. But religion, faith, God — especially for monotheistic Jews, Christians, and Muslims — involve far more than philosophically refutable propositions about the world. They're holistic ways of life that (among other things) encourage billions of people to procreate at significantly higher rates than members of other traditions — and at far higher rates than the secular, who, demographically speaking, are slowly dying out, their proselytizing successes barely compensating for millions of decisions not to have (or to have fewer) children.
In this sense, too, the future of religion is very far from "bleak" — and the future of godlessness very far from certain.
Especially if atheists find no better champions than the likes of Daniel Dennett.