Becoming Atheist: Humanism and the Secular West, by Callum G. Brown

Ursula King searches for communion between faithless and faithful in a study of unbelievers

March 16, 2017
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This is an ambitious book. Lively and well written, it tries to convince readers that the turn to atheism, also referred to as “de-conversion” and “the rise of no religionism”, is closely connected to the Western cultural shift of the 1960s and the rise of mass unbelief since the 1990s.

Callum Brown describes himself as a cultural and social historian informed by the social scientific method. Unlike a sociologist, however, he does not present a vast array of detailed statistics and comparative data. Building on his earlier work, The Death of Christian Britain: Understanding Secularisation 1800-2000 (2001) and Religion and the Demographic Revolution: Women and Secularisation in Canada, Ireland, UK and USA since the 1960s (2013), he bases this study on wide-ranging archive material and interviews with 85 people from 18 countries. Their oral history provides valuable and provocative information about individuals in Europe and North America of Christian, Jewish and other backgrounds, who explain how they have come to be without a religious faith.

The narratives of these individuals create a richly quilted pattern of belief and unbelief, from “the atheist child” to the maturation of atheism, and from the “silent and indifferent atheist” to women’s and men’s atheistic profiles, followed by a discussion of atheism and ethnicity. Each chapter examines important themes disclosing different experiences, insights and questions. Many are addressed with subtlety and concern, but much remains that is controversial, unacknowledged and misrepresented. Brown’s imaginative treatment certainly provides rich material for lively debates among fellow scholars and students of history, philosophy, religion and ethics. Yet his lack of discernment – or should I say blindness? – regarding more perceptive analyses of both atheism and religion is shocking. No reference is made to existing histories of atheism among the ancient Greeks, Jews and Christians that show that atheism is not a new invention but as old as religion itself. Nor does Brown discuss why he refers to both “god” and “God”, and what this difference might imply. There is also no recognition of the different goals of professional religious education offered in British schools, and the religious nurturing transmitted by the family and religious places of worship.

Readers must ask whether this book’s sometimes astounding generalisations are not based on far too slender and unrepresentative evidence, especially as the condensed interview descriptions deal primarily with the stories of one African American, one Jew, four Hindus, one Muslim, and some white Westerners. Much is made of the links between modern feminism and atheism without any acknowledgement of the equally strong feminist voices of faith now active in all major religions, and so brilliantly described by Durre Ahmed as “the gendering of the Spirit” and by others as a truly “silent revolution”.

The most rewarding chapter is the last, “The humanist condition”, which explores a more inclusive vision of an “atheism with a heart”. Unsurprisingly, people – men more than women – are now twice as likely to call themselves humanist as atheist. What is needed is honest, open dialogue among humanism, atheism and religion, not another dogmatic defence of atheism.

Ursula King is emeritus professor of theology and religious studies, University of Bristol.


Becoming Atheist: Humanism and the Secular West
By Callum G. Brown
Bloomsbury, 248pp, £80.00 and £21.99
ISBN 9781474224499 and 4529
Published 12 January 2017

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Print headline: Heaven is a place called Earth

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