It seems unlikely that many of the 850 or so people at the Society for Ethical Culture on a recent Saturday night believed that God was still extant. But evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion and possibly the most famous atheist in the world, was not taking any chances. He gave a PowerPoint presentation driving home that religion does not meet any of the standards of basic scientific inquiry, before casually flicking away a few of His last crutches. Doesn’t God provide people some solace? asked an audience member. “Isn’t that a little childish?” Dawkins replied. “Just because something is comforting doesn’t mean it’s true.” Then someone asked about death, and Dawkins quoted Mark Twain: “I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born.”
The room erupted in loud applause. God had definitely left the building—if he were ever here at all. Dawkins and his colleagues had helped to produce a kind of atheist big bang, a new beginning. But what kind of new structures might evolve?
The Society for Ethical Culture was formed in 1877, eighteen years after Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species and made the religious universe wobble on its axis. But godlessness can be a little scary, even for an atheist. Ethical Culture’s imposing 1910 edifice on Central Park speaks to its patrons’ wealth, as well as their concern that society might fall apart if it didn’t have a church. But for all the grandeur of its secular cathedral, Ethical Culture peaked at maybe 6,000 members, with only about 3,000 today.
Now, once again, nonbelievers have a fresh sense of mission. The fastest-growing faith in the country is no faith at all. The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life released the results of its “Religious Landscape” survey in February and found that 16 percent of Americans have no religious affiliation. The number is even greater among young people: 25 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds now identify with no religion, up from 11 percent in a similar survey in 1986. For most of its modern history, atheism has existed as a kind of civil-rights movement. Groups like American Atheists have functioned primarily as litigants in the fight for church-state separation, not as atheist social clubs. “Atheists are self-reliant, self-sufficient, independent people who don’t feel like they need an organization,” says Ellen Johnson, president of American Atheists for the past thirteen years. “They’re so independent that if they want to get involved, they usually don’t join an organization—they start their own.”
The quartet of best-selling authors who have emerged to write the gospel of New Atheism—Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, and Dawkins (the Four Horsemen, as they are now known)—has succeeded in mainstreaming atheism in a nation that is still overwhelmingly religious and, in the process, catalyzed a reexamination of atheistic raison d’être. But for some atheist foot soldiers, this current groundswell is just a consciousness-raising stop on the evolutionary train, the atheist equivalent of the Stonewall riots. For these people, the Four Horsemen have only started the journey. Atheism’s great awakening is in need of a doctrine. “People perceive us as only rejecting things,” says Ken Bronstein, the president of a local group called New York City Atheists. “Everybody wants to know, ‘Okay, you’re an atheist, now what?’ ”
So some atheists are taking seriously the idea that atheism needs to stand for things, like evolution and ethics, not just against things, like God. The most successful movements in history, after all—Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, etc.—all have creeds, cathedrals, schools, hierarchies, rituals, money, clerics, and some version of a heavenly afterlife. Churches fill needs, goes the argument—they inculcate ethics, give meaning, build communities. “Science and reason are important,” says Greg Epstein, the humanist chaplain of Harvard University. “But science and reason won’t visit you in the hospital.”
Many atheist sects are experimenting with building new, human-centered quasi-religious organizations, much like Ethical Culture. They aim to remove God from the church, while leaving the church, at least large parts of it, standing. But this impulse is fueling a growing schism among atheists. Many of them see churches as part of the problem. They want to throw out the baby and the bathwater—or at least they don’t see the need for the bathwater once the baby is gone.
On a recent chilly Friday night, a few dozen members of the City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism were gathered downstairs at the Village Community School on West 10th Street for Shabbat. For them, this is a monthly ritual that includes lighting candles and singing Jewish songs that have been carefully excised of a deity. “Where is my light?” asks the song “Ayfo Oree.” “My light is in me.” According to the congregation’s leader, the humanist rabbi Peter Schweitzer, who wrote much of the secular Shabbat service, as well as the lyrics and verse for the congregation’s life-cycle events like weddings, funerals, and bar and bat mitzvahs, Judaism is mostly a culture—religion is just one component. So he simply takes a red pen to the God parts. “We offer a different door in,” says Schweitzer. “One that doesn’t ask you to compromise your lack of beliefs.”