Mass-Market Atheism

Okay, so atheism isn’t exactly a new idea; indeed, it’s humanity’s oldest or second-oldest theological theory, depending on how you play the chicken-and-egg game with belief and unbelief. But you have to go all the way back to late-Victorian scoffers like Robert Ingersoll and Mark Twain to find a moment when celebrity skeptics enjoyed the sort of mass-market success that ours—from Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris to Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins—are enjoying in America today.

In part, the vogue for atheistic tracts reflects the talents of the tractarians in question. But it also reflects the slow but steady growth of America’s secular demographic, and its newfound self-consciousness. The post-9/11 moment, in particular, seems to have made unbelievers feel unexpectedly embattled, besieged by fundamentalists both abroad and at home. And there’s nothing quite like a feeling of embattlement to forge solidarity—and sell books.

In this sense, the new mass-market atheism is following the same pattern as the Christian Right before it, which likewise drew strength from a sense of embattlement and persecution. These mirror-image movements can be seen as backlashes against the genteel secularism of mid-century, with its faintly condescending respect for the idea of Religion, and its studious indifference toward actual belief. This backlash has made debates over religion more polarizing than they used to be—and also more interesting.

Back to The 11 1/2 Biggest Ideas of the Year

Presented by

Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

A Miniature 1950s Utopia

A reclusive artist built this idealized suburb to grapple with his painful childhood memories.

Video

Why Principals Matter

Nadia Lopez didn't think anybody cared about her school. Then the Internet heard her story.

Video

A History of Contraception

In the 16th century, men used linen condoms laced shut with ribbons.

Video

'A Music That Has No End'

In Spain, a flamenco guitarist hustles to make a modest living.

More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In