The Nonverts: Part 4, "I'm an Atheist, But..."

While Nonverts are on the rise, they are not as disenchanted as many have assumed. The Nones and the Nonverts aren't becoming atheists. As Stephen Bullivant describes in Nonverts: The Making of Ex-Christian America most Nones are "Liminal Nones," likely to believe in God or a Higher Power, and espousing all sorts of supernatural and metaphysical beliefs. 

But this goes even further. It's not just that the Nones aren't becoming atheists. The Nones also want to put some distance between themselves and atheists. There is an assumption among the Nones that atheists are online trolls, mean-spirited, unpleasant, and fanatical. Even irrational. Which is a fascinating development, that atheism, which prides itself as being "rational," is now associated among many Nones as being quite the opposite. 

Much of this is the, perhaps predictable, backlash against the New Atheist moment, when atheists took to the Internet to troll and belittle people of faith. In the early days of this blog I dealt with such types. They are still out there and still show up in the comments, but they seem less prevalent today. It didn't help, I'm sure, that the leader of the New Atheist movement, Richard Dawkins, is an unpleasant person. Or that Sam Harris, another New Atheist leader, started writing faith-adjacent books. The "end of faith" sure didn't last very long. 

Bullivant describes the impressions the Nones have regarding online atheism:

A great many nones or near-nones, and indeed a good chunk of self-identifying atheists themselves, [are] quick to distance themselves from those atheists...The existence of "extremist" atheists [is used] to justify [a] more moderate, open-minded non-religious view. 

As one of Bullivant's interviewees, a None, comments:

I don't know what the deal is with atheists. I mean, like online, those kinda troll people. I've had problems with those people. They kinda act fanatical, basically. Fanatically oppositional. I don't like extremists. I've hopped in conversations, you know, where they're just mean.

Bullivant also points to the profusion of headlines in recent years, like "I Had to Walk Away from the Toxic Side of Online Atheism" and "Thank God I'm not a New Atheist." As Bullivant concludes, there is an attempt among the Nones to contrast your "implicit reasonableness with those other atheists." The trend among atheist Nones is, "I'm an atheist, but...", as the speaker goes on to clarify that they are not a troll nor fanatical. They are a "good," "open-minded," and "reasonable" atheist. An atheist that respects people of faith. As Bullivant observes, Christians do this all the time. "I'm a Christian, but..." I'm good, open-minded and reasonable Christian, not like those other Christians

I find this a fascinating development. I've seen progressive Christians criticized online by non-believers for always saying that they are the "good Christians," as opposed to their badly behaving evangelical counterparts. To the critics of Christianity, this differentiation is considered illicit. The bad apples spoil the whole batch, making any Christian identity ruinous. There is no good Christianity. You're not allowed to separate yourself, as a Christian, from the bad behaviors of other Christians. You're all the same stripe.

Well, guess what? This is exactly what atheists do! The same way the pagans want to distance themselves from Satanists. Or, as I describe in the upcoming paperback edition of Hunting Magic Eels, how feminist Wiccans want to distance themselves from the white-supremacist Odinists.

The religious marketplace, and I'm including here all the varieties of unbelief, is diverse. Everyone--Christian, pagan, and atheist--is inclined to identify the good and bad expressions of their beliefs. This is not a uniquely Christian issue. 

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply