Been There, Done That: What Atheists Can Contribute to This Discussion

A Response to Michael C. McCarthy, S.J.

by Jerome P. Baggett |

I greatly appreciated Fr. Mick McCarthy’s forthright and insightful inaugural Louis I. Bannan, S.J. Lecture. I wholly agree with him that carefully attending to faith’s fragility amid the modern context will inevitably engender “different kinds of discussions” than one typically hears when religious matters are engaged within the public sphere.

Certainly they will be different from those initiated by the best-sellers penned by the so- called “new atheists.” They uniformly depict religious faith as “belief without evidence” and, in doing so, reduce it to intellectually erroneous propositions about the natural world. To Richard Dawkins, religious faith, which he describes as a “persistently false belief held in the face of strong contradictory evidence,” is really nothing more than shoddy science.1 “Thanks to the telescope and the microscope,” exults Christopher Hitchens in agreement, “[religion] no longer offers an explanation of anything important.”2 Approaching religion this way, however, is tantamount to a confusion of genres. It is something akin to disparaging Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis for being an extremely poor entomology textbook. In fact, most religious people in the United States experience little conflict between science and religion (insofar as they see the latter as connecting them to something supernatural), and their actual lives and attitudes utterly defy ham-handed stereotypes about them being necessarily deluded, scientifically ignorant, and so forth.

Fr. McCarthy knows this about people of faith, and he does well to avoid trucking in simplifications about them. Yet, when he suggests three helpful ways to render contemporary faith sustainable—“imagine bigger,” “befriend intelligent believers,” and “take a risk”—I wonder if these imply a tacit stereotyping of unbelievers (read: they have not bothered to do these things) and thus, if taken as seriously as they truly deserve, these suggestions will engender “different kinds of discussions” than Fr. McCarthy himself anticipates. I make this query based on what I have learned through my current research project on everyday Americans who identify as atheists.

The very same tacks that can steer some people toward a faith deepened bring still others to a very different destination— a faith discarded.

A proclivity to imagine bigger is precisely what brought many of them to atheism in the first place. During interview sessions, they told me again and again about how their growing in awareness eventually burst even their most deeply considered religious categories. The teenager who devoted a year to reading the Bible from cover to cover; the undergrad accounting major who decided to minor in philosophy; the soon-to-be mother who relentlessly engaged all her friends (of various faiths) in theological discussions; the retired fireman who, after reading Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, became obsessed with astronomy; the self- described “seeker” who went from Pentecostalism to Catholicism to Zen: These people, and so many others, all took on what they saw as the “big questions” quite sincerely—and came up with nonreligious answers. About one-third of them point to the spate of recently published books on atheism as being “very influential” in terms of their ultimately rejecting faith in God. Whereas, somewhat unexpectedly, a full two-thirds say this about their own intuitions and feelings, and nearly all (97 percent) say it about their own critical thinking.

Professor Jerome Baggett of the Jesuit school of Theology actively engages the audience in his Fall 2013 Bannan institute Lecture, “Well i’ll Be Damned: Considering Atheism in the United states Today.” Grace Ogihara

Not only have nonbelievers interrogated their feelings and deployed their critical faculties in thinking bigger, they have also befriended intelligent believers. Fewer than one in five atheists in my study strongly agree with the statement, “most of my friends are not religious,” and only a scant minority (5 percent) strongly agree that “I tend to dislike religious people.” This is hardly front page news. Believers are often nonbelievers’ neighbors, co-workers, family members, and, not infrequently, even their spouses. Is it any surprise that they are also among the ranks of their friends? After all, many of the more reflective ones frame their religious convictions as being true “for me”—a subtle caveat that appears more than once in Fr. McCarthy’s lecture—as if to signal their unwillingness to either judgmentally underestimate the validity of other people’s truths or hubristically overestimate the validity of their own. What’s more, if this pervasive “live and let live” attitude among the religious makes them easy to befriend, atheists are also increasingly connecting with fellow irreligious travelers—other “believers” in secular worldviews. The number of atheism-related online support networks, forums, podcasts, blogs, and videoblogs is dizzying and seems to grow daily. So, too, is the number of in-person groupings. For example, founded in 2000, the Secular Student Alliance, the national umbrella organization for campus atheist and humanist groups, had fewer than fifty affiliates in 2007; by 2011 it had nearly 350 established at colleges and universities across the country.

Lastly and without doubt, the majority of the atheists I interviewed perceive themselves as risk-takers. In other words, rather than proceeding along religious traditions’ well-marked pathways, they talk about what they experience as the far more precarious venture of cutting their own paths through life, often unsure whether the directions they choose are the right ones and yet taking responsibility for them all the same. Expressed by my interviewees, this is also a key leitmotif within the newly burgeoning atheist spirituality literature. “You and you alone are the sole arbiter of the meaning in your life,” explains Eric Maisel, whereas “most [people] defer to the meaning- making apparatus of their culture, taking comfort in the fact that others have built a meaning nest for them.”3

While this species of riskiness is certainly lauded among atheists, I am not agreeing with Maisel’s presumption that believers simply “defer” to religious traditions and desire “comfort” solely. Nor am I saying that Fr. McCarthy’s advice to

When lives of authenticity, moral seriousness, and profound aspiration ... are clearly underwritten by both religious and nonreligious narratives, then the discussion turns to questions concerning the worth of distinctly religious ways of situating oneself in the world. Is faith really for everyone? How different are religious convictions from nonreligious ones? Is it only faith commitments that are fragile today? These are vital and gathering questions for believers and unbelievers alike.

think bigger, befriend intelligent believers, and take a risk cannot sustain and indeed deepen one’s faith. What I am saying is that the very same tacks that can steer some people toward a faith deepened bring still others to a very different destination—a faith discarded. And, importantly, widespread recognition of this reality should and, I think, inevitably will precipitate “different kinds of discussions” than seemingly endless religiously inspired “culture wars” debates or even more genial conversations about how to deepen faith. When lives of authenticity, moral seriousness, and profound aspiration—what, in his monumental text A Secular Age, the philosopher Charles Taylor calls lives of “fullness”—are clearly underwritten by both religious and nonreligious narratives, then the discussion turns to questions concerning the worth of distinctly religious ways of situating oneself in the world.4 Is faith really for everyone? How different are religious convictions from nonreligious ones? Is it only faith commitments that are fragile today? These are vital and gathering questions for believers and unbelievers alike. I am not sure I have the best answers to these questions. I am quite certain, however, that discussing them openly and thoughtfully will reveal (if I may) that the lion’s share of what we claim to know and want is fraught with far more fragility than we typically realize.5

Jerome P. Baggett is Professor of Religion and Society at the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University, a member of the Graduate Theological Union’s Core Doctoral Faculty, and Visiting Professor of Sociology at UC Berkeley. He is also the author of Habitat for Humanity: Building Private Homes, Building Public Religion (Temple 2001) and Sense of the Faithful: How American Catholics Live Their Faith (Oxford 2009). He is currently conducting research for a book, tentatively titled The Varieties of Irreligious Experience, on atheists in the United States.


  1. Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006), 5.
  2. Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (New York: Twelve, 2007), 282.
  3. Eric Maisel, The Atheist’s Way: Living Well Without Gods (Novato, Cal.: New World Library, 2009), 66.
  4. See Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007).
  5. For more on Jerome Baggett’s current research and contribution to this conversation see “Well, I’ll Be Damned: Considering Atheism in the United States Today,” 2013–2014 Bannan Institute: What Good Is God? series, November 6, 2013, Santa Clara University;
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