Here’s the power of Gnu Atheism: Dan Dennett has a piece in today’s Daily News, “The Unbelievable Truth: Why America has become a nation of religious know-nothings,” analyzing why atheists did better than the faithful on the Pew religion quiz:
However, since the birth of modern science in the 17th century, it has been downhill for literalism . . .
So what’s a religion to do? There are two main tactics.
Plan A: Treat the long, steady retreat into metaphor and mystery as a process of increasing wisdom, and try to educate the congregation to the new sophisticated understandings.
Plan B: Cloak all the doctrines in a convenient fog and then not just excuse the faithful from trying to penetrate the fog, but celebrate the policy of not looking too closely at anyone’s creed – not even your own. . .
Atheists tend to be those curious and truth-loving folks who do take a good hard look at religious professions of faith, and hence they tend to know what they are walking away from.
There have always been atheists, though not always very visible to the public. In fact, the perennial nagging doubts of the few atheists in the crowd have probably been the main force sustaining theology!
Many of those who have thought long and hard about religions – and hence know the answers – don’t actually believe the doctrines that they rightly identify as belonging to the church they are affiliated with . .
They know, for instance, what a good Catholic is “required to profess” as Pope Benedict (when he was Cardinal Ratzinger) often said, and so, if they are Catholics, they profess it. But they find that they cannot actually believe it. Many people maintain their loyalty as vigorous members of their denominations while quietly setting aside the dogmas, either utterly ignored as irrelevant or wreathed in protective layers of metaphor.
The Pew study also reveals why atheist critiques of religious doctrines are largely a waste of effort: Few people believe them in any case; they just say they do.
Well, I’m not so sure about the last bit. There are plenty of religious people who believe in a personal, theistic God, in the fact that they’ll live after death, in Jesus as God’s son or Mohamed as God’s prophet, and so on. Surely that is religious doctrine, too. Nevertheless, Dennett is surely correct that many liberal religious people are hardly distinguishable from atheists. And it would have been unthinkable a few years ago for a paper as popular as The Daily News to publish a critique like this. That is the success of New Atheism.