Goodbye Religion? How Godlessness Is Increasing With Each New Generation

This essay was originally published on AlterNet.

Something strange is happening to American teenagers. If you believe popular wisdom, young people are apathetic, cynical and jaded; or, they're supposed to be conformists whose overriding desire is to fit in and be popular. But if you've been paying close attention over the past decade, you might have seen any of a growing number of cases that conspicuously defy these stereotypes: stories of teenagers who have strong principles they're unashamed to display and which they're committed to defending, even at great personal cost, against the bullying of a hostile establishment.

For example, in 2002, an Eagle Scout named Darrell Lambert was threatened with expulsion from the Boy Scouts, despite his having earned dozens of merit badges and having held literally every leadership position in his troop. His crime? He's an outspoken atheist. When the news of his beliefs reached scouting officials, they demanded that he change his mind. He was given a week to think it over. All he had to do was lie, but if he did that, he said, "I wouldn't be a good Scout then, would I?" For his honesty, he was kicked out of the organization he'd devoted his life to.

In New Jersey in 2006, a public high school teacher named David Paskiewicz was openly preaching Christianity in the classroom, advocating creationism and telling a Muslim student she would burn in hell if she didn't convert. A junior named Matt LaClair reported this illegal government preaching to the school administration. In a meeting with the principal, Paskiewicz denied everything — whereupon LaClair produced audio recordings of him saying the things he specifically denied having said.

In Indiana in 2009, the senior class at a public school was asked to vote on whether to have a prayer as part of their graduation ceremony. A senior named Eric Workman, knowing full well that school-sponsored prayer is illegal even if a majority votes for it, filed a lawsuit and won an injunction against the prayer. The school administration responded by announcing it wouldn't review graduation speeches in advance, clearly hoping that some student would use the opportunity to say the same prayer — except that the class valedictorian was Eric Workman, and he used his graduation speech to explain why the school's actions were unconstitutional and to explain the importance of the First Amendment.

Stories like these are multiplying all over the nation. In South Carolina just this year, a graduating senior named Harrison Hopkins put a stop to school prayer with help from the Freedom from Religion Foundation. In Louisiana, a senior named Damon Fowler fought against similar school-sponsored prayers at his graduation. In Rhode Island, an amazing sophomore named Jessica Ahlquist is leading the fight to get an illegal "School Prayer" banner removed from her school's auditorium.

Granted, stories like these aren't entirely a new phenomenon. There have always been brave young free thinkers who dared to stand up for their rights, and there has always been a hostile, prejudiced religious majority that's tried to silence them with bullying, persecution and harassment.

For instance, when church-state hero Ellery Schempp prevailed in a landmark First Amendment case against school-sponsored Bible reading, his principal wrote to the colleges he had applied to and asked them not to admit him. (It didn't work: Ellery was accepted to Tufts University, graduated with honors and became a successful scientist.) Likewise, when Jim McCollum and his mother Vashti challenged their school over a released-time program, raving bigots assaulted him, got her fired from her job, pelted their home with rotten fruit and killed their cat. (The McCollums didn't relent, and won a precedent-setting Supreme Court decision striking down religious instruction on public school time.)

Regrettably, this hasn't changed as much as I'd like. Most of the student activists I named earlier have faced harassment, some from peers, some from the teachers and authority figures who are supposed to be the responsible ones. Damon Fowler was demeaned by a teacher and disowned by his own parents for opposing prayer at his graduation. But what's different now is that young people who speak out aren't left to face the mob alone. Now more than ever before, there's a thriving, growing secular community that's becoming increasingly confident, assertive, and capable of looking out for its own.

When Fowler was kicked out of his house, a fundraiser on Friendly Atheist netted over $30,000 in donations to pay for his living expenses and college tuition. The Secular Student Alliance, a national organization that supports student atheist and freethought clubs, is growing by leaps and bounds in colleges and high schools. (This is especially important in the light of psychological experiments which find that it's much easier to resist peer pressure if you have even one other person standing with you.) Student activists like the ones I've mentioned are no longer just scattered voices in the crowd; they're the leading edge of a wave.

All these individual facts add up to a larger picture, which is confirmed by statistical evidence: Americans are becoming less religious, with rates of atheism and secularism increasing in each new generation. This demographic transformation has been in progress ever since World War II, but in recent years it's begun to seriously pick up steam. In the generation born since 1982, variously referred to as Generation Y, the Millennials, or Generation Next, one in five people identify as nonreligious, atheist, or agnostic. In the youngest cohort, the trend is even more dramatic: as many as 30% of those born since 1990 are nonbelievers. Another study, this one by a Christian polling firm, found that people are leaving Christianity at four times the rate that new members are joining.

What could be causing this generational shift towards godlessness? There are multiple theories, but only one of them that I'm aware of both makes good sense and is corroborated by the facts.

Over the last few decades, society in general, and young people in particular, have become increasingly tolerant of gays and other minorities. For the most part, this is a predictable result of familiarity: people who've grown up in an increasingly multicultural society see less problem with interracial relationships (89% of Generation Nexters approve of interracial marriage, compared to 70% of older age groups) and same-sex marriage (47% in favor among Nexters, compared to 30% in older groups). When it comes to issues like whether gays and lesbians should be protected from job discrimination or allowed to adopt, the age gap in support is even more dramatic (71% vs. 59% and 61% vs. 44%, respectively).

But while American society is moving forward on all these fronts, many churches not only refuse to go along, they're actively moving backward. Most large Christian sects, both Catholic and Protestant, have made fighting against gay rights and women's rights their all-consuming crusade. And young people have gotten this message loud and clear: polls find that the most common impressions of Christianity are that it's hostile, judgmental and hypocritical. In particular, an incredible 91% of young non-Christians say that Christianity is "anti-homosexual", and significant majorities say that Christianity treats being gay as a bigger sin than anything else. (When right-wing politicians thunder that same-sex marriage is worse than terrorism, it's not hard to see where people have gotten this impression.)

On other social issues as well, the gap between Gen Nexters and the church looms increasingly wide. Younger folks favor full access to the morning-after pill by a larger margin than older generations (59% vs. 46%). They reject the notion that women should return to "traditional roles" — already a minority position, but they disagree with it even more strongly than others. And they're by far the least likely of all age groups to say that they have "old-fashioned" values about family and marriage (67% say this, as compared to 85% of other age groups).

In a society that's increasingly tolerant and enlightened, the big churches remain stubbornly entrenched in the past, clinging to medieval dogmas about gay people and women, presuming to lecture their members about how they should vote, whom they should love, how they should live. It's no surprise that people who've grown up in this tolerant age find it absurd when they're told that their family and friends don't deserve civil rights, and it's even less of a surprise that, when they're told they must believe this to be good Christians, they simply walk away. This trend is reflected in the steadily rising percentages of Americans who say that religion is "old-fashioned and out of date" and can't speak to today's social problems.

The Roman Catholic church in particular has been hit hard by this. According to a 2009 Pew study, "Faith in Flux," one in ten American adults is a former Catholic, and a majority of ex-Catholics cite unhappiness with the church's archaic stance on abortion, homosexuality, birth control or the treatment of women as a major factor in their departure. But evangelical and other Protestant denominations are feeling the same sting. According to a survey by the sociologists Robert Putnam and David Campbell, moderates and progressives are heading for the exits as the churches increasingly become the domain of conservatives:

From the early 1970s to the late 1980s the fraction of Americans age 18 to 29 who identified with evangelical Protestantism rose to 25% from 20%, but since 1990, that fraction has fallen back to about 17%.

...Today, 17% of Americans say they have no religion, and these new "nones" are very heavily concentrated among Americans who have come of age since 1990. Between 25% and 30% of twentysomethings today say they have no religious affiliation — roughly four times higher than in any previous generation.

Even the mainstream, relatively liberal Protestant churches are dwindling and dying at an astonishing rate: collateral damage, perhaps, in a political war that's led young people to view them as guilty by association. As the journal First Things observes in an article titled "The Death of Protestant America," the mainline churches have fallen from more than 50% of the American population in 1965 to less than 8% today.

What all this means is that the rise of atheism as a political force is an effect, rather than a cause, of the churches' hard right turn towards fundamentalism. I admit that this conclusion is a little damaging to my ego. I'd love to say that we atheists did it all ourselves; I'd love to be able to say that our dazzling wit and slashing rhetorical attacks are persuading people to abandon organized religion in droves. But the truth is that the churches' wounds are largely self-inflicted. By obstinately clinging to prejudices that the rest of society is moving beyond, they're in the process of making themselves irrelevant. In fact, there are indications that it's a vicious circle: as churches become less tolerant and more conservative, their younger and more progressive members depart, which makes their average membership still more conservative, which accelerates the progressive exodus still further, and so on. (A similar dynamic is at work in the Republican party, which explains their increasing levels of insanity over the past two or three decades.)

That doesn't mean, however, that that there's nothing we freethinkers can contribute. On the contrary, there's a virtuous circle that we can take advantage of: the more we speak out and the more visible we are, the more familiar atheism will become, and the more it will be seen as a viable alternative, which will encourage still more people to join us and speak out. This is exactly the same strategy that's been used successfully by trailblazers in the gay-rights movement and other social reform efforts.

At the same time, the churches aren't entirely oblivious to what's happening. The rising secular tide of Generation Next hasn't gone unfelt or unnoticed, but is increasingly being reflected in dwindling donations, graying congregations, and empty churches across the land. As John Avant, a vice president for evangelization of the Southern Baptist Conference, lamented:

A study by New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary's Leavell Center for Evangelism and Church Health showed that only 11 percent of SBC churches are healthy and growing... And we are doing worse with young people, with 39 percent of Southern Baptist churches in 2005 reporting baptizing no teens. (source)

The Catholic church is experiencing a similar slow fade, with declining Mass attendance and a crippling shortage of priests worldwide. Land once owned by religious orders is being sold off for conservation or public use, turned into schools or nature preserves. The Pope's response, meanwhile, is to accelerate the decline by ordering bishops not even to discuss the possibility of ordaining women or married men, even as he welcomes Holocaust deniers and ex-Angelican misogynists.

And religious giving has declined as well, leaving shrinking churches grappling with layoffs and angry creditors. The recession has worsened this trend, but didn't create it; like all the other patterns, it's generational, with each increasingly secular age group giving less than the last. As one conservative rabbi says, the dip in giving stems from a "growing disinterest in organized religion."

Of course, Christianity is still by far the largest religious affiliation in America, and likely will be for some time. But the numbers don't lie, and the trends of the last several decades show more and more evidence of the same secularizing wave that's overtaking most countries in Europe. The major churches, clinging to the inferior morality of long-gone ages, are increasingly out of step with a world that's more enlightened, rational and tolerant than it once was. And the more they dig in their heels, the more we can expect this process to accelerate. I, for one, can't wait to see the young atheist activists who will emerge in the next few decades.

August 29, 2011, 6:05 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink17 comments
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New on AlterNet: The Rise of Young Atheists

My latest article has been posted on AlterNet, Goodbye Religion? How Godlessness Is Increasing With Each New Generation. It surveys the demographic transformation that's been taking place in American society, with rates of godlessness steadily increasing in each generation since World War II, highlights the work of some outstanding young activists who are part of this trend, and points out the panicked warnings from religious authorities who recognize that their influence is fading away. Read the excerpt below, then click through and see the rest!


Something strange is happening to American teenagers. If you believe popular wisdom, young people are apathetic, cynical and jaded; or, they're supposed to be conformists whose overriding desire is to fit in and be popular. But if you've been paying close attention over the past decade, you might have seen any of a growing number of cases that conspicuously defy these stereotypes: stories of teenagers who have strong principles they're unashamed to display and which they're committed to defending, even at great personal cost, against the bullying of a hostile establishment.

Continue reading on AlterNet...

August 11, 2011, 5:48 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink4 comments
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There Are 10 Times as Many Atheists as Mormons: When Will Non-Believers Become a Political Force?

This essay was originally published on AlterNet.

The propagandists of the religious right shout it aloud as their battle cry: "America is a Christian nation!" And in the trivial sense that ours is a nation populated mostly by Christians, this is true. But in the sense that they mean it, that Christianity was intended to occupy a privileged place in the law - or worse, that Christianity was intended to be the only belief professed by Americans - it couldn't be more false. Although religion in general and Christianity in particular play a dominant role in our public life, ours is a secular nation by law. And befitting that heritage, America has always played host to a lively tradition of freethought, unorthodoxy, and religious dissent, one that dates back to our founding generation.

To name just one example, Thomas Jefferson rejected miracles and special revelation - he famously created his own version of the New Testament, which kept only the moral teachings and parables and cut out all the miracle stories - and encouraged his contemporaries to "question with boldness even the existence of a God." He himself was a deist, not an atheist, but this subtle distinction was lost on his contemporaries, who hurled accusations at him every bit as vicious as today's TV attack ads. For instance, in the presidential campaign of 1800, the Gazette of the United States editorialized as follows:

"At the present solemn moment the only question to be asked by every American, laying his hand on his heart, is 'shall I continue in allegiance to GOD-—AND A RELIGIOUS PRESIDENT; or impiously declare for JEFFERSON—-AND NO GOD!!!'"

Jefferson's political opponents denounced him as a "howling atheist" and a "French infidel", and paranoid rumors circulated that, if he became president, he would order all Bibles to be confiscated. Of course, in the end Jefferson was elected to two successful presidential terms, and the feared wave of atheistic persecution failed to materialize.

But stories like these aren't just historical footnotes. Just as freethinkers have always had their place in our nation, the strategy of slandering and demonizing them for political gain is likewise alive and well, as I found out for myself in 2008.

In that year's North Carolina Senate race, Elizabeth Dole, the Republican incumbent, was running against Democratic challenger Kay Hagan. In the waning weeks of the campaign, Hagan attended a fundraiser at the home of Woody Kaplan and Wendy Kaminer, advisors to American Atheists' Godless Americans Political Action Committee. The Dole campaign found out about this and tried to make political hay out of it, releasing a campaign ad which said:

"A leader of the Godless Americans PAC recently held a secret fundraiser in Kay Hagan's honor... Godless Americans and Kay Hagan. She hid from cameras. Took Godless money. What did Hagan promise in return?"

When I saw this ad, I was incensed. (Can you imagine a political ad which attacked a candidate by saying, "He attended a secret fundraiser held by the Jews and took Jewish money. What did he promise in return?") I dashed off a blog post titled "Why I'm Donating to Kay Hagan," expressing my anger at politicians who try to drum up anti-atheist bigotry to win votes, and wrote a check to the Hagan campaign. I thought nothing more of it until a few weeks later, when I found out that my post was being featured in another anti-atheist ad by the Dole campaign:

As you can see, the ad highlights my statement that "Hagan ought to be rewarded for inviting nonbelievers onto her platform," as if this were a bad thing. It portrays atheists not as fellow citizens entitled to take part in the democratic process, but as agents of a sinister and un-American conspiracy - the same ugly slander that's historically been used against immigrants, Roman Catholics, Jewish people, gays and lesbians, and every other minority that seeks out politicians who will defend their interests.

Clearly, Dole was counting on a wave of outraged, prejudiced voters to flood the polls and propel her to victory. But her campaign's open appeal to anti-atheist bigotry may have produced a bigger backlash than she had expected. According to the Charlotte Observer, the Hagan campaign received 3,600 contributions within 48 hours of Dole's "Godless" ad, many of them presumably from nonbelievers upset at being dragged through the mud by right-wingers trying to score political points.

Unfortunately, Hagan herself turned out to be no friend of atheists. Although she was happy to accept our donations, when our association with us became an issue, she fled to the safe ground of piety-drenched politics. Her campaign released an ad accusing Dole of "attacking my Christian faith," going so far as to threaten a defamation lawsuit. It would have been nice to see some defense of the idea that America is a secular nation where a person's faith has no bearing on their fitness for public office. Instead, her response consisted solely of, "Yes, I believe in God and how dare you imply otherwise!" - effective, perhaps, but cold comfort to atheists who had for some reason assumed that we have as much right to be involved in politics as anyone else.

But despite this disappointment, there was a heartening outcome. For whatever reason - whether it was the flood of donations from outraged atheists, or Hagan's strong protestations of piety, or because the "Godless" ad simply failed to change enough voters' minds - on Election Day, Elizabeth Dole was defeated by a solid margin, and Kay Hagan became the new Democratic Senator from North Carolina.

As the Hagan episode shows, even many Democratic politicians, who should rightfully be our allies, feel that outspoken atheism is a disqualifier for public office. John Kerry gave voice to this sentiment in November 2007:

"The vast majority of Americans say they believe in God... The vast majority of America, at some time, goes to church, and I think it matters to people. When you are choosing the president of the United States, people vote on the things that matter to them. So I think it is probably unlikely that you are going to find somebody who stands up and says, 'Well, I don't believe in anything,' and you'll get a whole bunch people who get excited about voting for that person... It's just a fact."

Even Barack Obama, despite having been raised by a nonreligious mother, has been no friend to atheists - something we found out on the first day of his presidency, when he invited the anti-choice, anti-gay-rights, anti-stem-cell-research right-wing pastor Rick Warren to speak at his inauguration. Breaking a clear campaign promise, he's also continued the George W. Bush "faith-based initiative", which hands out government money to religious groups which openly proselytize, discriminate in hiring, and face no outside accountability. And polls continue to show that atheists are among the most reviled and least trusted minorities in the U.S., even more so than Muslims or gays.

Some corporations have been accused of having a "glass ceiling," an invisible barrier that prevents women and minorities from rising to the topmost positions. In that sense, American politics clearly has a "stained-glass ceiling," a de facto barrier to atheists running for office. Despite the many great Americans who've been nonbelievers, despite the guarantees of secularism written into our Constitution, outspoken atheism is still seen as an insurmountable liability for anyone who seeks to serve our country as an elected officer of the government.

Why is this? It's not because atheists are so rare that politicians can safely ignore us. On the contrary, nonbelief is far more common than many people realize.

The definitive word on atheist demographics in the U.S. is the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), a massive study that questioned over 50,000 Americans about their religious beliefs. The ARIS found that self-identified atheists and agnostics account for 1.6% of the population of America, or about 3.5 million people. But the ARIS also asked people in-depth questions about what they really believe. And based on their results, the survey's authors concluded that whether they choose that word to describe themselves or not, 12% of Americans are atheists - over 36 million of us!

To put that number in perspective, there are about as many atheists in America as there are members of all the mainline Protestant churches - Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, and United Church of Christ - combined. There are ten times as many atheists as there are Jews or Mormons. The only two religious groups in America that outnumber atheists are Baptists and Roman Catholics. But both of those groups have seen their membership as a percentage of the population decline steadily since 1990, while the non-religious have grown proportionally in the country as a whole and in every state. And the numbers show a clear trend: every generation since World War II has exhibited higher rates of nonbelief, now up to 20% among those born since 1977.

So, atheists don't lack the numbers. Nor do we lack passion or political interest. In fact, the opposite is true: atheists have one of the highest rates of political participation of any group. A 2008 study by the Pew Research Center found that 82% of the non-religious are very or somewhat likely to vote, an astonishingly high turnout level. In fact, the only group more likely to vote is Christian evangelicals. But the political loyalties of evangelicals are settled already, while non-religious voters - again according to Pew - are disproportionately likely to be independent voters whose choices often determine the outcome of an election.

Given these facts, politicians should be lining up to court us. On a purely numerical level, atheists are a large, potentially influential group. We're highly motivated to get out and vote, more so than almost any religious group. We tend to be swing voters, the kind that makes all the difference in close races. And most of all, atheists are common among the young, and good politicians know that political loyalties established at a young age usually last for a lifetime.

So why aren't candidates seeking atheists out and appealing to us for our support? Why is the political class, even the liberal political class, so fearful of being associated with us?

The obvious answer is that the pervasiveness of anti-atheist bigotry makes it political suicide to associate with us. (Elizabeth Dole failed in her attempt to appeal to it, but that doesn't mean it doesn't exist.) But I think there's a deeper answer that explains both why that bigotry exists in the first place and why politicians so habitually neglect us: Atheists don't lack the numbers or the passion. What we lack is the organization.

Organized religions have two built-in advantages: they have large followings that are accustomed to unquestioning loyalty, and hierarchical structures through which the leaders can issue marching orders to the flock. This means it's easy for them to orchestrate coordinated actions, like marches, protests and letter-writing campaigns, that are highly visible to politicians and journalists. Atheists, by comparison, are a fiercely independent and contentious bunch - and while I wouldn't change that if I could, it does make it harder for us to act in unison in the ways that make politicians take notice. It also makes it more difficult for us to mount a swift, strong and coordinated response to the slanderous stereotypes that are habitually heard from pulpits and in the media.

But if we can overcome that and become politically organized - and there's much evidence that this coalescence is already happening - the potential benefits are enormous. Atheists don't agree on everything, but I'm confident that we agree on enough to form a constituency that couldn't be lightly dismissed. The rise of atheists as a political force, if it succeeds, wouldn't just benefit atheists, but would have positive effects on American society in general and possibly even the world as a whole.

After all, most of the goals we share are also goals of the broader progressive movement: greater protection of free speech, firm separation of church and state, increased funding for science education and research, equal rights for GLBT people, and greater public support for reason and rationality. The idea that we want to take away people's right to pray or worship in private, or even to preach their beliefs in public, is just as much of a lie today as it was in Thomas Jefferson's time - but we do unapologetically demand that government employees, when acting in their official capacity, take no action to endorse or aid any specific religion or religion in general. This is no more than the Constitution already requires.

The global arena, also, would benefit from greater atheist involvement. If you list the evils that afflict humanity on an international scale - transnational religious terrorism; the abuse and subjugation of women; the denial of human rights in dictatorships and theocracies - you'll notice that many of them have this in common: they're all rooted in primitive, violent, patriarchal religious worldviews, and derive their strength from the excessive power and privilege accorded to faith. Again, a stronger atheist presence on the international stage would be as welcome as a cool breeze in the hothouse of fundamentalist religion, which has so often been used to justify ongoing oppression and inequality.

Imagine the kind of world we could live in if atheists were a political force. It would be a world where secularism is the unquestioned law of the land, where religious groups wouldn't interfere in politics unless they could put forward arguments backed by evidence that anyone could examine, and not just appeals to faith. We'd rely on science and rationality to shape public policy; humanity would heed the voice of reason, rather than gut feelings or superstitious taboos. In this world, the religious arguments propping up tribalism, racism, and the oppression of women would wither away; the decrees of unelected and unaccountable authorities would fade into dust, and democracy and the liberty of the individual would be the guiding principles.

Religion isn't solely responsible for all the world's evils, but - particularly where it goes unchallenged and unaccountable - it plays a role in a surprisingly large number of them. Even if it doesn't fade away entirely, which I don't expect to happen anytime soon, it's likely that the pressure of atheistic critiques would force it to become more moderate, more enlightened, and more humane. A world where atheists held political sway wouldn't be a utopia by any means, but I'm confident in asserting that it would be more peaceful, fair and free than the world as it is now - and this makes it a goal well worth fighting for.

July 1, 2011, 5:39 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink22 comments
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New on Alternet: Atheists as a Political Force

Today I'm very happy to announce that I've become a contributor to AlterNet, the award-winning online progressive news and opinion magazine. My first essay is titled "There Are 10 Times As Many Atheists as Mormons: When Will Non-Believers Become a Political Force?" Read an excerpt below, and then click through to see the rest:


The propagandists of the religious right shout it aloud as their battle cry: "America is a Christian nation!" And in the trivial sense that ours is a nation populated mostly by Christians, this is true. But in the sense they mean it, that Christianity was intended to occupy a privileged place in the law -- or worse, that Christianity was intended to be the only belief professed by Americans -- it couldn't be more false. Although religion in general and Christianity in particular, play a dominant role in our public life, ours is a secular nation by law. And befitting that heritage, America has always played host to a lively tradition of freethought, unorthodoxy and religious dissent, one that dates back to our founding generation.

Continue reading on AlterNet...

June 13, 2011, 12:09 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink30 comments
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Marriage Equality on the March

At the end of last month, the Delaware legislature voted to approve a civil union bill. If Democratic Governor Jack Markell signs the bill, as he's said he will, Delaware will become the newest state to grant same-sex partnerships all the same legal rights as heterosexual couples - joining, by my reckoning, ten others: Vermont, Connecticut, New Jersey, Illinois, Oregon, Washington, New Hampshire, Hawaii, Massachusetts, and Iowa, plus the District of Columbia.

With a little luck and a lot of political elbow grease, my own state, New York, may be next. New York already recognizes same-sex marriages performed legally elsewhere, making its refusal to perform them itself more than a little ridiculous, since a gay or lesbian couple can just step across the border into Canada or any of the neighboring states that do. Still, a coalition of Republicans and a handful of religious-bigot Democrats have so far managed to keep marriage-equality bills bottled up in the State Senate, despite the fact that polls show large majorities of New Yorkers in support. A marriage-equality bill failed in the legislature in 2009, but since then, two Democrats who voted against it have been replaced by supportive votes. Six more votes are needed, and a statewide campaign is targeting 15 potential swing votes this summer, with support from Governor Andrew Cuomo.

Meanwhile, on the wider national level, the ground is shifting with dramatic speed. Back in 2009, I wrote about how supporters of marriage equality had become a plurality. Now, for the first time ever as far as I'm aware, several polls over the last few months have found that support for marriage equality has become the majority position in the United States of America!

Our losses in California and Maine were disappointing, but as these polls show, they're only temporary setbacks. Support for marriage equality is growing every year, arguably even every month. Opponents of equality are trying to hold back the tide of history, but they can't hope to plug every hole in the dike. And it's increasingly obvious that they know this too. Their opposition seems more tired and perfunctory all the time, as if they recognize that they're fighting a losing battle. In Delaware, only about 200 people, even by their own reckoning, showed up for a rally at the statehouse to oppose the civil-unions bill.

One last, feeble whine of protest came from two Christian pastors in Delaware, who filed an editorial last week which makes the following entirely secular arguments:

S.B. 30 is morally wrong and biblically incorrect... In our opinion, God's design for marriage is between one man and one woman only... Lev. 18:22 tells us that "a man should not lie with another man as he does a woman because it is detestable"... Nowhere have we read in the Bible that it is all right for people of the same sex to marry... We believe civil unions between members of the same sex are contrary to the will of God.

They plead that if the bill passes, God "will judge us, and [we] don't want our state and our nation to be judged with the wrath of God." You have to feel sorry for these people, living in a self-imposed world of fear: their argument is essentially "Help, God is holding me hostage and he'll kill me if you don't meet his demands!"

Finally, I have to report on one more piece of news to make bigots cry: Louis J. Marinelli, a former spokesman and organizer for the anti-marriage National Association for Marriage, has publicly announced that he's changed his mind and now supports civil marriage for gay and lesbian couples. That ground is shifting faster than anyone could have anticipated - and I'm willing to bet that, in the next few years, his won't be the only high-profile defection from the ranks of those who oppose equality.

May 3, 2011, 6:26 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink27 comments
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The Graying of the Priesthood

I've written several times before about the decline of the Catholic church in the West. But today, I want to shine a spotlight on one corner of the world to study a lesser-known but extremely important symptom of that decline. This was brought to my attention by the journalist and atheist Dick Gross, author of the amusingly and aptly titled column Godless Gross, in an essay commenting on this article from the newspaper The Age.

Unlike most First World countries, Australia's Catholic population is growing (mainly because of immigration), now approaching 6 million. But at the same time, the ranks of the priesthood are dwindling. There are about 1,500 priests for the entire country, and the average age of a priest in Australia is 60 and rising. Already, despite the consolidation of almost 200 parishes since 1994, one in four Australian parishes doesn't have a full-time priest. If these demographic trends continue, by 2025 there will be as few as 600 priests for a population of over 7 million faithful - in other words, one priest for every 11,600 Catholics. Something tells me those men are going to be pretty busy.

For the moment, the church has been bridging the gap by importing priests from countries like Nigeria, India and the Philippines. But this strategy (described as one of "despair and desperation" by ex-priest Peter Wilkinson) may not be viable for much longer. As Gross points out, the lack of priests isn't just a First World problem. Some countries already have it even worse:

The Latin American Churches are similarly sclerotic. Brazil has one priest for every 10,000 believers and Mexico one for every 9700!

This is a slow-motion catastrophe for the Catholic church. It's not just that parishes are closing and merging and churches are being shuttered; it's not just that the increasingly few numbers of people willing to be priests are being spread increasingly thin all over the world. It's also that the church's strategy for addressing the crisis, shipping in priests from Third World countries, is bound to make things even worse. Many of these foreign priests exemplify the kind of patriarchal, illiberal culture that's out of step with the population they're called on to serve, which will further widen the chasm between Catholic believers and their own hierarchy:

Catholics for Ministry co-founder Paul Collins shares that concern. "Many of these foreign priests are inexperienced and come from cultures that are tribal and patriarchal. They have little or no comprehension of the kinds of faith challenges that face Catholics living in a secular, individualistic, consumerist culture that places a strong emphasis on equality, women's rights and co-responsibility between clergy and lay people," he said.

Now, there's one blindingly obvious solution staring the church in the face: change the rules to allow ordination of married men and even (gasp!) women as priests. As Gross says, it's not even as if married priests would be a new thing for Catholicism; priestly celibacy didn't become a universally observed rule until the Lateran Councils of the 1100s. But not only has the Vatican rejected that proposal out of hand, it's forbidden the Australian bishops to even mention it in public. Rarely in the history of religion has so sensible a solution to such a pressing problem gotten such a knee-jerk rejection from the very people who would benefit the most from it.

And while the hierarchy refuses to even discuss the issue, the priesthood is still dwindling. Blinded by its own delusional sense of infallibility, the Vatican is marching proudly into extinction. It remains to be seen whether the world's Catholics will obediently follow their leaders off the cliff, or if we may yet see schisms and new sects form as some of them rebel against Rome's hidebound insanity. I wouldn't be surprised if progressive groups like Catholics for Ministry ultimately end up breaking away from the church and striking out on their own.

March 16, 2011, 5:55 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink27 comments
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Atheism Is Breaking Out All Over

Right around the time I received James A. Haught's editorial "Fading Faith", I was working on a similar post of my own. It was motivated by the brutal murder of Salman Taseer and the other signs that religious eliminationism is growing throughout the world, which drove me to wonder if there's any reason left to hope. Although recent events argue persuasively that the liberal spirit is alive and well, I think there's still room for this post as well: evidence that atheism is breaking out all over, and that a secular spirit is rising throughout the industrialized world.

In many ways, the U.K. is at the epicenter. Even the guardians of orthodoxy have noticed, as in this article from Nick Spencer lamenting how "the overwhelming feeling [toward Christianity] is one of disinterest and disengagement" among Generation Y. This essay by Johann Hari, deploring the guaranteed seats in Parliament for clerics, expresses a more positive perspective on the same news:

Britain is one of the most blessedly irreligious societies on Earth... The British Social Attitudes Survey, the most detailed study of public opinion, found that 59 per cent of us say we are not religious.

As in Britain, so in Germany: 60% of Berlin residents are nonreligious. Even more inspiring was the news that, after the brutal 2006 "honor killing" of a Turkish woman, the city government introduced a secular ethics class to the public school curriculum. When religious interest groups pressed for a ballot initiative to add a religion class as an alternative to the ethics class, that referendum was soundly defeated by voters.

Similarly, a recent census in Melbourne, Australia found that 32% of the city's 3.6 million residents identified as nonreligious, and 13% as atheists. (The article didn't make it clear whether these were overlapping categories.)

Even in Indonesia, atheists are using the internet to find each other and organize. Although this movement is just getting off the ground and isn't as large as in Western countries, it's still an achievement worth recognizing - especially in a Muslim-majority country where every citizen is required to carry an identity card stating their religion, and for which only six officially recognized options are allowed, atheism not among them.

It was such a stigma that prompted a 35-year-old teacher from West Sumatra, known online as "XYZMan," to start an email mailing list in 2004 to allow atheists to discuss their beliefs. The list now has more than 350 members.

Despite the success of the mailing list, XYZMan said he is forced to keep his own atheism secret in the real world...

"If everyone knew that I'm an atheist, I could lose my job, my family would hate me and also some friends," he said in an email interview.

"It's also more likely that I could be physically attacked or killed because I'm a kafir (unbeliever) and my blood is halal (allowed to be spilled) according to Islam."

And last but not least, that wealthy bastion of religious fundamentalism, the U.S. The slow decline of all Christian denominations, accompanied by the steady growth of the unaffiliated, has long been noted by demographers (see the charts and graphs in the linked article). But even more pertinently, it's not just our absolute numbers that are growing, it's our electoral clout:

In every presidential election since 1988... the ranks of what pollsters call "the religiously unaffiliated" has grown. In 2008, some 12% of the electorate - or 15 million voters - identified themselves as nonbelievers. That's bigger than the Latino vote (9%), the gay vote (4%), or the Jewish vote (2%), and it's competitive with the African American vote (13%).

There's also this excellent article detailing the growth of atheist political organization, with welcome coverage of groups like the Secular Coalition for America, representing our interests in Washington, or the Secular Student Alliance, organizing the next generation of freethinkers in colleges and high schools across the country (despite resistance from bigots). This may be the most important part of the atheist movement - creating an infrastructure that can absorb our growth and make us a visible social force, rather than an amorphous collection of individuals. Such an organization could effectively speak out for the rights of nonbelievers around the world and forcefully advocate all the causes that freethinkers should care about.

March 2, 2011, 6:45 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink15 comments
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Exploring the Gender Disparity on Daylight Atheism

As part of my fifth anniversary post, I included a survey where I asked readers to list their gender and their age, mainly just to satisfy my own curiosity. The results of the age poll, to my pleased surprise, formed a very neat bell curve (I have more computer-savvy older readers than I had guessed!).

This wasn't the case with the gender survey, however. I was expecting there to be a gender disparity, and there was, but it was much larger than even I had anticipated. With the poll now closed, the final results stand at 81% male and 19% female, with about 1% who don't identify as belonging to either category.

Granted, this isn't a scientific poll, and there are lots of different factors that could have biased the results. Nevertheless, I think this huge gender disparity is a result that's in need of explanation, and like any good scientist, I'd like to propose several different hypotheses to test.

Hypothesis #1. There's a large male-female disparity in atheism generally, and the poll results simply reflect that fact.

This hypothesis is almost certainly part of the truth, but it can't be all of the truth. According to the ARIS researchers, the non-religious segment of the American population is about 60% male (the percentages may be different in other countries, but I expect that a majority of my readership is American). Thus, if my visitors were a good statistical sample of the population, I'd have expected that same 60-40 split. But the gender disparity on Daylight Atheism is greater than that, which means there must be some other cause at work.

Besides, this hypothesis doesn't really explain the gender disparity as much as reiterate it. Why is it true that nonbelievers are predominantly male?

Hypothesis #2. There's a male-female disparity on the Internet generally, and the poll results simply reflect that fact.

Again, I think this hypothesis is part of the explanation, but only a small part. To further satisfy my curiosity, I cross-referenced the data for people who answered both polls, which yielded an interesting pattern:

Male Female
< 18 10 3
18-21 50 14
22-30 166 46
31-40 105 17
41-50 73 17
51-60 65 11
> 60 42 6

As you can see, although there's a gender disparity in every age group, it's substantially larger among respondents above the age of 30. Below that age, men outnumber women by about 3-to-1, while above that age, it's more like 6-to-1.

According to Pew surveys, it's true that more older men than older women are online, but this only applies to those above the age of 65. In all younger age groups, the percentages are virtually identical. Therefore, it's probably not a general, society-wide pattern in internet use that produced the discrepancy on my site.

Hypothesis #3. Men were more likely than women to vote in this poll, producing skewed results.

This possibility could be generalized to the hypothesis that women are socially conditioned to be less likely to speak up, to identify themselves, and to make their voices heard, especially when in the presence of men - something often noted by feminists. But while I think this may be a problem in general, I'm skeptical that it played a major role on this blog.

As I said, this poll wasn't scientific, and it's possible that differences in self-reporting might have further tilted the outcome. But on a blog, everyone's comments occupy an equal space; no one can interrupt, shout down or talk over anyone else. It's not even obvious what gender other commenters are, unless people deliberately comment under their real names or choose a gendered pseudonym. Whatever unequal social pressures may exist on men and women, could they really extend to something as simple as clicking a button on a poll?

Hypothesis #4. Something about the subject matter or content of this site, in general, appeals to men more than to women, or makes women feel as if they're less welcome than men.

This is the hypothesis that I find the most plausible, and the one that troubles me most. Am I doing something to make atheist women feel unwelcome or uninterested?

If so, I'd like to fix that. But I don't know what that thing might be, and I don't expect it would be easy for me to discern it. After all, it's difficult to notice your own presuppositions, except in the rare cases where circumstances are designed to bring them to the fore. But once they're pointed out to you, it's usually possible to deliberately make an effort to compensate for them.

That's why, if you have an opinion about what I should be doing differently, I'd like to hear it. I'm especially interested to hear from female readers, although - and I mean no offense by this - you're the outliers!

If we can come up with an answer to this question - if we can determine what a blogger like me should be saying or doing differently to appeal to women as well as men - this information will be beneficial not just to this site, but to the broader atheist movement, which is still struggling with issues of fairness and gender balance. By ensuring that we're framing our message to appeal to all segments of the population equally, we can make the secular community larger and more influential, and in the long run, this can only be a good thing for us.

February 19, 2011, 6:06 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink80 comments
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Daylight Atheism: Anniversary #5

As of today, I've officially been doing this blogging thing for five years. Hard to believe, isn't it?

An anniversary seems like a good time to reflect on statistics, so here are some numbers. Since February 2006, Daylight Atheism has had 1,265 posts, 42,573 comments, and 7.8 million total views, representing about 1.2 million unique visitors. So far this year, I'm averaging over 11,000 total hits and over 3,000 unique visitors per day, which is well above the historical norm. As of today, the single most-viewed post of all time is September 2008's Ten Questions to Ask Your Pastor, with over 70,000 individual page views.

I realize this is far from the most heavily trafficked weblog out there, but in my completely unbiased opinion, it's one of the best, and I think most of the credit goes to the guest authors and the commenters. There are sites with much greater hit totals that don't have nearly as vibrant a community of contributors, and I'm grateful to every person who's taken the time to write a comment or a guest post. (Yes, I'm even grateful to the proselytizing trolls. After all, without them to practice on, how would the rest of us keep our rhetorical sabers sharp?) It's all of you, not me, who make Daylight Atheism the lively place it is and keep it from being just me shouting into the wind. I tip my hat to all of you, and thanks!

If you all don't mind indulging my curiosity, I'm interested to know some of the demographics of my readership. I'm giving this poll plugin a test drive, and I'd be much obliged if you'd cast your vote below [UPDATE — I've belatedly added a third option to the gender poll. Thanks to the commenters who pointed this out]:

What is your gender?

  • Male (81%, 516 Votes)
  • Female (18%, 118 Votes)
  • Genderqueer (1%, 6 Votes)

Total Voters: 640

Loading ... Loading ...

What is your age?

  • < 18 (2%, 14 Votes)
  • 18 - 21 (10%, 66 Votes)
  • 22 - 30 (34%, 224 Votes)
  • 31 - 40 (19%, 125 Votes)
  • 41 - 50 (14%, 95 Votes)
  • 51 - 60 (12%, 82 Votes)
  • > 60 (9%, 52 Votes)

Total Voters: 658

Loading ... Loading ...

Finally, consider this an open thread. What's your opinion on the way Daylight Atheism is run? What do you want to see more of? Less of? Are there any issues that should be getting greater mention that I've overlooked?

February 10, 2011, 2:04 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink58 comments
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Fading Faith: The Rise of the Secular Age

By James A. Haught

[Editor's Note: I'm proud to feature the writing of James Haught on Daylight Atheism. Mr. Haught has been an editor and columnist for the Charleston Gazette for over fifty years, as well as an eloquent and prolific freethinker and author of books like Holy Horrors. I've been a fan of his ever since I discovered him, through the Freedom from Religion Foundation, soon after becoming an atheist myself. You can read more of his work at his own website, To Question is the Answer, or in this interview on The Eloquent Atheist. This essay is from his latest book, also called Fading Faith, and is reprinted by his permission. —Ebonmuse]

Philosopher-historian Will Durant called it "the basic event of modern times." He didn't mean the world wars, or the end of colonialism, or the rise of electronics. He was talking about the decline of religion in Western democracies.

The great mentor saw subsiding faith as the most profound occurrence of the past century - a shift of Western civilization, rather like former transitions away from the age of kings, the era of slavery and such epochs.

Since World War II, worship has dwindled starkly in Europe, Canada, Australia, Japan and other advanced democracies. In those busy places, only 5 or 10 percent of adults now attend church. Secular society scurries along heedlessly.

Pope Benedict XVI protested: "Europe has developed a culture that, in a manner unknown before now to humanity, excludes God from the public conscience." Columnist George Will called the Vatican "109 acres of faith in a European sea of unbelief."

America seems an exception. This country has 350,000 churches whose members donate $100 billion per year. The United States teems with booming megachurches, gigantic sales of "Rapture" books, fundamentalist attacks on evolution, hundred-million-dollar TV ministries, talking-in-tongues Pentecostals, the white evangelical "religious right" attached to the Republican Party, and the like.

But quietly, under the radar, much of America slowly is following the path previously taken by Europe. Little noticed, secularism keeps climbing in the United States. Here's the evidence:

Rising "nones." Various polls find a strong increase in the number of Americans - especially the young - who answer "none" when asked their religion. In 1990, this group had climbed to 8 percent, and by 2008, it had doubled to 15 percent - plus another 5 percent who answer "don't know." This implies that around 45 million U.S. adults today lack church affiliation. In Hawaii, more than half say they have no church connection.

Mainline losses. America's traditional Protestant churches - "tall steeple" denominations with seminary-trained clergy - once dominated U.S. culture. They were the essence of America. But their membership is collapsing. Over the past half-century, while the U.S. population doubled, United Methodists fell from 11 million to 7.9 million, Episcopalians dropped from 3.4 million to 2 million, the Presbyterian Church USA sank from 4.1 million to 2.2 million, etc. The religious journal First Things - noting that mainline faiths dwindled from 50 percent of the adult U.S. population to a mere 8 percent - lamented that "the Great Church of America has come to an end." A researcher at the Ashbrook think-tank dubbed it "Flatline Protestantism."

Catholic losses. Although Hispanic immigration resupplies U.S. Catholicism with replacements, many former adherents have drifted from the giant church. The 2008 American Religious Identification Survey found that 20 million Americans have quit Catholicism - thus one-tenth of U.S. adults now are ex-Catholics.

Fading taboos. A half-century ago, church-backed laws had power in America. In the 1950s, it was a crime to look at the equivalent of a Playboy magazine or R-rated movie - or for stores to open on the Sabbath - or to buy a cocktail or lottery ticket - or to sell birth-control devices in some states - or to be homosexual - or to terminate a pregnancy - or to read a sexy novel - or for an unwed couple to share a bedroom. Now all those morality laws have fallen, one after another. Currently, state after state is legalizing gay marriage, despite church outrage.

Sociologists are fascinated by America's secular shift. Dr. Robert Putnam of Harvard, author of "Bowling Alone," found as many as 40 percent of young Americans answering "none" to faith surveys. "It's a huge change, a stunning development," he said. "That is the future of America." He joined Dr. David Campbell of Notre Dame in writing a new book, "American Grace," that outlines the trend. Putnam's Social Capital site sums up: "Young Americans are dropping out of religion at an alarming rate of five to six times the historic rate."

Oddly, males outnumber females among the churchless. "The ratio of 60 males to 40 females is a remarkable result," the 2008 ARIS poll reported. "These gender patterns correspond with many earlier findings that show women to be more religious than men."

Growing secularism has political implications. The Republican Party may suffer as the white evangelical "religious right" shrinks. In contrast, burgeoning "nones" tend to vote Democratic. Sociologist Ruy Teixeira says the steady rise of the unaffiliated, plus swelling minorities, means that "by the 2016 election (or 2020 at the outside) the United States will have ceased to be a white Christian nation. Looking even farther down the road, white Christians will be only around 35 percent of the population by 2040, and conservative white Christians, who have been such a critical part of the Republican base, will be only about a third of that - a minority within a minority."

Gradually, decade by decade, religion is moving from the advanced First World to the less-developed Third World. Faith retains enormous power in Muslim lands. Pentecostalism is booming in Africa and South America. Yet the West steadily turns more secular.

Arguably, it's one of the biggest news stories during our lives - although most of us are too busy to notice. Durant may have been correct when he wrote that it is the basic event of modern times.

February 4, 2011, 6:20 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink14 comments
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