In reality, the growth of atheism in Europe and America has much more to do with politics and, in particular, ecclesiastically backed politics, than it has with science, something that is clear even from its earliest days. The first person we can unequivocally call an atheist in modern Europe was a French Catholic priest who died in 1729. Jean Meslier led an unremarkable life at Étrépigny, in Champagne. On his death, however, friends discovered a manuscript, his “Testament,” which denounced all belief, all God and all religion with a frenzied anger that makes Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion seem like a work of reasoned scholarship.The author contrasts this situation with Britain, which was much more tolerant, religiously and initellectually, and with the US, in which the separation of church from temporal state power also paradoxically helped it survive.
But then, Meslier did have a great deal to be angry about.... The monarch ruled with absolute power that was justified by a fabulously wealthy and notoriously intolerant church. People were still being publically tortured and executed for ‘religious’ crimes as late as the 1760s. ... Europe’s first public atheists were driven from mere scepticism and anti-clericalism to full-blown unbelief not by reason or scientific progress but primarily by a venal and violent theo-political settlement.
He then moves into the 20th century and points out that the violence of the explicitly atheist communist regimes also provided a pro-religion backlash that strengthened religious expression in the US.
In the last decades of the 20th century, history veered off script. The world stopped secularising, and some religious groups, most famously evangelicals in America and Shias in Iran—two groups not usually bracketed together—found a political voice that had heretofore been muted. The results were often troubling and sometimes grotesque, and all of a sudden the wells of moral indignation were overflowing once more. Today, atheism is resurgent, in America and elsewhere, confidently predicting God’s imminent death and uncritically retelling the creation myth of atheism’s progress on science’s back.And not in a good way. All you have to do is read the comments following any religiously themed article in the mainstream press to see an upwelling of anger against religion and the religious, which is very much linked to the political over-reach of the right wing. The irony in all this is that the biggest driver against religious belief is those who express it, because they are politicizing it. The Founding Fathers were on to something. Too bad we don't seem able to figure it out any more.
The irony of the truth was sadly lost in the shouting: Atheism is indeed rejuvenating—but only because God is back.