What’s Wrong with This Picture?

Ryan Cragun

There Is No God: Atheists in America, by David A. Williamson and George Yancey (Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2013, ISBN 978-1-4422-1849-9) 150 pp. Hardcover, $36.00.


There Is No God: Atheists in America offers very little that is new or noteworthy in the budding field of social scientific research on atheists in the United States. The aim of the book is to describe the characteristics of atheists, along with offering a few suggestions for what motivates them. The authors, David A. Williamson and George Yancey, became interested in this topic as a result of a different project focused on social progressives and their preconception that progressives hold anti-Christian biases (which, strangely, led them to survey an atheist group to find progressives, reflecting an odd assumption underlying their approach). That they are not experts on atheism and conducted this project as a side interest is apparent in the book’s spartan bibliography that is a scant three pages and is missing references to almost all of the relevant research on this topic.

To examine the characteristics of U.S. atheists, the authors conducted a nonrandom Internet sample of atheists recruited by sending out links to various atheist groups, read some atheist newsletters and/or magazines, and interviewed about fifty atheists recruited from atheist groups in the Midwest and Texas. They concluded that atheists tend to be disproportionately white, male, wealthy, well-educated, and socially progressive. All of this was known before. Frank Pasquale, Bruce Hunsberger and Bob Altemeyer, Phil Zuckerman, Tom Alcorn, and Jesse Smith have all interviewed and/or surveyed atheists in the United States and found the same thing. Barry Kosmin, Ariela Keysar, Juhem Navarra, and me, as well as Darren Sherkat, Buster Smith, and Joseph Baker have already looked at nationally representative data to examine characteristics of atheists. All of the scholars mentioned used more robust data than this book does. Thus, both qualitative and quantitative research that is better than what is included in this book has already been published and is widely available to scholars aware of it (most of the above studies are not cited by the authors of this book).

However, the book does offer a new and disturbingly biased perspective on atheism in the United States. At least one of the authors (Yancey) but likely both is a devout Christian whose research is geared toward strengthening religions and “revealing” anti-Christian bias in the United States (as per his website, http://www.georgeyancey.com/). Thus, the new perspective on offer in this book is that of devout Christian authors who have a poor understanding of atheism and an unstated agenda. This is manifest in myriad ways. It is clear from the very first sentence that the authors don’t know what atheism is. They assume that all atheism is positive atheism (the denial of the existence of a god) and are either completely unaware or willfully ignorant of negative atheism (lacking belief in a god or gods). The authors also conclude that atheism is only and always the negation of religion, which makes no sense given the term’s meaning (without belief in a god, not rejecting religion). Atheism and opposition to religion often go together, but equating the two is not accurate. The authors also consider atheism a religious belief, which it is not. In order for atheism to be religious it would have to be part of a religion. While some atheists are members of freethought groups, most are not, and the groups are not religious. Thus, atheism is a belief, but not a religious one.

Williamson and Yancey are also amazed to find that atheists think in terms of us (atheists) versus them (the Christian Right) and criticize atheists for not recognizing more moderate religious people but seem not to realize that the way they asked their questions, primarily in their survey but also in their interviews, almost guaranteed this perspective. They asked specifically about the Christian Right in multiple questions. Had they asked atheists what they think about Unitarians or other liberal Christians, they would have found that atheists are much less critical and far more nuanced in their views. They also quote some of the atheist literature they read to justify this claim, but, because they do not describe their methodology for either gathering or analyzing that literature, it is impossible to say whether or not they simply pulled quotes that supported this idea rather than conducted a more rigorous, unbiased analysis.

The authors also suggest that people become atheists primarily because they are wealthy and don’t need what God has to offer. This idea seems tied to a notion they suggest (but repeatedly contradict): that atheists are part of the majority (because they are white, male, and wealthy). This seems to be a setup for the second author’s line of research on anti-Christian bias in academia. The aim seems to be to suggest that atheists control academia, leading to anti-Christian bias. Yet, how pervasive can widespread anti-Christian bias be if, as representative statistics of college professors and students indicate, there are more Christians in higher education (faculty and students, depending on the university) than there are atheists? This question is left unaddressed in the book.

The very last chapter admits that the authors started the study with a number of assumptions, most of which they claim were supported by the data they collected. Those assumptions go unstated, but based on my reading of the book, they include all of the following: atheists have offered no novel criticisms of religion over and above those introduced by theologians hundreds of years ago; atheists are derisive and demeaning of religion and do not take it seriously; atheists think all religious people are irrational and stupid; atheists have substantial political influence; there is a middle ground between secular humanism and religious fundamentalism that is superior to both; and atheists are part of the majority in the United States, leading to pervasive anti-Christian bias. Every one of these assumptions is wrong, yet the authors conclude, based on their data, that they are correct.

There may be one redeeming quality to this book. It does a very good job of illustrating how religious people, particularly highly religious social scientists, view atheism. Repeatedly, the authors state that atheists are a very small group and are not growing, despite the fact that there are today more atheists in the United States than Jews and Mormons combined, that the nonreligious are adding hundreds of thousands to their ranks every year, and there has been an increase in the percentage of people reporting they do not believe in God over the last ten years. Because of the authors’ perspectives, I think conservative Christians who are afraid that atheism is on the rise will respond positively to the book. It will validate their fear that higher education is a hotbed of progressive and atheist activism (which isn’t accurate). It will also help heighten their sense of oppression, despite the fact that Christians are still the majority in the United States (leading to the strengthening of convictions, which is the goal of at least one of the authors). Also, this book, despite being riddled with problems, will serve as an excellent reference for the authors as they continue their research on antiChristian bias in this predominantly Christian country.

Secular humanists, atheists, and other freethinkers will find nothing new in this book. Instead, reading it will likely result in them pulling their hair out in frustration at how ill-informed and biased the authors are.

 

Ryan Cragun

Ryan T. Cragun is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Tampa. His research interests include Mormonism and the nonreligious.

He is the author of more than a dozen peer-reviewed articles, including several for Free Inquiry, and half-dozen book chapters. His research is regularly featured in national media.


There Is No God: Atheists in America, by David A. Williamson and George Yancey (Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2013, ISBN 978-1-4422-1849-9) 150 pp. Hardcover, $36.00. There Is No God: Atheists in America offers very little that is new or noteworthy in the budding field of social scientific research on atheists in the …

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