Faith no More: The Moral Atheist

Professor of Sociology at Pitzer College, Phil Zuckerman, will publish Faith no More: Why People Reject Religion, in October.  This text illuminates some of the suppositions I posited about atheism, atheists, and atheists’ discontent in the first part of my recent commentary on the New York Timesprofile of outspoken anti-religionist, Richard Dawkins.  Faith No More, based on interviews and other studies of persons who have left their faith or otherwise opted against observance, finds that, far from being a uniform bloc, atheists in America are a group with varied and complex reasons for their lifestyle choice.

But perhaps most compelling and relevant is Zuckerman’s revelation that atheists are not the amoral nihilists that politicians have so often found it convenient to portray; rather, as I posited in my first Dawkins post, they are, on a whole, people deeply concerned with morality—perhaps, I suggested, persons who have encountered, and been deeply troubled by, religiosity in one of its more immoral incarnations.  I suggested that for many atheists, their choice of non-religion stems from a deep sense of moral conviction—a belief that atheism is more moral than the religion they have encountered in history books and in their lives.

This conclusion only supports the legitimacy of nonreligious persons’ defensive stance in contemporary society, a stance that could easily lead to Dawkinsesque anti-religiosity and contribute to Dawkins’ widespread popularity among the reading public.  (Note, in particular, the sharp difference between the mention of the non-religious in President Obama’s inaugural speech [see the reference after the jump] and Mitt Romney’s complete avoidance of the constituency in his 2007 Faith in America Speech.)

The publisher’s description of Faith no More follows:

[Update (DRS, 12/26/11): See Louise M. Antony’s discussion of atheism and morality in her recent NYT.com post, Good Minus God (Dec. 18, 2011).  Antony—who teaches philosophy at UMass Amherst—argues that atheism usually has nothing to do with nihilism, but is an alternative moral perspective.  For atheists, she says, morality does not depend on the existence of God; rather, morality and the good are “immanent in the natural world”—right and wrong are inherent in the interactions and reactions between rational, feeling beings.]

During his 2009 inaugural speech, President Obama described the United States as a nation of “Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus–and nonbelievers.”  It was the first time an American president had acknowledged the existence of this rapidly growing segment of the population in such a public forum.  And yet the reasons why more and more people are turning away from religion are still poorly understood.

In Faith No More, Phil Zuckerman draws on in-depth interviews with people who have left religion to find out what’s really behind the process of losing one’s faith.  According to a 2008 study, so many Americans claim no religion (15%, up from 8% in 1990) that this category now outranks every other religious group except Catholics and Baptists.  Exploring the deeper stories within such survey data, Zuckerman shows that leaving one’s faith is a highly personal, complex, and drawn-out process.  And he finds that, rather than the cliche of the angry, nihilistic atheist, apostates are life-affirming, courageous, highly intelligent and inquisitive, and deeply moral.  Zuckerman predicts that this trend toward nonbelief will likely continue and argues that the sooner we recognize that religion is frequently and freely rejected by all sorts of men and women, the sooner our understanding of the human condition will improve.

The first book of its kind, Faith No More will appeal to anyone interested in the “New Atheism” and indeed to anyone wishing to more fully understand our changing relationship to religious faith.

Features:

  • This is the first in-depth, book-length analysis of apostasy to be written in many years, and the first to be written since the renewed interest in secularity brought about by the recent success of the ”New Atheist” wave.
  • The author is a leading figure in the study of atheism.
  • Features significantly in the newly emerging field of secular studies, but will also be of interest for students of contemporary religion.

—DRS, CLR Fellow

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