Atheism Needs to Evolve Beyond Richard Dawkins-style Secularism


Atheism has received a lot of press this weekend, but what we saw was only a Gen X rebellion. We millennials have discovered a more perfect breed of atheism that is simultaneously much less scary and much more threatening to religious institutions.

Traditional atheism defines itself in contrast to theistic belief. Richard Dawkins, for example, campaigned against the God Delusion, making wild money based on people's dissatisfaction with their own religious conviction coupled with people's desire to rebel from the faith of their fathers. But there are three big holes in traditional, Christopher Hitchens-style atheism:

1) It has been institutionalized. By being defined as a category alongside Christian or Hindu, traditional atheism has become a religious institution with orthodoxy, venerated leaders, prescribed practices, and even some rituals. This is great for atheists who want to be atheist with others, in a community, which leads to...

2) The word "atheist" can only be defined using the word "god." The word "god" is inseparable from theism - it has no other meaning. Any discussion of god, including the contradiction of god, necessarily uses the word "god" and promotes a theistic mindset. 

3) Being atheist is a pretty new thing. All religious traditions include mystical testimonies to the mysteriousness of the divine, like Sufism in Islam or Dark Theology in Christianity. Religious institutions and communities make God more approachable and easy to understand. It seems like, if you follow these instructions, BAM! There's God. But just scratching the surface of theology reveals the deep cloud of unknowing present within the religion. Even St. Paul hungers after the unattainable knowledge of god in 1 Corinthians 14:12, "For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known." So doubting god or imagining a god-free world did not make one an atheist in the past.

Perfect atheism cures these ills, and it's increasingly popular with millennials. A perfect atheist is one for whom god never comes up. They never talk about it, they don't go to meetings or read books about it, they never use the word "atheist" to describe themselves, and they aren't rebelling against anything.

They just live their lives guided by internal and external morals and desires, directing themselves towards tangible, terrestrial goals. They find community in friends in their daily lives and online. The big spiritual questions are simply not relevant - they aren't interested in being a soldier in the war between Dawkins and god. These are the millennial Nones.

Religious institutions will have a harder time recruiting Millennials later in life because the institution has very little to offer. Millennial atheists don't need the parish for community, they aren't looking for orthodoxy, and they're skeptical of tradition and hierarchy. Rituals are still an important part of our lives, but religious institutions don't have a monopoly on those.

Religious institutions should recognize that they will be competing with a new atheism this millennium and seriously consider what they offer to our generation.