It's remarkable that evolutionary biologists (atheists) obsess about the evolutionary origins of religion, churning out fairy tale after fairy tale, in good evolutionary style.
But they never speculate about the evolutionary origin of atheism. Curious, huh?
Well, I'm going to speculate. Not about atheism generally, but about New Atheism. And not about the evolutionary origin, which is b.s., but about the cultural origin, which is not b.s.
Atheism has always been with us. In the West, there were classical atheists Diagorus, Democritous, Epicurus, Lucretious, etc. In the middle ages, few people openly espoused atheism, although there is no reason to believe that atheism didn't persist among a fringe, unspoken. In the early modern period, atheism became a lot more vocal (de Sade, the Jacobians, Feuerbach, Marx, etc.
Modern polls show that explicit atheist belief constitutes less than 5% of the public (in the US). There are larger numbers who are practical atheists. They don't have organized beliefs that God does not exist. They merely live their lives without reference to Him.
I don't see any evidence to suggest that atheism as a coherent viewpoint is any more common today than it ever was. It is, and has always been, a fringe belief. Practical atheism may be on the rise, especially in the dying secular cultures of Europe.
Why does atheism, in the form of New Atheism, seem to be on the rise?
I suggest three reasons:
Modern medicine provides us with the opportunity to live our lives without significant pain. We are born, live, and die in an anesthetic cocoon. Why bother thinking about ultimate reality, when we have Vicodin, Prosac and Valium? Practical atheism is now, for the first time, a real option. Aldous Huxley understood.
2) Science has been hijacked by atheists as a new religion. Unreflective people can accept the assertion that 'science explains everything. Why do we need God?' Of course, this viewpoint is stupid. Science is the methodological exploration of nature, whereas religion is the exploration of ultimate reality. Science is not philosophy; it cannot explain itself. It cannot explain ultimate origins. It cannot explain 'ought'; it can only explain 'is', and even that only in a limited way. Scientism is perhaps the second most idiotic philosophical error of modern times. It is ubiquitous among atheists, who are devotees of the most idiotic philosophical error.
3) New atheists have more outlets for their view than atheists had in the past. Any crank can have a blog (I know.. I know.. I have a blog..), and it's a safe bet that 99% of the New Atheists today would never have had a public forum for their nonsense before the internet and the explosion in information in the public sphere. Crazy stuff sells. P.Z. Myers' bigoted rants attract a massive audience. A fraud like Dawkins who tried to peddle his ignorant elementary-school disproofs of God's existence at Oxford several centuries ago would have been kicked out, not for irreligion, but for incompetence.
Today, incompetence has a market.
That's all for now. Writing too much about atheists at a time gives me a headache. I'll discuss other reasons for the apparent rise of New Atheism if I think of any.