Review: Atheists in America (2014), edited by Melanie E. Brewster

Hannah S

In this post Hannah Scheidt  reviews Melanie E. Brewster’s  edited volume Atheists in America. Scheidt focuses on the ways in which Brewster’s deals with the issue of ‘coming out’ as an atheist and he focus on ‘New Atheist’ phenomenon.

Melanie Brewster’s edited volume Atheists in America brings together twenty-seven short personal narratives about being and becoming atheist in contemporary America. Gathered from a national call for submissions, the contributions represent a diverse sample in terms of age, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, geographical region, and (former) religion. The narratives are organized into eight chapters. Chapters devoted to leaving faith or “deconversion,” navigating romantic relationships, family life and parenting, workplace dynamics, and aging collect narratives that reflect on the “atheist experience” throughout the stages of life. Chapters on cultural context, LGBTQ issues, and the search for community highlight both shared experiences as well as rich diversity in the lives and identities of American atheists today.

Brewster is interested in identity development, the “coming out” process, and experiences of marginalization and discrimination of atheists in contemporary America. Brewster rightly draws the reader’s attention to a number of recurring tropes and themes in the contributions. One such theme is that of gradual coming out/discovery, wherein individuals pass through phases of identifying as simply “not religious,” before calling themselves “agnostic,” before finally settling on “atheist.” Several contributors express reservations about the word “atheist” specifically, thinking it sounds harsh or carries excess baggage that they would rather avoid. Social justice concerns also loom large in the narratives, especially those related to gender equality. Almost all the contributors report some level of fear, hesitancy, and/or ongoing strategic negotiation in sharing their atheism with others. Perhaps unsurprisingly, atheists borrow language and tropes from the LGBTQ movement in their accounts of marginalization and discrimination.  Brewster’s introduction, “The Other Closet” clearly lays out her interest in developing a parallel between atheist and LGBTQ identities (her chapter in The Oxford Handbook of Atheism develops this notion as well).

The specter of the so-called “New Atheism” looms large through the collection.[i] Some narratives acknowledge the New Atheist literature directly. One reported: “I felt as if I had been in a stupor for years and then Sam Harris had walked up to me and punched me in the face with a fistful of reason. It was a true awakening.”[ii] In addition, several contributors reference the phenomenon more obliquely – borrowing language, resisting tropes, navigating what it means to be an atheist at a time when New Atheism remains the dominant “face” of the movement. One philosophy instructor bluntly critiques the “atheist movement” for its lack of significant attention to social and economic (in)justice.[iii] An effective way for the movement to diversify and expand, he writes, would be to devote significant resources to the improvement of economic, health, safety, and educational opportunities of the world’s poor. He advocates commitment to a tradition of progress that is material as well as intellectual and that is not reserved for the privileged few.

I was also struck by a recurring commentary on attitude which attends to questions about how atheists do and should behave, especially when engaging with the religious.  For example, one university student writes: “There is a difference between sharing how you feel and being a total asshole.”[iv] These comments can be read as implicit critiques of the antagonistic style that is often associated with New Atheism.

I found myself asking, as I worked my way through the narratives, who this book is meant for. The accounts were undeniably compelling and at times quite moving, and would certainly provide a valuable resource for contemporary atheists trying to make sense of their experience. In the hands of those wary, suspicious, or simply ignorant of atheism today, the collection could serve to humanize the atheist experience, making it more relatable. This is perhaps the most significant contribution of a volume like this: expanding the public’s understanding of contemporary atheism beyond the famous faces on book jackets and talk shows. From an academic perspective, the collection serves as a think piece, which might help to generate questions and hypotheses. The themes that Brewster identifies are indeed present, in addition to a number of other patterns (I noticed, for example, the theme of transformation from emotional/irrational to rational was slightly more common in women’s narratives), but there are no empirical claims to be drawn from the modest sample collected in this book. This volume adds to a growing body of personal narratives from atheists.[v] It is my hope that future research asks critical questions about how narratives like these (and their authors) are linked and patterned, drawing conclusions about atheism as a cultural force and social movement.

References

Brewster, Melanie E. 2014. Atheism in America. New York: Columbia University Press.

Bullivant, Stephen and Michael Ruse, eds. 2013. The Oxford Handbook of Atheism. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Notes

[i] There is considerable public and scholarly debate about the term “New Atheism” – whether or not it constitutes a “movement,” whether or not there is actually anything new about atheism today. Whatever the case, New Atheism is almost always spoken of in reference to best-selling authors of the post-9/11 period, including Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens, who share a rather aggressive, no-holds-barred style.

[ii] Camilo Ortiz, “Cracking Open the Closet Door,” in Atheists in America, 203.

[iii] David Hoelscher, “A Life of Class Consciousness,” in Atheists in America, 89-90.

[iv] Brittany Friedel, “An Atheist in the Bible Belt,” in Atheists in America, 182.

[v] Other collections include 50 Voice of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists (2009), edited by Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk (reviewed here). Phil Zuckerman’s Living the Secular Life (2014) combines personal narrative with the author’s sociological research. Atheist Voices of Minnesota (2012) edited by Bill Lehto aims to humanize nonbelievers. Book-length personal narratives are also popular, like Anthony Pinn’s recent memoir, Writing God’s Obituary: How a Good Methodist Became a Better Atheist (2014).

Hannah Scheidt is a doctoral student in the Department of Religious Studies at Northwestern University. Her research interests include atheist communities and experiences, religion and science in American culture, and transhumanism. Currently, her work focuses on theorizing the role of debates in contemporary atheism, utilizing perspectives from both religious studies and media studies. 

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