A survey of the social and political status of atheists in 21st-century America.
As Moore (Emeritus, American Studies and History/Cornell Univ.) and Kramnick (Emeritus, Government/Cornell Univ.), who co-authored The Godless Constitution: A Moral Defense of the Secular State (2005, etc.), define it, atheism sweeps wide and includes deists, agnostics, and secular humanists, comprising perhaps 20 percent of the U.S. population. The authors demonstrate at length that atheists in America—a country whose colonies were founded largely along religious lines—have historically suffered not just public scorn, but also prosecutions for blasphemy and such legal impediments as being denied the right to testify in court or to serve in public office. They provide concise but thorough summaries of judicial arguments and opinions that have justified striking down the most overtly discriminatory laws but leave in place less intrusive practices like prayer at public events. The authors further assert that private opinions disfavoring atheism nevertheless remain influential and that large majorities assume that "to be irreligious is to be 'un-American,’ ” an attitude actively encouraged during the Cold War. Various organizations of the current supposed "Atheist Awakening" are intent on remedying that through advertising, political activism, and largely unsuccessful legal assaults on remaining vestiges of religious observance and expression in government. Moore and Kramnick map the edges of conflict over the uneasy balance between atheists' rights not to be coerced into insincere professions of belief and believers' rights to express a conviction that religion is a fundamental bedrock of civil society. While supportive of the atheists' cause, their work is not as polemical as that of some of their colleagues; they are content to set out the issues atheist activists are now pressing. Some of these will likely strike readers as frivolous or as quixotic attempts to drive religion entirely from the public square, something no American government at any level has ever committed to doing.
An impassioned review of the demands of a little-considered minority.