Pop Atheism vs. Academic Atheism

Last month—in observance of my graduate-school vow to heed Nietzsche’s sage advice about building my city on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius—I wrote an essay critical of a recent study conducted by the Pew Forum.

You may recall the study in question. Among other findings, its authors concluded that atheists and agnostics were among the most religiously knowledgeable Americans.

You can read Pew’s response to my diatribe (or was it an “intervention”?) here, and my response to their demurral here. I guess it’s all done for now and I guess we’re all cool.

But for me, one important point that emerged from that little scrum concerned the accuracy of information about atheists in popular culture.

You see, for years I have been telling colleagues, students, clerical staff, physical plant workers, and guys prowling campus asking me if I’d like to sell them last semester’s textbooks, that there exist widespread popular misconceptions about atheists (to my agnostic chums: I have not forgotten you—but since you are not identical to atheists I will devote a separate post to agnosticism).

The misconceptions have been fostered by friends and foes of atheism alike. New Atheists, with all their sound and fury, have gone a long way in lobotomizing the discourse surrounding nonbelief.  Religious conservatives, for their part, are quick to lose any semblance of rationality when this subject comes up.

And then there is the mass media. Journalists and magazines of opinion have scrutinized the beliefs of about half a dozen celebrity atheists and inexplicably and irresponsibly ignored the rest.

Where are the rest? Well, after spending years researching the subject, it seems awfully obvious to me that the really interesting atheists and non-atheists who study atheism are to be found in the university.

To read these scholars is to learn that countless assumptions of Pop Atheism are incorrect. I list some of these erroneous assumptions here:

1) That the term “atheist” has a clear, agreed-upon meaning

2) That there are consistent, recognizable markers of atheist identity

3) That self-described “atheists” share common assumptions about what atheism is

4) That “atheism” and “secularism” are synonyms

5) That being an atheist necessitates a relentless hostility to all forms of theism

6) That atheism and theism are radically distinct, sharing little in common epistemologically, historically and even “theologically,” if you will.

Every one of these assumptions, I repeat, is either problematic or just plain wrong. In the coming months I will try to draw your attention to scholarly research on atheism and secularism which undermines these ideas. Much of this research has been sitting on the shelves of our libraries for decades; the reluctance of Pop Atheists or journalists to confront this work is deeply disturbing.

One recent study you might want look at is Stephen Bullivant’s “Research Note: Sociology and the Study of Atheism” (Journal of Contemporary Religion 23 (2008) pp. 363-368). I need not summarize the results here, but if you do get around to reading this short article think about points 1, 2, and 3 above.


Dear readers: This is my first post for Brainstorm and I look forward to writing, provoking, and being provoked for a good long time. I won’t, of course, limit my posts to studies of atheism and secularism. No. I have other things on my mind. Like Philip Roth’s recent novels. Like the fine art of ruining your colleagues’ weekends with a well-timed, menacing memo. Like funny things jazz musicians have taught me. Like the non-essence of Judaism. Like the one likable thing about Washington D.C. (Hint: The Whitehurst Freeway).

I will do my best to read all your comments. Sometimes I’ll even come over the boards and comment myself, like an agitated hockey player redressing an object fired at his head. But let me stress that perceptive, funny commenters are a blogger’s best friend. So set your edge and let’s go.

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