From Atheists to Nones: An Updated Perspective

Pierre-Antoine Demachy: Festival of the Supreme Being
Carnavalet Museum – Paris

On the 8th of June 1794 (the 20th of Prairial according to the calendar of the
French Revolution, Pentecost Sunday by the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar),
at Les Tuileries, in Paris, Maximilien de Robespierre celebrated the
“Festival of the Supreme Being” (symbolized by a tree) condemning atheism,
embodied in a straw effigy and burnt along with others representing Ambition,
Selfishness and False Modesty. At the same time, homage was paid to
an incombustible statue indicating Wisdom. The Hymn to the Supreme Being,
composed by the poet Thédore Desorgues and set to music by François-
Joseph Gossec, was sung. The first article of the new revolutionary catechism,
approved on the 7th of May (18th of Floréal) 1794, recognised “the existence
of the Supreme Being and the immortality of the soul”. Robespierre, on that
occasion, said that “the idea of a Supreme Being and of the immortality of the
soul acts as a constant reminder of justice” (Oeuvres de Maximilien Robespierre,
Société des études robespierristes, Paris, 1961–1967, x, pp. 443–462). The republican
celebrations replaced Catholic feast days, the cult of the Supreme Being
the atheist one of Reason.

It was precisely upon the topic of the immortality of the soul, elicited by
Robespierre, that a few decades later Ludwig Feuerbach dwelt, in a juvenile
text if his dated 1830 Gedanken über Tod und Unsterblichkeit (Thoughts on
Death and Immortality), denying immortality (and, as a result, losing his university
teaching post). Like Auguste Comte, his contemporary, he envisaged
a cult of humanity, that is, a “Religion of Humanity” whereby, due precisely
to atheism, humanity itself became the object of a meta-individual kind of
veneration, leading to the disappearance of Christianity (On Philosophy and
Christianity, 1839), the essence of which (The Essence of Christianity, 1841) was
believed to consist in a simple projection of man upon God. In short, humanism
became a form of atheism.
The topic was resumed quite some time later and involved a series of theological
debates, worthy of considerable attention and which, especially in
Germany, led to fecund exchanges between some theologians/philosophers
(Bultmann, Barth, Moltmann, Ratzinger) and a limited number of sociologists
(Adorno, Horkheimer, Habermas). These discussions are reported, in part,
in an invaluable little volume called Atheismus in der Christenheit (Atheism
in Christianity), Ausaat Verlag, Wuppertal, vol. i, 1960, 1970, by theologianphilosopher-
sociologist Klaus Bockmül. For a more thorough discussion of this
issue, M.J. Buckley’s At the Origins of Modern Atheism, Yale University Press,
New Haven, ct, 1987, is very helpful.
The Catholic Church too, among others, made an effort to address its inadequate
knowledge of atheism. It did so, above all, by setting up a Secretariat
for Non-Believers (later abolished) which, in 1969, organized, in collaboration
with the Giovanni Agnelli Foundation, an international symposium on belief
(in actual fact, on non-belief, as the proceedings testify), which remains a oneoff
episode in the history of the sociology of religion seeing that it managed
to bring together scholars of the calibre of Bellah, Cox, Daniélou, Glock, Luckmann,
Marty, O’ Dea, Parsons, Wilson; the proceedings by R. Caporale and A.
Grumelli (eds.) were published as The Culture of Unbelief, by the University
of California Press, Berkeley, 1971. A certain degree of continuity consisted in
a symposium held at the Pontificia Università Urbaniana (Potifical Urbanian
University) on the 13th and 14th October 1978, the papers of which were published
in Diagnosi dell’ateismo contemporaneo (Diagnoses of Contemporary
Atheism), Urbaniana University Press-Roma, Paideia Editrice-Brescia, 1980.
It was precisely in 1980 that the Istituto Superiore per lo Studio dell’Ateismo
(Higher Institute for Studies of Atheism), a section of the Urbanian University,
organized another international congress; in this case, too, the participants
were illustrious: Cottier, Frossard, Ferrarotti, Kuhlmann, Miccoli, Moltmann,
Rahner, among others: the volume containing the proceedings consists in 786

pages: Evangelizzazione e ateismo (Evangelization and Atheism), Pontificia
Universitas Urbaniana-Roma, Paideia Editrice-Brescia, 1981.
Meanwhile, sociological analysis appeared to be wanting. Proof of this
lies in the fact that in the complete bibliography covering the period up
to the mid-1980s, by A.J. Blasi, M.W. Cuneo, Issues in the Sociology of Religion.
A Bibliography, Garland Publishing, New York-London, 1986, of the
3582 titles listed, only 34 (less than 1%) were classified under the heading
atheism, including the – belated – leading, seminal text by Glenn Vernon
entitled “The Religious Nones: A Neglected Category”, Journal for the Scientific
Study of Religion, 7, 1968, 219–229. Furthermore, the publication of the
book by Christian Chabanis, Dieu existe-t-il? Non, répondent…, Fayard, Paris,
1973, was greeted practically as a major event, presenting the results of a
qualitative research-project investigating atheism in France. Twenty subjects,
divided into four categories, were interviewed: scientific atheists (including
Lévi-Strauss and Morin, who believed atheists to be “whoever realizes that
religion is not found only in what we call religion but exists everywhere”,
p. 90), political atheists (including Aron and Duclos), “sociological” atheists
(a sort of mini-sample of French society, that is, a mother, a farmer, a clerk, a
student, a couple) and humanistic atheists (Ionesco and Garaudy, as well as
other celebrities). The article by Rodney Stark, “Atheism, Faith, and the Social
Scientific Study of Religion” in Journal of Contemporary Religion, 14/1, 1999,
pp. 41–62, appeared many years later.
There remains the above-mentioned initiative of the Catholic Church,
which, after a decade of attention to the issue, was brought to an end at the
beginning of the 1980’s, when the Church decided to abandon its analysis of
atheism, non-belief and indifference: the Secretariat for Non-Believers, established
in 1965, became the Pontifical Council for Dialogue with Non-Believers
in 1988, to be finally merged, in 1993, with the Pontifical Council for Culture. Of
the former interest in cognisance of atheism very little remained.
However, the phenomenon began to assume significant sociological and
statistical proportions. More than ever before, the question of relations with
the world of science emerged and was addressed thanks to the courageous endeavours
of Achille Ardigò and Franco Garelli in Italy in 1989, documented in
the book Valori, scienza e trascendenza. Una ricerca empirica sulla dimensione
etica e religiosa fra gli scienziati italiani (Values, Science, and Transcendence.
An Empirical Research on Ethical and Religious Dimension of Italian Scientists),
Edizioni della Fondazione Agnelli, Turin, 1989, in particular pp. 47–219.
The survey, with 350 scientists interviewed, and availing of sophisticated statistical
techniques, highlighted the fact that almost half of the sample’s interviewees
(46.7%) held atheistic-agnostic views.

It is to Robert C. Fuller that we owe the diffusion of the Spiritual, But Not
Religious idea, drawn from the book by the same name, whose subtitle was
Understanding Unchurched America, published by the Oxford University Press,
New York, in 2001 and later circulated on the web in 2003 on the Oxford Scholarship
Online platform.
As to scientists themselves, the case that created the greatest stir was Four
Horsemen of New Atheism, whose most renowned representative was Richard
Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 2006, and
sponsor of various critical analyses against religion, based on a perspective declared
to be exclusively scientific but considered “controversial” and, in turn,
subjected to a number of different objections, voiced by even by some atheistic
scientists. In 2008, Dawkins backed a publicity campaign posted on publictransport
vehicles in London, bearing the following slogan: “THERE’S PROBABLY
Democrat Party, availing of the same tools, retorted: “THERE DEFINITELY IS A
time in 2011, during the census, the British Humanist Association published
But this is no place to reopen and enlarge a dispute that has been going on
for a decade and has already witnessed pretty clear stances. On the other hand,
the option to prefer in this case too, is that suggested by Peter Berger who, in
The Sacred Canopy, Doubleday, Garden City, n.y., 1967, referred to “methodological
atheism”, that is, to the opportunity social scientists have of refraining
from discussing issues such as the existence of God, the immortality of the
soul, the afterlife and other issues typical of religion.
Perhaps it was due to Dawkins’s treatment of the issue that a series of publications
on the topic appeared, beginning with a special number of Approaching
Religion, 2/1, 2011, edited by T. Taira, and R. Illman and entitled “The New
Visibility of Atheism in Europe”, featuring articles by Davie and Zuckerman;
another special on “Non-religion and Secularity” appeared in the Journal of
Contemporary Religion, 27, 1, 2012, with essays by Bullivant, Voas, Cragun and
many others. In 2012, an Open Access journal called Secularism & Nonreligion
appeared thanks to fruitful and qualified cross-Atlantic inter-disciplinary
The literature dealing with atheism has been enriched above all by interventions
by philosophers (K. Walters, Atheism: A Guide for the Perplexed, Continuum,
New York-London, 2010) and theologians (J.A. Corlett, The Errors of
Atheism, Continuum, New York-London, 2010; I.S. Markham, Against Atheism:
Why Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris are Fundamentally Wrong, Wiley-Blackwell,

Oxford-Malden, 2010; these references to Markham also recall Sam Harris and
the book The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, Norton &
Co., New York, 2004, and Christopher Hitchens, the author of God is not Great:
How Religion Poisons Everything, Emblem, Toronto, 2007). It is also important
to remember reference-points like Daniel C. Dennett, an author whose position
is not distant from that of Harris, as can be evinced from his Breaking the
Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, Penguin, New York, 2006.
Close in the wake of these passionate discussions regarding science and religion,
we find a set of three articles featuring debates between Stephen LeDrew
and Jesse M. Smith, entitled “Discovering Atheism”, published in Sociology of
Religion, 74, 4, 2013, pp. 431–470. In the “No religion” section of the same journal
we can read a reprint of an article by Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme (“Toward Religious
Polarization? Time Effects on Religious Commitment in u.s., uk, and
Canadian Regions”, Sociology of Religion, 75, 2, 2014, pp. 284–308, in particular
pp. 293–298): denial of religion has been increasing nearly always between
1985 and 2009 in the areas she examined, with the sole exception of Northern
Ireland; this increase favours a dichotomic trend towards a “secular/religious
P. Zuckerman (ed.), Atheism and Secularity, Praeger, Santa Barbara, ca, 2
vols., 2010, marks a veritable turning point in this particular area of sociological
literature, with a significant contribution towards the matter of atheists in
the United States, provided by D.A. Williamson and G. Yancey (There is no God:
Atheists in America, Rowman & Litllefield Publishers, Lanhan, md, 2013). This
study is based on a sample of almost 1,500 self-proclaimed atheists (belonging
to organizations opposed to the “Christian Right” movement), on analyses of
the contents of a variety of documents (newspapers and emails) and on 51
interviews within both religious and irreligious ambits. The outcome is that
this set of atheists does not consider religion an enemy but sees it rather as
a waste of time and a hindrance to progress: their aim is the defeat of the
Christian fundamentalist and traditionalist counterpart. It should be added,
however, that the sample examined does not include less militant, more moderate
Another very important contribution to sociological knowledge of atheism
has been provided lately by S. Bullivant and M. Ruse, who edited The
Oxford Handbook of Atheism, Oxford University Press, New York, 2013, a work
that is predominantly philosophical in character, especially in the first half.
In the second part, inter-disciplinary in approach, the essay by A. Keysar and
J. Navarro-Rivera, “A World of Atheism: Global Demographics”, pp. 553–586, is
particularly worthy of mention. Before that, there were volumes like T. Flynn
(ed.), The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief, Prometheus, Amherst, ny, 2007 and

M. Martin (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, Cambridge University
Press, Cambridge, 2007.
The year 2013 also saw the publication of the seminal volume by Colin
Campbell, Toward a Sociology of Irreligion, Macmillan, London and Basingstoke,
1971; Herder and Herder, New York, 1972; Writers Printshop, London,
revised edition, 2013 (introduction by Lois Lee, and a new bibliography by
Lois Lee with Stephen Bullivant and Christopher R. Cotter); Alcuin Academics,
London, 2013. Campbell’s book cites 150 quotations for the year of the first
edition, 1971, practically forgotten later, with only an average of a sole citation
every seven years for the period between 1972 and 2006, while between that
year and 2012 they increase to about 14 per annum. The Non-Religion and Secularity
Research Network (nsrn) has grown up around Campbell, and promotes
several scholarly initiatives, above all conventions. Furthermore, the
above-mentioned Lois Lee, is the promoter of a number of editorial initiatives
including the book by E. Arweck, S. Bullivant, L. Lee (eds.), entitled Secularity
and Non-Religion, Routledge, London, 2014, and L. Lee’s “Secular or Nonreligious?
Investigating and Interpreting Generic ‘Not Religious’ Categories and
Populations”, Religion, 44, 3, 2014, pp. 466–482. The same author, L. Lee, has
recently issued Recognizing the Non-Religious. Reimagining the Secular, Oxford
University Press, Oxford, 2015. Further confirmation of interest in the topic is
the recent qualitative-quantitative work by J. Stoltz, M. Schneuwly Purdie, T.
Englberger, J. Könemann, M. Krüggeler, (Un-)Believing in Modern Society, Ashgate,
Farnham, 2016, which examines the situation in Switzerland, suggesting a
new way of being religious or secular.
The issue of atheism has witnessed, throughout the course of history, some
rather contradictory dynamics, like the case of the Dominican monk and natural
philosopher, Tommaso Campanella (1568–1639), revolutionary in his attitude
towards the political-military strength of Spain and the religious-moral
power of the Roman Church. Accused of heresy and imprisoned for 27 years,
between 1599 and 1626, he was the author of Atheismus Triumphatus. Seu reductio
ad religionem per scientiarum veritates. Contra Antrichristianismum Achitophellisticum,
Apud Haeredem Bartholomaei Zannetti, Romae, 1631; Apud
Tussanum Dubray, Parisiis, 1636. This work, after a first Roman and a second
Parisian edition, was republished as Atheismus triumphatus Seu reductio ad religionem
per scientiarum veritates – a reprint of the 1631 Roman edition – for
Germana Ernst, Fabrizio Serra Editore, Pisa-Roma, in 2013. The fact is that this
Latin version seems to be something of an apologetic of religion, unlike the
Italian-language version, written between 1605 and 1607, but not printed at the
time: L’ateismo trionfato overo riconoscimento filosofico della religione universale
contra l’antichristianesimo macchiavellesco; the manuscript was brought to

light again by Germana Ernst, who edited it in two volumes for Edizioni della
Normale, Pisa, in 2004. This initial version contains evident differences compared
to the later Latin translation, where quite a few of the important considerations
and assessments made by the Calabrian philosopher earlier, appear to
have been modified. Some scholars speak of the author’s subsequent conversion,
others of the intervention and censorship of the ecclesiastical court and
the Inquisition or even of a kind of “concealment” implemented by Campanella
himself. In any case, the “triumph of atheism” remains confirmed though
from a number of different perspectives.
If Robespierre planted trees to represent the Supreme Being in 1794, today,
it is American Atheists who have chosen to erect granite monuments on which
to sculpt phrases in favour of separation between Church and State.
So, it seems that atheism (seen as denial of any form of the divine, invisible
or visible), non-belief (as a life choice devoid of reflection concerning the
existence of God), agnosticism (as indifference towards the problem of God’s
existence or non-existence), non-belonging (as a refusal of any kind of institutional
link), irreligion (as intended by Campbell, as active rejection of given
religions and religious traditions) and Nones (atheists or agnostics or the nonaffiliated
who embrace no particular church or those who are indifferent to
religion or with no leanings either towards or against religion) are the new
frontiers of sociology’s approach to religion.
From a numerical point of view this universe should not be discounted in
any way. Current figures estimate that numbers for real atheists stand at around
138 million, agnostics at about 684 million, non-religionists at approximately
822 million and non-affiliated religionists at roughly 321 million. The reliability
of these figures is, of course, questionable, but, in theory, their true import
does not appear to be very far from the figures provided here. The field is vast
indeed and still largely in need of exploration by the sociologists of religion.