The most generous poll never seems to find more than thirty per cent of Americans saying they are “not religious or not very religious,” though the numbers get up to around fifty per cent in Europe. But something has altered in the course of a century or so. John Stuart Mill said in the early nineteenth century that he was the only youth he knew who was raised as a skeptic; by the end of his life, skeptics were all around him. Yet, though the nineteenth-century novel is roiled by doubt, there isn’t one in which the doubters quite dominate. Whatever change has occurred isn’t always well captured by counting hands. At a minimum, more people can say they don’t think there is a God, and suffer less for saying so, than has been the case since the fall of Rome. The noes have certainly captured some constituency, obtained some place. What, exactly, do they have?
There’s a case to be made that the change is more like pulses than like tides. If the nineteenth century ended with freethinkers in every front parlor, for most of the twentieth century the sound of atheism became more agonized and muted. Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the firebrand head of the American Atheists, had an occasional spot on Johnny Carson, but it was always in the last ten minutes of the show, the same spot that, ahem, Johnny gave to authors. (Billy Graham got on right after the monologue.) The glamour lay in faith. Nearly all the great modernist poets were believers: Auden and Eliot in Anglo-Christianity, Yeats in some self-crafted Hibernian voodoo. Wallace Stevens, whose great poem “Sunday Morning” is all about what to do when you don’t go to church, saw his atheism treated very discreetly, like Hart Crane’s homosexuality.
Only in the past twenty or so years did a tone frankly contemptuous of faith emerge. Centered on the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, the New Atheists were polemicists, and, like all polemics, theirs were designed not to persuade but to stiffen the spines of their supporters and irritate the stomach linings of their enemies. Instead of being mushy and marginalized, atheism could proclaim its creed. But why did the nonbelievers suddenly want stiffer spines and clearer signals? Why, if the noes indeed had it, did they suddenly have to be so loud?