The Sociologists Are In

Tom Flynn

Atheist Awakening: Secular Activism and Community in America, by Richard Cimino and Christopher Smith, with a foreword by Martin E. Marty (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014, ISBN 9780199986323) 216 pp. Hardcover, $27.95.

In 2007, researcher Frank Pasquale contributed a seven-page entry to my New Encyclopedia of Unbelief with the forbidding title, “Unbelief and Irreligion, Empirical Study and Neglect Of.” Essentially a scholarly rant, it lamented how inadequately social science had studied the phenomenon of unbelief in religion. Five years later, much had changed; Pasquale’s Free Inquiry cover article, “The Social Science of Secularity” (February/March 2012), celebrated a dramatic rise in the academic study of unbelief and unbelievers as phenomena in their own right. Atheist Awakening displays this young field’s next level of development as two sociologists examine not just unbelief but the atheist/humanist movement in a fine-grained way.

Richard Cimino teaches sociology at the University of Richmond and was founding editor of the research newsletter Religion Watch, lamentably just discontinued in print. Christopher Smith is an independent researcher. Between them, they’ve evaluated the movement in great detail. Individually or jointly, they have studied the 2012 Reason Rally, pored over decades of Free Inquiry back issues, and digested much of P. Z. Myers’s blog output. And that’s just the beginning.

The book’s chapters grew out of several published papers, and some of the stitch work shows. Still, there’s incisive—and remarkably timely—analysis of the current population of national atheist and humanist organizations, including the Council for Secular Humanism. There is also provocative discussion of the implications of blog- and social media–based online activism for the role and future of the national organizations.

Cimino and Smith tread less surely in their treatment of emerging “community” initiatives among humanists and atheists. The Sunday Assembly movement and the National Atheist Party (by now, perhaps, the Secular Party of America) probably receive more prolonged treatments than their long-term importance merits. (Sunday Assembly won wide initial attention but lost critical momentum when its New York congregation schismed, a development covered in the book. In fairness, Atheist Awakening must have been on press before the Party began to founder amid allegations that its membership’s name-change vote had been tampered with.)

On the other hand, the authors describe most perceptively the ongoing rift between activists eager to rekindle “congregational life” among unbelievers and those who seek a humanist practice free of churchly trappings. (Full disclosure: I am in the latter camp, and Cimino and Smith quote me frequently.) Recognizing that something new is afoot, they suggest that this divide “replays”—rather than continues—“the conflicts and controversies that emerged between religious and secular humanists in the mid-twentieth century.” The new effort has a name: “congregational humanism,” co-introduced by the unlikely coalition of Greg Epstein, James Croft, Jennifer Kalmanson, and myself in FI’s October 2013 cover feature. (In view of the book’s timeliness, I’m surprised that Cimino and Smith made no use of that term.) Ultimately the authors conclude, almost wistfully: “[M]any in our sample agreed . . . on the importance of rituals. However, a significant number did not.” Activism and community, it seems, will continue to develop along separate paths.

Atheist Awakening is not without inaccuracies. The authors are correct in noting that “Arkansas has a constitutional provision disqualifying atheist from holding public office,” but so do Maryland, Mississippi, North and South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas. They list the American Humanist Association as a religious organization, though it shed its religious tax status in the mid-2000s. The Campus Freethought Alliance (founded by the Council in 1996) is not “now called the Secular Student Alliance.” SSA is an independent organization that split off from what is now Center for Inquiry–On Campus, the Campus Freethought Alliance’s direct successor. The authors’ account of Paul Kurtz’s resignation from the Council for Secular Humanism and the Center for Inquiry is largely speculative, perhaps unavoidably so in view of how much of this affair remains outside of the public record. Finally, Cimino and Smith have the curious impression that the New Atheism is a British import. (Of the “four horsemen,” Richard Dawkins is British. The British-born Christopher Hitchens moved to America in 1981, long before he emerged as an atheist activist. Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris, the first “horsemen” to publish their seminal New Atheist books, are American. Some British invasion!)

In addition, I would question the authors’ assertion that contemporary atheism has roots in the nineteenth-century freethought movement, while secular humanism does not. In his entry “Secular Humanism” in The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief, Vern Bullough stated flatly that “secular humanism and freethought are closely identified in the modern world.” In an FI article that the authors cite (“A Secular Humanist Definition: Setting the Record Straight,” Fall 2002), and in the Council’s introductory pamphlet Secular Humanism Defined (also available on the Council website), I describe secular humanism as the product of a mid–twentieth-century synthesis of religious humanism and freethought, with the latter’s influence largely accounting for secular humanism’s rejection of religious elements.

But these are quibbles; to some degree, they reflect the challenges of painting a detailed portrait of our movement from the outside, which few have attempted before. Atheist Awakening manifests a welcome maturing of the sociology of unbelief. It offers a detailed and generally perceptive analysis of our movement, its concerns, its rhetoric, and its organizations. Read it.

Tom Flynn is the editor of Free Inquiry and the executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism.

Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn is editor of Free Inquiry, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, director of the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum, and editor of The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (2007).

A review of Atheist Awakening: Secular Activism and Community in America, by Richard Cimino and Christopher Smith.

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