Humanism's Moment of Opportunity, Going to Waste

03/28/2013 09:56 am ET | Updated May 28, 2013

At a time when mainline churches and other mainstream religions such as Reform Judaism are struggling with dwindling membership, some religious brands continue to flourish. In particular, those that have taken the secular science of marketing as an article of faith have done spectacularly well. Megachurches, America's mall-like megachurches, complete with rock bands, food courts, and game rooms, are bringing 'em in by the thousands.

Their non-theistic rivals? Not so much. The evidence is in, and it is clear: New Atheists have been a media success and a societal failure. They know how to sell books, how to debate, how to sneer, skewer, and satirize -- in short, how to use all the squabbling skills of the modern academic (cf. the letters section of the New York Review of Books) -- but the New Atheists seemingly have no idea how to build a positive social movement.

The Rise of the Nones, the most dramatic modern trend in American religion, has so far passed them by. It began before the New Atheists came to prominence, and it has failed to take much notice of them. For the past three decades, Americans have been streaming out of houses of worship and declaring themselves unaffiliated (or, more commonly, "spiritual but not religious.") Since 1990 their numbers have quadrupled to 20 percent. And yet, as sociologist Claude Fischer tells Huff Post, "One thing striking is [that] there is hardly any perceptible trend in the percentage of people who express atheist or agnostic beliefs." It's stuck at around 5 percent.

The flip side of the coin bears the same stamp. As Frank Newport of the Gallup Organization observes in his recent book God Is Alive and Well, "Despite the many changes that have rippled through American society over the past several decades, belief in God ... has remained high and relatively stable." When last Gallup asked, in 2011, the percentage of Americans who professed a belief in God came in at 92 percent.

Other polls and studies confirm the paradox: Americans, especially young ones, are leaving organized religion in unprecedented numbers, and theymore harbor doubts about the existence of God, but few are joining the atheist movement. As David Sessions observes in the Daily Beast, "it's easy to exaggerate how quickly American secularization is taking place."

What gives? Surely, this is a moment of opportunity for us secular humanists. What are we doing wrong? The trouble, as I see it, is that leading public figures in New Atheism are known only for what they seem to be against: God, free will, purpose, hope ... everything but apple pie. That's great for the media, which feasts on conflict. But for building a mass movement? Clearly insufficient.

Worse yet, far from having the common touch many seem to revel in their elitism. A decade after Richard Dawkins endorsed "The Brights," 50,000 people worldwide have signed on -- a smaller crowd than you'd find at a college football game.

One prominent New Atheist, biologist Jerry Coyne, recently addressed claims that the movement is failing in his blog. Much of his commentary follows a common New Atheist pattern: our critics are stupid (he uses the label twice in successive paragraphs), motivated by hatred, and prone to lie. (All of which is true in some instances, but it has become a reflex, a crowdpleaser, a litany.) What is most striking, however, is the semi-reflective passage near the end of his piece:

Maybe atheism doesn't answer the fundamental questions, but why should it--it's simply a refusal to accept deities and those systems of worship that claim (in conflicting ways) to answer the "fundamental questions." Most of us know that many of those so-called "fundamental questions," like "Why are we here?" don't have an answer beyond the laws of physics. Others, like "What is our purpose?" must be answered by each person on their own, for their [sic] is no general answer. Still others, like "How are we to live?", are answered far better by secular reason than by dogmatic adherence to outdated or even immoral religious strictures.

What a tangle of confusion. There's the admission that perhaps atheism doesn't fill the vacuum left when religion is left behind, followed by an angry retort that to do so would go beyond the brief of atheism. "That's not my job!" you can almost hear him say.

But Coyne can't leave it at that. He rolls on beyond the pale and into scientism itself. "Most of us know," he begins, and then reels off a list of philosophical questions and answers (or non-answers) that lie outside the realm of knowledge. It's fine to assert that the laws of physics are foundational -- provided you recognize that this is not knowledge but belief. (The difference being that knowledge must be justified by reason and evidence.) By definition, we have no evidence of anything beyond the light horizon, and certainly none that the laws of physics are foundational. It's not even clear that any statement about getting to the bottom of reality is coherent. Does reality necessarily have a bottom? You don't need a doctorate in cosmology or philosophy to answer that; you just need a modicum of rational humility: We don't know.

Thanks to science, there are indeed things we know with a reasonable degree of certainty. Among these are the natural laws that govern everything we can observe, out to an astonishing distance. But whether there is anything "beyond" that (say, an infinite multiverse, a vast but finite cosmic landscape, or a mischievous teenager running the simulation) remains a matter of conjecture. That does not entitle us to affirm "There be dungeons and dragons," but neither does it sanction the conjectures of cosmologists. There is room to imagine, interpret, and explore.

Now, let me state that I do not think Jerry Coyne stupid, venal, or deliberately untruthful. His writings on evolution are great. I share much, though not all, of his worldview. It seems to me, however, that he and all too many of his New Atheist colleagues have fallen into an all-too-human trap: building the solidarity of their group by fostering indiscriminate contempt for "the enemy."

F'rinstance: Coyne brands any nontheist who reaches out to non-atheists an "accommodationist." It's meant to sear. But consider: If we cannot make accommodation for those who don't share our particular worldview, we can only prepare for war (of one type or another).

There is a better way. Humanism can speak with a positive voice. I'm not suggesting we should be intellectually soft. On the contrary, I'm calling for greater intellectual honesty. Let's be honest about what we do and do not know. There is plenty enough evidence to discredit traditional theism, and the effort to do so must continue, but it only marks a beginning. As I've written many times, the same evidence means we should reject all claims of the supernatural. Still, that doesn't make atheism or scientism the only worthy worldview.

Let's be open to joining hands with those whose values coincide with ours even if their worldviews do not. That's what made the civil rights movement a success. Let's be open to exploring the new knowledge coming our way. Let's embrace principles that allow humanistic religions and secular humanism to find common ground. Then maybe we can go from whinging about believers to winning over converts.