If the best-seller lists are a guide to American cultural trends, atheism is undergoing something of a renaissance.
Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” is No. 8 on The New York Times nonfiction list today and Sam Harris’ “Letter to a Christian Nation” is not far behind. Both authors are also doing well on amazon.com.
Clearly, many people are at least curious about arguments that deny the existence of God.
But don’t expect to see atheist pride marches on Fifth Avenue or throngs of nonbelievers protesting churches’ tax exemption at the state Capitol anytime soon.
Atheists, while pleased that books about their philosophy are selling well, know they are not popular in this country.
“The books have had an interesting effect on getting people’s attention,” says David Schafer of Hamden. “It’s a rather taboo subject and (there’s) a lot of misunderstanding. People are afraid.
“The assumption is made by most people that people who don’t have religious training don’t have any ethical values,” says Schafer.
Other atheists, while not shy about discussing it, also feel an intense prejudice in this society.
“There’s very much a parallel between outing gays and outing atheists,” says Bonita Cohen of Hamden. “I think people are afraid in a way maybe to even face their own doubt … some deep-seated fear. I don’t understand it.”
But atheists are just as moral as believers, Schafer says. “People think an atheist must be a bad person.”
They just rely on gravity and quantum mechanics, not faith, he says.
“What else do you need?” he says with a grin.
In “The God Delusion,” Dawkins calls for atheists to stand for what they believe in.
“Being an atheist is nothing to be apologetic about,” he writes. “On the contrary, it is something to be proud of, standing tall to face the far horizon, for atheism nearly always indicates a healthy independence of mind and, indeed, a healthy mind.”
Schafer, 75, has gone beyond mere atheism, preferring to call himself a humanist, embracing a positive philosophical system. A thoughtful man, he writes and speaks about atheism and humanism.
Raised in a fundamentalist home, “I was very worried about life and death and sex and hell and all those things when I was growing up. It took me about 15 years to really come around to a humanist position.”
Humanism is “a progressive lifestance that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead meaningful, ethical lives capable of adding to the greater good of humanity,” according to the American Humanist Association.
This hasn’t stopped those who worship a deity, particularly Christians, from going on the attack.
Sam Harris, in “Letter to a Christian Nation,” tells of angry correspondents warning him that he’s wrong not to believe.
“The most hostile of these communications have come from Christians. The truth is that many who claim to be transformed by Christ’s love are deeply, even murderously, intolerant of criticism.”
Bishop Peter Rosazza, auxiliary bishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford, who lives in New Haven, is not one of those who believe atheists are damned. “You don’t say that they’re evil people because they don’t believe in God. That’s their business,” he says.
For Schafer and others, the challenge in atheism is finding a place to fulfill their need for community with like-minded people. For some, the state chapter of American Atheists or the Humanist Association of Connecticut fills the bill.
Others, such as Schafer, actually prefer a religious setting. Schafer calls himself a “religious humanist,” which he says does not contradict atheism.
“To the Romans it meant knowing one’s place in nature and knowing one’s responsibilities,” Schafer says.
Schafer is a member of the Unitarian Society of New Haven on Hartford Turnpike in Hamden. It is a place that welcomes those of many beliefs, or of none.
“In Unitarian Universalism there really is a spectrum of beliefs,” says the Rev. Marion Visel, community minister at the Hamden society.
“So because we do not have people say, ‘This is what I believe,’ one of our principles is that each individual looks outside themselves as well as within themselves to find their path…certainly atheism and humanism are within the spectrum for us,” says Visel.
In fact, Visel has noticed an increase in young people seeking the familiarity that Unitarian services offer. Whereas in the 1950s and ’60s, people sought the Unitarian church in rebellion against traditional faiths, now nonreligious people are coming back.
“We live in a time right now where people feel more comfortable reclaiming a religious path or maybe a religious path that was part of their upbringing,” Visel says. Many also come seeking a place that works for social justice.
‘WE ARE STARDUST’
Based in rational thought, atheists see no reason to believe that humans are somehow favored above other living things.
“We say we’re a part of the universe or, as Carl Sagan poetically put it, ‘We are stardust,’ which is literally true,” Schafer says.
Atheists don’t necessarily begrudge people’s religious feelings. In fact, Cohen says, “I wish for five minutes I could feel that feeling they’re all talking about. To me it’s a real mystery.”
But feelings about God don’t prove God’s existence, atheists say.
“I’ve seen the tears streaming down a woman’s face as she looks at a goddess at a Hindu festival,” Schafer says, pointing out that Christians don’t accept the many gods and goddesses Hindus believe in. “The fact that people believe very intensely in something that they were taught as children doesn’t mean it’s true.”
Most atheists see science as popping the religious balloon.
Dawkins takes on one of the major conflicts between science and fundamentalist Christianity, creation vs. evolution. Believers set up a false choice, he says: Either the world was designed or it came about by chance. How could such an exquisitely complex being as a Venus flytrap, much less a human being, just appear?
“The answer is that natural selection is a cumulative process, which breaks the problem of improbability up into small pieces,” Dawkins writes.
Still, 46 percent who responded in a May 2006 Gallup Poll said they believed God created humans in their present form, 36 percent said God guided evolution and only 15 percent said God had no part in the process.
This kind of belief drives Schafer to frustration. “We live in a country that unfortunately is scientifically illiterate except for a very small percentage,” he says.
Referring to the core Christian belief that Jesus rose from the dead, Cohen says, “I think people claim beliefs that they don’t really have because some of them are so scientifically impossible.”
Many Christians, however, believe it is science that is limited, that the scientific method cannot answer all questions. Senior Pastor Miles Ahrens of Trinity Evangelical Free Church in Woodbridge is among them.
If the universe began with the Big Bang, “What happened before the Big Bang? … If there’s nothing before the Big Bang, then what caused it to happen?”
Those kids of questions have not been answered scientifically, he says, and can’t be.
“We believe lots of things that we can’t believe scientifically,” he says. “Scientific proof is based on hypothesis, experimentation and observation.” Other fields, such as law and history, rely on different methods.
THE GOOD BOOK OR LAW BOOKS
Ahrens doesn’t rely only on faith. He sees the Bible as a reliable source of evidence. “We have over 10,000 manuscripts of the New Testament and the oldest one dates less than 100 years from the original writing.”
He also relies on internal logic. “How do you explain the phenomena of the movement of these disciples that are claiming — and are willing to be martyred for this belief — that Jesus rose from the dead?
“I believe that there is enough evidence that it’s reasonable to conclude that God does exist,” Ahrens says.
While most atheists are content to co-exist with believers, some see religion as a negative force. They cite the violence done in God’s name, from ancient times through 9/11.
Ahrens says one problem is that people judge the God they want to exist, rather than accept God as he is. Yes, God killed the first-born of the Egyptians after Pharaoh refused to free the Hebrews after 400 years of slavery.
“Is God both a God of love and a God of justice? The Bible says yes, he’s both,” he said.
Beyond the Bible, atheists hate that social policy may be based on religious dogma, from restrictions on abortion to federal financing of embryonic stem cells. Opposition to both rests on the belief that life begins at conception and must be protected.
Harris says ethics should be based on scientific reasoning and on serving the greatest good.
On stem cell research, he writes, “Anyone who feels that the interests of a blastocyst just might supersede the interests of a child with a spinal cord injury has had his moral sense blinded by religious metaphysics.”
While he holds to the Catholic pro-life view, Rosazza does not see a contradiction between science and religion. “The Bible doesn’t tell us how the heavens go, but how to go to heaven,” he says. “It’s not a scientific book.”
Rosazza says it is the political process that ultimately decides issues, not the church.
“Any group that’s a member of society has a right to put out its teachings and have them debated,” he says.
People can’t select which issues are OK for the church to involve itself in, he says. After all, it was ministers such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Joseph Lowery who marched in the streets and led the Montgomery bus boycott. “If they didn’t we wouldn’t have a civil rights movement,” Rosazza says.
WE NEED FRIENDS
Rosazza, who will turn 72 on Tuesday, says, “Ultimately, it’s faith” that fuels his belief. “As I get older, faith is so important and it’s a gift.”
Ultimately, Schafer says, people should get over trying to persuade others to their beliefs. That includes atheists.
“There are so many important things in the world that have to be done, the world is in such a mess, that we have to make friends with as many Muslims and Christians as we can.”