Is Atheism (Much Less Physicalism) Fashionable?

A growing slogan that I have recently heard echoing among apologetics circles is the claim that it is “popular” these days to be atheist, agnostic, or skeptical. The tactic is simple: represent atheism as some ephemeral trend of fashion and you remove (really just deny) the intellectual threat that it poses to one’s preferred Levantine religion, three of which, I dare say, have been quite fashionable for the last couple millennia.

So the slogan is making the rounds, and here are a few interesting examples:

  • In his recent recorded debate at Austin with Matt Dillahunty, apologist Cliffe Knechtle at 0:46:47 made the bizarre argument that atheists are “very white, very Western, and very Enlightenment in their thinking … very white and very Western, that is where you find atheism! You do not find atheism in South America, in Asia, in Africa!” First off, Cliffe is due for another “fact check,” since if we analyze the Top 20 Countries With Largest Numbers of Atheists / Agnostics, we find that #1 China, #2 Japan, and #4 Vietnam, all Asian countries (sorry Cliffe), have the largest atheist populations in the world. Perhaps Cliffe might be able to salvage his argument by claiming that China is only so high because of its overall population, but by proportion atheism is still a “very white, very Western” trend. Yet, once more, the argument fails, as even by proportion #2 Vietnam and #5 Japan show that (yes Cliffe) there are plenty of atheists in Asia. More importantly, however, is that Cliffe is trying to create the impression that atheism is some sort of elitist fashion trend in the West. I will grant that “wealthier nations tend to place less importance on religion,” as a Pew study shows, but why interpret this as a fashion trend? I am sure that wealthier nations also have higher levels of education and access to information, which may better explain why we see more atheists in these countries.
  • October of last year I watched a local broadcast of Lee Strobel’s Simulcast “Unpacking Atheism.” If anyone finds the full video of this simulcast on YouTube one day, please let me know, as I later learned that it cost churches, depending on their size, $249 – $695 to view the event (while the Secular Web provides open-access articles for free), and apparently the DVD version will likewise cost a couple Benjamins. I took notes at the event and recorded Strobel claiming that it is “more fashionable these days to be an atheist.” First off, the numbers speak for themselves: when apologists are able to get away with charging churches upwards of half a thousand dollars just for a couple hours of vitriolic atheist bashing, I think that anti-atheism is a far more popular trend than atheism itself. More to the point, what does Mr. Strobel mean by “more fashionable”? The simulcast made a big fuss over a new Pew study showing that around 6% of Americans are atheist or agnostic, but so what? The study still shows that 73% of Americans belong to some branch of Christianity. Even if atheism is on the rise, how is it more fashionable when outnumbered over tenfold by Christianity? Perhaps Mr. Strobel feels threatened by only belonging to a slightly diminished overwhelming majority.
  • Donald McClarey from The American Catholic has written an article, “Atheism As Fashion Statement,” where he makes a big deal about biographer A.N. Wilson’s conversion to Christianity. The article begins, however, with McClarey griping about Wilson’s “fairly nasty biography of C.S. Lewis,” which apparently represented the subject, as any good biography should, in a fair and critical light, rather than through hagiography. Upset over this, McClarey concludes that the criticism of Lewis came from “dislike of Christianity” and “an angry atheist.” However, McClarey’s reaction of immediately circling the wagons reveals quite the opposite fashion trend. Who, if any apologist, is more fashionable than C.S. Lewis? Simply ask any American teenager who has been Christian home-schooled and you will almost certainly find that C.S. Lewis was automatically on their reading list. Lewis and his children’s fiction have recieved automatic popularity for the last half century, precisely because he made the fashionable choice of becoming a “converted atheist,” a title which often bequeaths one with fame among apologetic circles (just look at Antony Flew). Could one imagine Lewis being so popular if he had remained atheist? Could one imagine that Lewis’ children novels would have sold so well, if parents knew that they were buying from an atheist author? Moving on, McClarey makes the argument, “the Church has proven its staying power over 2000 turbulent years … I doubt if the current wave of atheism will have this type of endurance.” Well, I suppose, by the same same reasoning ,despotism and non-democratic forms of government have persisted for thousands of years, going back to the rise of civilization, whereas Western democracy, at best, has only existed for a couple centuries. Should we dismiss our (very) modern civil liberties as merely ephemeral? Needless to say, McClarey has very little to offer with his strange ad populum and appeal to tradition reasoning.

The list of examples could continue, but suffice it to say that this argument has crept into a number of debates, interview statements, and editorials. Normally, I would dismiss the claim as mere apologetic grumbling over the fact that not everyone on the planet is a Christian, and playing the violin simply because they belong only to the world’s largest religious affiliation, but not the only one. But I have also seen the argument used by apologists in academic publications to depict naturalism and physicalism as “popular.”

Last academic quarter I wrote a research paper that dealt with concepts of utopia, heaven, and the ideal society. I read Jeffery Russell’s Paradise Mislaid: How We Lost Heaven – and How We Can Regain It as part of my bibliographyOn the first page I found a claim that I found rather surprising:

“In many milieus today it has simply become uncool to believe in heaven – or God for that matter. It is fashionable to erect a defensive wall of cynicism, arrogance, and irony around oneself. Cleverness trumps conviction and trendiness trumps truth. “Coolness” is a social posture designed to defend the self by disguising it from others and even from ourselves. Coolness is not a philosophical position and so cannot be argued against.”

I had to read the paragraph twice: people don’t believe in heaven, because of coolness? How is heaven not cool and trendy in our modern culture, when books can become New York Time’s Best-Sellers by recording people’s supposed near-death journeys to heaven?! Could Todd Burpo have sold countless copies of Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back, if our culture were not infatuated with the idea of heaven, but merely saw the truth that it was a parent trying to make bank off his kid’s emergency room hallucination? Could Marvin Besteman have cashed in on his autobiography, My Journey to Heaven: What I Saw and How It Changed My Life, if we didn’t live in a society where it is really cool to read about waiting in line at heaven’s gates? Russell even trips over his own thesis (pg. 4), when he acknowledges a Gallup Poll stating that 81% of Americans believe in heaven (more than even the number of Christians). Given all these circumstances, how, pray tell, is heaven not very popular and “fashionable” in the modern world? Because a couple of minority atheists on the block don’t believe this magical kingdom?

Moving on from this claim about “the widespread atheism and agnosticism of the early twenty-first century” (43), Russell proceeds to disparage the ontological view of physicalism. In light of the fact that the majority of Americans believe in Creationism, Russell’s claim that “physicalism” is a dominant Western trend is far more perplexing. In a rather conspiratorial tone, Russell assures us, “powerful interests in academia, government, and business are highly invested in keeping the physicalist paradigm on top” (139). Physicalism is roughly synonymous with the ontological view that I hold of metaphysical naturalism, which maintains that all of reality can be reduced to the physical arrangement of matter and energy in space-time. I find it perplexing that Russell believes that this is the dominant paradigm, because when I tell people that I am a metaphysical naturalist or physicalist, I often get blank stares, even among fellow skeptics and, yes, also among my professors in academia. In fact, I do not think that I have met a single person outside of the Internet who likewise identifies his or herself as a physicalist. Often when I tell Christians that I am an atheist, they immediately retort, “So you believe in nothing?!,” to which I reply, “No, I hold a positive belief in ontological naturalism and physicalism.” The response is almost always the same: *crickets*

Few people outside of philosophical and scientific circles have even heard of the ontological view of physicalism (heck, most can’t even tell you what ontology is!). So in expanding his thesis that atheism is some dominant trend to the notion that physicalism likewise is, Russell is attacking a view that is not even on the radar, hardly “fashionable,” dwarfed exponentially by the prevailing theistic worldviews of our day. Perhaps Russell is speculating that, while almost nobody explicitly believes in physicalism, most people implicitly hold the view, by assuming that when events occur there are always natural and physical explanations. Given the number of people out there who believe in paranormal activity like ghosts and the like, I find even this doubtful, but even if there were such a trend, it would only exist because of the overwhelming success that the physical sciences have had in explaining the world. Supernatural explanations tell us to pray for sick people. Physical science has helped us to actually cure people through medicine. Supernatural explanations once told us that weather patterns are determined by divine forces who need animal sacrifices. Physical science has done quite a good job actually predicting weather through meteorology. If there were any widespread trend in physicalist belief, as Russell imagines, then it would only be due to the overwhelming success of physicalism and the miserable failure of any other ontology or epistemology to provide any practical results for our lives.

Perhaps Russell is correct about atheism being “fashionable” in certain intellectual circles. After all, around 93% of the National Academy of Sciences does not believe in a personal deity. But I highly doubt that many of these leading scientists found themselves sitting at the “cool kid” table in high school. Russell’s “coolness” hypothesis about the marginal decline in religious belief is very weak, at best, and it is simply untrue about belief in heaven. In fact, I think it would be really cool if heaven (not hell) did exist. Who wouldn’t want eternal life and happiness? But ontological naturalism and the realization that life probably does end at the grave is a sobering fact, not some cool fashion statement.

Christians living in the Western World today, particularly the United States, are perhaps the most privileged group to ever exist in human history. Christians dominate all three branches of the United States’ government, control the most powerful military that has ever existed, and have a near monopoly on the entire economy. They have so much influence in government that they can, and regularly do, violate the Constitution. In contrast, atheists, despite being a sizable minority, have so little representation in government that many Christians openly boast about it. In fact, some research indicates that atheists are the most hated minority in America. A study conducted by the University of Minnesota found that people ranked atheists lower than “Muslims, recent immigrants, gays and lesbians and other minority groups in ‘sharing their vision of American society.’” Furthermore, “Atheists are also the minority group most Americans are least willing to allow their children to marry.” But atheism is still cool and fashionable, right? Sure…

Likewise, contrary to Russell’s conspiracy about physicalism, Christianity has an undue sway in academic publishing and education throughout this country. It’s bad enough that people are fighting to put Intelligent Design in public school curricula, but what is worse is that we implicitly tolerate private Christian education for children. Having been raised in a private Christian school (a very poor one at that), I wonder at how constitutional it really is to indoctrinate children into specific religious beliefs through private schools that fulfill mandatory primary and secondary educational requirements. In higher education, Christians have so much influence that there are even accredited Christian “academic” institutions. Now, please tell me, what is the purpose of a “Christian” college or university? Most secular universities work to be objective and unbiased research institutions (even if imperfectly), but the fact that Christian universities can openly operate as little more than think-tanks to promote religious doctrine, and raise billions of dollars to do so, shows just how popular Christianity is in our modern culture. Take some of the statements of faith at these supposed “academic” institutions, such as Talbot Theological Seminary: “All those who persistently reject Jesus Christ in the present life shall be raised from the dead and throughout eternity exist in the state of conscious, unutterable, endless torment of anguish.” The fact that such an “academic” institution, promoting such blatant hate speech, can receive any level of accreditation in the United States reveals an embarrassing amount of religious sway in the accreditation system, and no faculty member from such a farcical institution should ever be taken seriously. Given these modern trends, it is obvious that everything about Christianity is “fashionable” in Western culture.

So why is the delusional argument circulating that atheism, rather, is somehow fashionable? Two reasons I think are the most prominent: first, many Christians feel a need to be persecuted, despite all circumstances to the contrary. The fact is that some (early) Christian communities in the 1st century CE did receive a certain degree of persecution, and it is reflected in the religious texts that are revered by modern believers:

“If the world hate you, you know that it hated me before it hated you” (John 15:18)

“Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10)

“Yes, and all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution” (2 Timothy 3:12)

“Yet if any man suffer as a Christian, let him not be ashamed; but let him glorify God on this behalf” (1 Peter 4:16 )

Many Christians read these passages and feel the need to self-fulfill such predictions. I personally know a street preacher at the University of Arizona who regularly engages in littering fliers and violating public property restrictions, simply so that he can catch police on camera confronting him (very patiently) about his behavior. Once when speaking to me, the man insisted that when he protested at an anti-abortion event in Maine he felt like a “black man in the South.” Despite all their rights and privileges, some Christians just feel a need to believe that they are persecuted. The degree can vary, from some radicals claiming that Obama is the anti-Christ to Russell making the more mild (but trite) claim that his beliefs are being shunned as uncool by “fashionable” culture. Either way, the delusion helps the majority feel like they are a minority, so they can feel discriminated against and justified in their beliefs through being so.

Second, as I noted at the beginning, claiming that atheism is “fashionable” is a way to be dismissive of it. The fact that apologists are so unsettled by such a minority as atheism shows that it poses a real threat to their beliefs. Accordingly, millions of dollars have been poured into apologetic ministries, and yet secularism and atheism are still on a (marginal) rise. To dismiss these trends, they accuse atheism of being mere fashion. However, the greater deception is that such a claim masks the fact that religion has been overwhelmingly fashionable (even compulsory) both historically and still today. If an apologist wants to claim that atheism is some modern fashionable sub-trend, they need to acknowledge first that the overwhelming fad throughout every stage of human history has been for religion, and that Christianity takes a very large piece of that pie.

-Matthew Ferguson

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