‘Aggressive Atheism’

Many have judged the recent visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Scotland and England to have been a relative success, but it was almost derailed at the eleventh hour by comments made by one of his closest aides, Cardinal Walter Kasper, in an interview with the German news magazine Focus, published on 13 September.

Kasper was widely quoted as making various seemingly disparaging remarks about the islands he was shortly to visit with the Pope, including references to a ‘third-world country’ in the grip of ‘aggressive neo-atheism’. Kasper was pulled from the papal entourage at the last minute, ostensibly on the grounds of his illness (gout).

In a YouGov poll conducted for The Sunday Times on 16-17 September among a representative online sample of 1,984 Britons aged 18 and over, respondents were asked what they thought about Kasper’s views. These questions do not seem to have been used in the printed edition of the newspaper, but the results are now available at:


Putting on one side Kasper’s perceived experiences of landing at Heathrow Airport, with which many travellers might concur, 23% of interviewees agreed with him that aggressive neo-atheism is widespread in Britain, 37% disagreed, 25% were neutral and 16% expressed no opinion.

Those most likely to think that neo-atheism was taking root comprised men (27%), the over-60s (30%), Scots (29%) and Conservative voters (29%). The proportion fell to 16% among the 18-24s, but this was mainly because 54% of them were neutral or did not know. Disagreement was notably higher among the ABC1s than the C2DEs (non-manuals and manuals, respectively).

One of Britain’s most outspoken atheists, and probably to the fore of Kasper’s mind in making his comments, is Richard Dawkins. His was one of the names included in a separate YouGov survey of 3,161 adults on 24-26 August in which they were asked to decide who was a ‘national treasure’.

7% of the sample thought that Dawkins was definitely a national treasure, and a further 16% that he was admirable but not quite a national treasure. His admirers were especially to be found among Londoners (32%) and Liberal Democrats (30%). Another 30% were convinced that Dawkins was not a national treasure, while 38% did not know who he was and 9% had no opinion. Detailed results are at:


Quantitative evidence about the extent of atheism in contemporary Britain is somewhat affected by definitional issues. Equating it with those who positively and consistently disbelieve in God, the number of atheists has risen from 10% in 1991 to 12% in 2000 to 18% in 2008, according to the British Social Attitudes Surveys. In 2008 atheists were disproportionately (23%) men or aged 18-34.

International survey findings are reviewed in Phil Zuckerman, ‘Atheism: Contemporary Numbers and Patterns’, in The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, ed. Michael Martin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), pp. 47-65.

British Religion in Numbers: All the material published on this website is subject to copyright. We explain further here.

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One Response to ‘Aggressive Atheism’

  1. Pingback: Is aggressive neo-atheism widespread in Britain? | eChurch Christian Blog

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