Atheism changes over time and is a reaction to the dominant religious beliefs of the time. Today's atheism is, in part, a reaction to the political activism of conservative Christians, or the "Christian Right." This is one of the conclusions found in a new study of American atheists, There is No God: Atheists in America, by University of North Texas sociologists David A. Williamson and George Yancey .
For their research, Williamson, associate professor of sociology, and Yancey, professor of sociology, used an online survey, with open-ended questions, of 1,451 atheists and conducted face-to-face interviews with 51 atheists from two separate regions of the country.
In an interview with The Christian Post, Yancey spoke about what motivated him to write the book, why he thinks it is important to study atheists, and whether atheists have a moral system.
The following is an edited transcript of that interview:
CP: First, let us talk about who you are studying. You're not studying those who are simply hostile or indifferent to religion. You're not studying those who simply, when asked if there is a God answer "no." You're only studying those who identify themselves as an atheist. Why study only self-identified atheists?
Yancey: We talk about the growing "none" population and say, those are people who don't believe in God, whereas, there's a lot a reasons why people answer "none of the above" when it comes to religion. There still is a degree of stigma to being an atheist. It has gone down less, but it's still there. And so, someone who says, "I am an atheist," they are really making a declaration of their beliefs. Not that they just passively don't believe in God. They clearly have an identity, to some degree, in their atheism. So we were curious about some of the things we saw in some of our other research on individuals who identify themselves as atheists.
We think that, in some ways, atheists may be a leading edge of that "none" group, although there is no guarantee that is the case. Nonetheless, they are a very important part of that "none" group.
One of the things that really jumped out at us when we studied progressive activists (of course our sample is not random so we're not saying that is true across the country), we found that 61 percent of our respondents self-identified as atheists, compared to anywhere from one to four percent of the country who claim to be atheists. I do think that atheists have something unique to say. I think they're a very important part of that "none" subgroup and their influence says something.
What also caught our attention was the literature of the new atheists – [Christopher] Hitchens, [Sam] Harris, [Richard] Dawkins. That's been very influential. If nothing else, it has galvanized a certain culture that I thought was worth doing some research in.
CP: You find that atheists are mostly highly educated, wealthy, old, white, men, and that was consistent with some random samples as well.
Yancey: Yeah. The only thing that might not be as consistent is a couple of studies suggest that atheists may not be quite as wealthy as some other studies did. But the other things, they tend to be men, educated, older. Although, there is some indication of some younger atheists coming up.
CP: So demographically, they look, more or less, like the U.S. Senate.
Yancey: [Laughs] I hadn't thought about it that way, but, yeah, that's a good way of looking at it.
CP: You're basically talking about a privileged group – wealthy, old, white guys. You say it makes sense that atheists would come from a privileged group. Explain.
Yancey: If you are a person with social status and power, and you want to do things the way you see it, and then there's religion out there that says, no, this is the way it should be done, that's going to make you less willing to support or accept that sort of religion. Something we write about in the book is this notion of control. If you have social status and others who don't tend to see things the way you do because they have religion and follow that, then it will tend to make you more antagonistic toward religion than you would normally be.
CP: You point out that, like religion, atheism changes over time and modern atheism is a response to modern events, such as the Christian Right political movement. How has the Christian Right shaped atheism?
Yancey: Historically, atheism reacts against the religion of its day. Even though not all Christians are part of the Christian Right, they tend to be the most vocal Christians in this day and age.
This probably contributes to why atheists tend to be more politically progressive. They are reacting against the vision of Christians as being conservative politically. Given what we know about history, atheists are going to tend to be the opposite. In that way, the Christian Right has helped shape atheists.
CP: You compared atheists from the South with atheists from the Midwest and found that those from the South were less fearful and more tolerant of the Christian Right.
Yancey: A little bit.
CP: Why the difference between atheists in the South and atheists in the Midwest?
Yancey: I think it probably comes down to contact. When you have contact with people, maybe you disagree with them, maybe you don't like what they have to say, but you tend to humanize them a little more.
Most of the people we interviewed grew up in households that were, if not atheists, were nominally religious. They didn't grow up around a lot of people who were highly religious, with some exceptions. Those in the South are around religion all the time, so they may be atheists but they're a little less hostile.
CP: There are some libertarian atheists who follow the philosophy of Ayn Rand. From your chapter on the political views of atheists, I take it you didn't find many of them.
Yancey: We didn't ask specifically about that, so I can't say for sure we didn't interview any libertarian atheists, but nearly all the atheists we interviewed, when we talked about politics it wasn't merely on the cultural issues, they were progressive when it came to issues of the environment, government, taxes, that sort of stuff.
I have no doubt that those libertarian atheists are out there, maybe our sample design didn't allow us to capture them. Maybe they aren't connected to the organizations I was working with.
My suspicion is, because atheism is a reaction to the Christian Right, they're going to be smaller in numbers. There are times in history when Christianity was quite progressive when it came to economic issues – the whole notion of social justice and things of this nature. It seems to me that you would have more libertarian atheists at times like that.
CP: Besides reacting to the Christian Right, are there any other reasons you found that atheists are more comfortable on the left side of the political spectrum?
Yancey: That's an interesting question. We didn't ask them whether they were first atheist then became progressive or were first progressive then became atheists. So I'm not sure the directionality of it. I think it's a question that needs further study.
CP: You found that a lot of atheists believe that religious adherents should not proselytize. Do they proselytize? In other words, do they think it is important to convince others of atheism?
Yancey: Yes and no. They don't proselytize in the way that Christians tend to proselytize. Atheists tend to believe that people are religious because they are socialized to be that way. Therefore, while atheists aren't going door to door to convince people of atheism, they do talk about making sure that our school systems socialize kids correctly and that kids are socialized so that they will learn the facts in the way that atheists tend to see the facts. They enunciate a perspective that, if that happens, you're going to see a lot less religion.
A lot of atheists do believe that religion will decrease over time because people are going to be given the truth in the way that they are educated and socialized. So that is how atheists see a spread of an anti-theist or non-theist perspective is through institutions rather than a one-on-one "witnessing," as Christians would call it.
CP: You found that atheists often expressed that they strongly value open-mindedness, yet they were not very open-minded to the notion that they could be wrong about the existence of God. Were they aware of this contradiction or oblivious to it?
Yancey: We didn't really probe that. I think it's fascinating and maybe we should've probed that.
It doesn't make atheists different from other individuals. A lot of us have contradictions. We say one thing and five minutes later we're saying something totally different.
My suspicion is that they don't see it as a contradiction. In their minds, there is so much evidence that there is not a God that that is just the way it is.
CP: Some critics of atheism argue that atheists are immoral or have a weak sense of morality. What did you find?
Yancey: Atheists have a different sense of morality than a traditional Christian. But whenever you talk about what people ought to do, then you are enunciating morality.
Atheists believe that people should be rational, that people should do critical thinking, that people should keep religion out of politics. This is a different set of moralities than how Christians may see it, but it is a moral system. We do talk about an atheist morality.
I think, because they tend to be progressives, they see certain conservative political philosophies as immoral as well, as irrational or as intrusive, things of this nature. So we would argue it is not accurate to say that atheists are immoral. If you want to say they are not moral by a traditional system, that's fine. But, to say they are immoral implies that they don't have declarations of what is right and wrong and clearly, they do.