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Why America needs a new kind of atheism right now

An energetic atheism can tackle the twin crises of creeping theocracy and the death of conventional religion.
Photo illustration: Fractures and broken pieces of statues of folded and praying hands coming together with small windows showing parts of the sky.
Anjali Nair / MSNBC; Getty Images

There are two pressing crises tied to the state of religion in America today. A new style of atheism can help answer both of them.

The first crisis is rooted in an excess of religion. Christian theocracy is not far-off specter but an emerging reality in America. Fueled by a radically reactionary Supreme Court that is two-thirds Catholic, Thomas Jefferson’s already-dilapidated and graffitied “wall of separation” between church and state is crumbling. The overturning of Roe v. Wade means the lives of women across the country are being held hostage by a conservative Christian conception of life. Kennedy v. Bremerton permits school officials to publicly pray and make students feel pressured to join in. Carson v. Makin allows taxpayer dollars to be used to fund religious education. And at the state level, Republican-led legislatures have invoked Christianity as they pursue a systematic assault on transgender rights, while “abortion abolitionists” convinced some Louisiana lawmakers that people who get abortions should be charged with homicide.

Atheism can address the social and spiritual vacuum emerging in the wake of the slow death of mainstream organized religion.

Scholars of the religious right are also sounding alarms over the emergence of Christian nationalism, a QAnon-addled authoritarian political movement whose champions breached the U.S. Capitol and prayed on the Senate floor on Jan 6, 2021. “The church is supposed to direct the government, the government is not supposed to direct the church,” Rep. Lauren Boebert of Colorado, a leader of the diehard Trump wing in the House, said at a church in her home state recently. “I’m tired of this separation of church and state junk.” She received a standing ovation from her audience.

The second crisis is tied, ironically, to the decline of religion. The religious right is securing more power in courts and legislatures and becoming more influential within right-wing culture, but it’s not becoming more popular. Instead there has been an accelerating American drift away from organized religion — and most often toward “nothing in particular.” A rapidly increasing share of Americans are detaching from religious communities that provide purpose and forums for moral contemplation, and not necessarily finding anything in their stead. They're dropping out of church and survey data suggests they're disproportionately like to be checked out from civic life. Their trajectory tracks with a broader decades-long trend of secular life defined by plunging social trust, faith in institutions, and participation in civil society.

My belief is that an energetic, organized atheist movement — which I propose calling "communitarian atheism" — would provide an effective way to guard against the twin crises of intensifying religious extremism on one end, and the atomizing social consequences of a plunge in conventional religiosity on the other.

An organized atheist community can help agitate for and finance a secularist equivalent of the Federalist Society — the right-wing legal movement that helped populate the federal courts with hard right jurists and helped get us into this mess — to act as a bulwark against theocracy. “There has been zero, and I mean zero, innovation in the doctrine of separation [of church and state] in the last 50 years,” Jacques Berlinerblau, a scholar at Georgetown University and the author of “Secularism: The Basics,” told me. Atheists who consciously believe in their worldview have a particularly urgent interest in helping to lead a legal and political movement to protect against theocracy.

At the same time, atheism can address the social and spiritual vacuum emerging in the wake of the slow death of mainstream organized religion. This requires learning from religion, not indiscriminately attacking it. By putting together study groups, communities for secular meditation, and elucidating the meaning and joys of atheism without spewing venom toward all religion, atheists can build spaces for religion-skeptical people to find purpose, think about ethics, form community and consider more carefully how to build a better society.

My personal journey as an atheist — which involved disillusionment with religion and mainstream atheism — is a big part of how I arrived at this idea. It may help to share it.

Atheism opened up my world. But it didn't hold it together.

I was raised in a Muslim household in the U.S., but I turned away from Islam in my teens after a fateful conversation with my grandfather one hot summer day in Pakistan. My grandfather was a professor who delighted in thrashing me in chess and asking me vexing questions, and he once posed to me a version of what the Columbia University philosopher Philip Kitcher has called the argument from symmetry. He questioned why I adhered to Islam in particular when so many other religions made claims about the existence of gods, some of them fairly similar to Islam, some radically different. I froze. With no basis on which to distinguish between the validity of these various claims about the supernatural — by definition, I could not know or prove which god was the right one — I quickly confessed that my religiosity was a mere accident of birth.

Losing my religion was an unexpected moment of ecstasy. I no longer blamed myself for not understanding the emptiness I had felt when praying to a god. I also finally felt comfortable interrogating Islam as a vehicle for social conservatism and patriarchy. I knew the claim that a god exists could not be proven or disproven, but I could not believe in one — especially as traditionally understood in the major monotheistic faiths — without evidence or resolution of questions like “the problem of evil.” And so I became an atheist.

Some people think of atheists as rudderless and living in a cold, meaningless world. My experience was the opposite. Atheism enlivened me and spurred me to develop a broader skepticism of all manner of received wisdom. The displacement of heaven inspired me to think about achieving utopia on earth; my reading skewed in a radically left-wing direction, and I pivoted toward political activism. As a student at a high school that observed the practices and philosophies of Quakerism, a small Christian sect committed to egalitarian ideals, I didn’t believe the Quaker saying that there was “that of God in everyone.” But I often enjoyed spending the weekly worship meetings, wherein we were required to sit in silence for around an hour, lost in thought about what a more fulfilling society would look like.

I didn’t, however, always enjoy breaking bread with the atheists I encountered. My personal turn to atheism coincided with the rise of New Atheism in the 2000s and 2010s — as a college student I watched polemical writers like the late Christopher Hitchens lecture about how religion poisons everything with great ambivalence. On one hand, I agreed with and learned from some of the New Atheist critique of religion as a force for stifling critical thought and purveying social traditionalism. On the other hand, I found that the New Atheists caricatured religion, and neglected to consider all the nuances of religious belief and the positive role it could play in people’s lives.

Despite my many objections to Islam, I had never shed my admiration for the capaciousness and airiness of a mosque.

The most consequential example of this blindness to complexity was the New Atheist fixation on Islam as an existential threat to humanity, which led to an affinity for the post-9/11 neoconservative project. Some of its proponents backed torture and neocolonial wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and contemplated genocidal nuclear first strikes in the region. This group was so fixated on religion as the root of all evil — and Islam as the most evil of them all — that it failed to understand how Islamist terrorism might not just be about religion but also the specific political agenda of a group of extremists. As a leftist activist, and as a person who knew many liberal and fairly secular Muslims — one of whom spurred me to become an atheist — I found this political tilt repugnant.

The New Atheists also failed to appreciate how religion provides valuable things secular life often fails to find. As I got older I found myself circling back to the spiritual world, although in an idiosyncratically atheistic manner.

Despite my many objections to Islam, I had never shed my admiration for the capaciousness and airiness of a mosque. I found that when I was going through rough patches, there was nothing quite like the practice of mindful meditation, derived from Buddhist practices, that helped me find my footing and feel connected to the world. Living in New York, I found myself chanting Hebrew and joining hands with septuagenarians after group meditation sessions in my local Jewish community center. I started Googling “Quaker meeting houses near me” more often. This was not a search for god — my atheism was not wavering — but a desire to commune toward the end of something greater.

Political activism didn't quite scratch the itch. While I was deeply appreciative of the vital community provided by the political groups I was a part of, they didn't seek the exact kind of togetherness and quiet search for purpose I was craving. Politics, after all, is about power and justice, and needs to be balanced alongside extrapolitical quests for truth and morality.

Days after my grandfather died when I was 29, I felt unmoored. I strolled to a Quaker meeting in Manhattan, and watched towering trees gently brush against the windows of the old meeting house in the wind. One observes a Quaker meeting for worship in silence, but participants are encouraged to periodically stand up to share thoughts if moved to do so, and so after sitting for some time I shared some reflections on my grandfather. A few other people stood up and shared their own thoughts; there was little talk of god, but there was talk of the challenges and beauty of existence.

After the meeting, a few people shared announcements on study sessions, child care and organizing left-wing political activist trips. A bit later over tea and snacks, I made a few new acquaintances and learned that a former well-liked teacher of my high school was the now at the school affiliated with the Quaker meeting house I was attending. I felt nourished, and at home.

Communitarian atheism is the best of all worlds.

My case for communitarian atheism stems from my belief that atheism opens up radical new possibilities for critical thinking and freedom, but that it has a great deal to learn from religion and the religious right as well.

A quick note: I view atheism as a big tent. Atheism does not mean, as is commonly mistakenly believed, that one is certain of the nonexistence of gods. It means a lack of belief in them for evidential and sometimes logical reasons — in a manner that is consistent with the popular use of the term agnosticism, which technically refers to limitations on what we can know. More important, I believe it is grounding and urgency-inducing to state, however tentative the belief may be, that our fate is in the hands of forces we can perceive or may be capable of perceiving at some point, and that we can assume no eventual refuge in an afterlife.The most urgent task for atheists right now is to guard against the astonishing uptick in the power of the religious right, with the Supreme Court favoring religious intervention in our political lives and an increasingly energized Christian nationalist alliance with the Trump wing of the party. Atheists have an intuitive understanding of and self-interest in pushing back against religious creep into the affairs of the state. If they’re more organized as an interest group, they’re more likely to help create a mandate for action.

Any such group would be well served by observing the successful activism of the far right. The Federalist Society, a right-wing powerhouse network that began as a meeting of conservative legal scholars and students at Yale in 1982, was instrumental in the overturning of Roe v. Wade and the transformation of America’s federal courts. Its networking, legal creativity, organization and provision of a Rolodex for reliably conservative jurists for the Republican Party to draw from has allowed the religious right to punch well above its weight and enact an agenda that wasn’t popular or even high-profile.

Berlinerblau, the Georgetown professor, worries that liberal secular America has no counterpart to right-wing legal thinking and activism that advances the goals of the religious right. “I wonder who the liberal jurists are that work together that meet for a retreat once a year in Verona or Lake Tahoe? This stuff happens all the time in conservative circles,” Berlinerblau said. “It's these all-expenses-paid things in beautiful places where people just network for two weeks, and they have workshops on the free exercise clause [of the First Amendment] and free speech. I know of nothing comparable, in liberal, secular America."

“And that's why there's probably no innovation,” he continued. “Because there aren’t the deep-pocketed funders, and there's not the long-term vision, and there's not a command and control. We just don't have that.”

This kind of enterprise is not only for atheists. It should appeal to anyone with secular and liberal inclinations, and it’s a space where there is opportunity for coalitions with people of faith who don’t think religion should shape American politics and laws. But atheists can play a key role in sounding the alarms if they articulate themselves as citizens whose rights must be respected. Berlinerblau believes that the best hope for secularists is to push for equality under the 14th Amendment rather than continue to wage an increasingly hopeless battle over the First Amendment, which the right has found to be favorable territory by effectively expanding the idea of “free exercise” of religion. “When the Christian right is allowed to tell us when life begins, that's an affront to the equality of a Jewish woman, or a Muslim woman or a nonbelieving woman,” Berlinerblau said, explaining his argument for the 14th Amendment route.

But ultimately it is not enough for atheists today to define themselves through opposition to religious overreach. Atheists excel at critiquing religion — and should continue to do so, respectfully — but we flounder when it comes to thinking about how to meet human needs that are rarely supported by systems of secular life. Religion seeks to answer why we exist and what ethical and social obligations attend existence, and creates rich, evocative institutions and rituals around these questions. Atheists need to do this too — not just view their lives as defined in negative terms by the absence of gods, but in positive terms about the world as we believe it exists.

Cultivating a welcoming and vibrant atheism could be a gateway for many Americans to contemplate important questions.

That means less time attacking religion and more time forming an attractive, inclusive alternative to it. Atheists should create deliberate communities, and this can take many forms. For example — study groups for pursuing the great questions of existence by reading works of literature, philosophy and, yes, even religious texts. "Religion can be an inspiration, but it can’t be an authority," Kitcher, the Columbia philosopher, told me in an interview, and argued religious texts must always be "subject to moral deliberation and moral argument."

Atheists should form secular meditation groups — or explore something else that allows for contemplation if it's not their cup of tea. (I can’t help but recommend visiting a Quaker meeting house, particularly since nontheistic Quakerism is a quiet subtradition within Quakerism.)

Organized atheists have an extraordinary opportunity to welcome "nothing in particulars" into a big tent. Roughly ten percent of the U.S. adult population identifies as atheist or agnostic, but the "nothing in particulars" constitute about 20 percent, according to a 2021 Pew poll. The “nothing in particulars” cite questioning "a lot of religious teachings" as the biggest reason they leave formal religious affiliation, and say that their dislike of positions taken by churches on social and political issues is the second biggest reason. Moreover, experts describe the increasingly intensifying political valence of Christianity as right-wing as a significant source of alienation for people who become "nothing in particular." It seems like a ripe opportunity for atheism to band together with allies.

Some people will always want to be “nothing in particulars” who wish not to publicly define their position on theism and religion. There’s nothing wrong with that at all. But cultivating a welcoming and vibrant atheism could be a gateway for many Americans to contemplate important questions, form community, and think about how to collectively better the only world we can be sure we have.