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.
Dispatches from Future America: Nation Ratifies Reproductive Rights Amendment
[Editor's Note: The last dispatch I received in this ongoing series was particularly bleak. As if on cue, I got another message the other day, this one apparently originating from a very different, and much rosier, future. I get the strong impression that these two possible worlds are, in some manner, competing against each other.]
JACKSON, MISSISSIPPI (August 6, 2037) — The Thirty-fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified today after passing the Mississippi state legislature by more than the required two-thirds majority, making Mississippi the crucial thirty-eighth state to approve the proposal. The new amendment, which takes effect immediately, defines "the freedom to exercise control over one's own reproductive system" as "an inviolable human right which may not be transgressed by any federal, state or local government or any employee thereof".
Cheering crowds packed the halls of the statehouse where Gov. Jasmine Victoria Meredith symbolically signed the measure into law after its passage by the legislature. "From this day forward, Mississippi's place in history as a champion of women's rights is assured," said the governor. "With these penstrokes, we erase the follies and crimes of the long-gone past - the anti-miscegenation laws, the shameful forced sterilizations, the hostility toward basic rights of reproductive choice - and step into a new era where the fundamental liberties of every human being will be respected and defended."
Advocates of the measure traced the roots of their victory back to the early 2010s. "When the government issued regulations requiring that insurers cover contraception as part of the health-insurance overhaul, it galvanized the feminist movement nationwide," said Feminist Majority Foundation president Amanda Marcotte. "The new generation of politically active women who emerged to defend that move turned out to play a major role in the progressive revolution of the early 2020s."
Among other things, historians credit the revitalized feminist movement with securing the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment in 2023. "But in spite of the improvements that brought about, there was ground left uncovered," added Marcotte. "That led to the National Childcare Act of 2026, which required all large employers to offer nine months of paid parental leave, finally bringing the U.S. into parity with the rest of the developed world. Ironically, it was these liberal measures that brought about the dramatic decline in the divorce rate that religious conservatives had so long wished for. When that became obvious, further reforms began to snowball. The most dramatic, of course, was the Congressional approval of a strong, comprehensive sex-ed curriculum for all public schools nationwide, and the effects of that silenced even the most stubborn naysayers. The rate of new HIV infections was already plummeting even before a vaccine was finally approved in 2031."
The newly approved amendment is intended to build on these gains. One of its provisions defines access to safe and effective contraception as a "public good" which the government is obliged to provide. "In most areas of the country, this was a formality," said CNN analyst Athena Jones. "Still, there are a few conservative regions that tried to keep out family-planning clinics with burdensome regulations and regular harassment from protesters. The passage of this amendment should offer a solid ground for a court challenge striking down those laws, as well as providing federal resources for clinic escorts where local officials are unwilling or unable to provide them."
The decision was not without its critics. "This law constitutes grave heresy, the arrogant decision of a godless nation that presumes to place itself above the infallible will of God," said a statement issued by Pope Honorius V. "It is not the place of man to declare that he controls his own body when Holy Mother Church clearly teaches otherwise. All those who voted in defiance of our earlier commandment on this matter are hereby declared to be anathema."
Most political observers expected the papal blast to have no effect. "The last census found that the number of practicing Catholics in America is under 3 million and falling," said CNN's Jones. "The church's membership has been declining for decades, driven by an exodus of young people reacting to Rome's unbending bigotry on the the long-settled issue of same-sex marriage, its ongoing refusal to ordain women despite a crippling shortage of priests, and the continuing fallout from the convictions of top church officials in Poland, India and the Philippines for covering up child molestation. The Vatican has long since rendered itself irrelevant as a political force."
With victory in hand, the backers of the new amendment have vowed to look abroad for their next steps. "Although America has guaranteed its citizens the right to education and sexual freedom, not every country in the world still enjoys those same privileges," said Gov. Meredith. "Despite the dramatic slowing of the global birthrate, we have much work left to do before world population stabilizes at a sustainable level. With the momentum of today's victory, I hope we can prevail upon Congress to do more to expand American support of family-planning and childhood vaccination efforts worldwide. The 1% of GDP we're currently devoting to this problem isn't nearly enough."
Dispatches from Future America: Government Increases Budget for Christiancare Program
[Editor's Note: After the two strange messages I received earlier this year, I thought the wormhole, or whatever it was, had closed forever. Evidently not. This past week, as fighting over the debt limit reached a fever pitch, I found a new e-mail from the future in my inbox. Elaborate hoax? Frightening warning of what lies ahead? You be the judge...]
NEW YORK CITY (July 24, 2037) — Mayor Harold Ford Jr., along with a group of civic dignitaries, was on hand for the gala ribbon-cutting of the newest federally-funded Christiancare clinic, the 1000th of its kind to open nationwide. Speeches by respected media figures marked the occasion, looking back on the long political struggle that led to the Christiancare program's creation in the federal budget for fiscal year 2012.
"The 2011 fight over the debt limit nearly destroyed our economy, resulting in skyrocketing interest rates on federal debt, a worldwide stock market crash, a domino chain of collapsing corporations, and near-anarchy as government ran out of money and was forced to shut down all over the country, suspending most basic services," said CNN analyst Stewart Kilgore. "Fortunately, after two months of chaos, President Obama capitulated to the Congressional Republicans' demands by signing a bill that raised the debt limit at the price of completely eliminating Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, as well as repealing the Affordable Care Act and eliminating all income taxes on corporations and individuals whose net worth was $1 billion or higher."
Liberal groups asserted that the controversial budget deal, while it preserved the structure of the American government, was responsible for the 10-year drop in average life expectancy that was noted over the following year. However, conservative groups hailed the deal as a triumph of post-partisan ideology that laid the groundwork for further reform.
"Since President Obama had shown himself to be a sensible and flexible negotiator, the Republicans were able to work with him to enact some common sense follow-ups," said the Sekulow Institute's chief historian, Dr. Michael Marcavage. "For example, the compassionate conservatives of the Tea Party knew that a few people had been slightly inconvenienced by the elimination of the New Deal programs, wasteful and unconstitutional though they were. Since President Obama himself had spoken highly of the great good that faith-based groups can provide with government support and no unnecessary strings, it proved to be a natural next step to return vital community services like medicine and elder care to the institution that had always provided them - the church."
Soon after the budget compromise came a bill establishing the first Christiancare pilot centers, federally funded clinics which "any officially recognized Christian denomination" could apply to run. Once the Supreme Court upheld this controversial law in a closely watched 2015 decision, the floodgates were opened, with the next Congress spending more than $5 billion to expand the program by building over a hundred new centers nationwide. Subsequent expansions of the program folded all other hospitals and clinics into it, as well as making it mandatory for all citizens to visit the nearest Christiancare clinic at least once per year for basic checkups and spiritual counseling.
"It's true that this program experienced some growing pains at first," said the mayor, referring to liberal groups' charges that life expectancy in Massachusetts dropped to 44.5 years after Christian Scientists were given control of Christiancare clinics throughout the state, as well as the sharply increased rates of infant mortality and deaths in childbirth in historically Catholic areas. "But nowadays, who can doubt its success? The skeptics have been silenced, and America's health-care system is the envy of the world! Our federally funded faith healers prescribe millions of baptisms and anointings per year, and cast out demons at rates that other countries can only dream of."
The opening ceremony was nearly overshadowed by news from Washington that further expansions to the controversial program may soon be coming. H.R. 216, sponsored by 238 members of Congress, would require all women in America to be implanted with a microchip that would detect the onset of pregnancy and wirelessly send this information to the nearest Christiancare center for "pastoral prenatal care".
"It will be so convenient, American women will hardly mind the implantation procedure," said Secretary of Health and Human Services Troy Newman. "And rest assured, our trained Christiancare counselors will be fully respectful of their patients' privacy, disclosing the expectant mother's condition only to licensed ministers of the gospel who will be on hand to provide her with the evangelistic material she'll need."
Liberal groups criticized the proposal, but their objections were not deemed newsworthy by the editors of this paper.
Weekly Link Roundup
I noticed a few stories this week that I haven't had time to write more about, but wanted to mention briefly:
• So-called "psychics" defraud their gullible customers out of thousands of dollars, usually through laughably obvious ploys in which they claim the client's money needs to be "cleansed". Can we please regulate these con artists already? Or should we even try - do the suckers deserve what they get?
• And proving that corruption and hypocrisy crosses denominational lines, a Greek Orthodox "holy man" is sentenced to 15 years in prison for raping two women by convincing them that having sex with him was the only way to rid themselves of curses.
• Couldn't have put it better myself: Stephen Hawking says that the afterlife is "a fairy story for people afraid of the dark".
• The tight link between religion, education and income in America. The non-religious are up there, although it's Hindus, oddly enough, who take the crown.
• And although this is in no way related to atheism, it was too cool not to share: Google is lobbying Nevada to legalize self-driving robot cars, which the software giant has been quietly testing for some time.
I've always thought driving was a tedious chore, and I can't wait for cars that can do it for me. Not only would it be extremely convenient, it'll almost certainly be safer: a robot car never falls asleep at the wheel, never drives drunk, never lets its attention wander, and ought to be able to react to hazards much faster than a human. We are entering the future, and I for one can't wait to see it!
Dispatches from Future America: Nation Celebrates National Day of Reason
[Editor's Note: This just keeps getting stranger.
Last month, I received a news dispatch from a disturbing future version of America through an anonymous remailer. The other day, I received a message from a different address, presenting itself as the same thing... but apparently from a very different future than the previous one.
I have no idea how to explain this. Parallel universes? Uncollapsed quantum wavefunctions? Which of these, if any, are our future? Are different possibilities somehow competing with each other to become reality? I think this was sent to me because someone wanted it to be shared, but other than that, I leave the judgment up to you...]
KANSAS CITY, KANSAS (June 27, 2035) — The first annual National Day of Reason, approved by Congress in a bill passed last year, was observed yesterday in this midwestern metropolis by an array of national figures. President Linda Sanchez delivered her address from the steps of the Public Library of Science, framed by a skyline of residential towers laminated in solar glass. A crowd whose size was estimated at fifty thousand gathered to hear the speech on a tree-lined pedestrian avenue beneath the turning blades of the nation's largest urban wind farm.
"My fellow Americans, I am proud and honored to speak before you on this day," her remarks began. "As one of our wisest leaders, Thomas Jefferson, put it, the president has no authority to direct the religious exercises of her constituents. I applaud Congress for repealing the National Day of Prayer law, a senseless and divisive event meant to convey a false message of the superiority of religious people. In its place, I'm proud to celebrate the first National Day of Reason, a fitting tribute to the virtue which powers our civilization. It was reason that sent human beings to the moon, reason that cured cancer through stem-cell research, and reason that offers the best hope of a future of peace and prosperity for all of us."
Media observers weren't surprised by the President's decision to attend the Kansas City event. "Kansas City's political importance increased greatly in the Midwest progressive revolution of the 2020s," said CNN analyst Athena Jones. "Its selection as one of the dozen primary hubs in the national high-speed rail network made it a major migration point, and the boom that followed the completion of the rail network, which had its roots in the stimulus bill of 2009, cemented its economic power. Kansas City is emblematic of the changes that have come across this country in the past two decades, which made it a natural choice for the President to attend."
The National Day of Reason was commemorated in parallel events across the nation. In Washington, D.C., a crowd estimated at one million people gathered on the National Mall to hear speeches by a series of dignitaries, including taped messages from representatives of the United Nations, the Middle East Democratic Alliance, and the scientists at Ares Research Station 1 in Elysium Planitia. However, some of the loudest cheers of the day were heard during the keynote address by Supreme Court Chief Justice Sarah Jane Braasch.
"Almost four hundred years ago," said Chief Justice Braasch, "an ancestor of mine had his life and livelihood nearly destroyed by Governor Winthrop and the Puritan theocrats of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, because he was advocating for a secular government. But today, we're emerging into a new future, one in which we recognize that we are a single human family on this tiny planet. Today, even the most devout appreciate the value of reason and secularism and understand that this system is in everyone's best interests. There are no human rights without secularism. There are no women's rights without secularism. There is no democracy without secularism. Let us never forget that only a truly secular government makes real freedom possible!"
In spite of the celebratory mood nationwide, President Sanchez struck a solemn note in her remarks, pointing out how many challenges are still faced by the human species.
"The fighting in Jerusalem and Saudi Arabia is ongoing, the remnants of a fading and archaic worldview that no longer has any place in a free and rational planetary civilization," she said. "Despite the long-overdue achievement of the U.N. Millennium Development Goals, millions of people still lack access to comprehensive public education, family planning, and advanced healthcare. Ensuring that every person on Earth has access to these necessities will be the cornerstone of my second term. Last but not least, although the global atmospheric carbon-remediation project is proceeding on schedule, the best estimates are that it will take decades to fully reverse the damage. The tens of billions of dollars we've spent on reseeding coral reefs and building advanced seawalls to protect coastal regions are a tragic testament to the greed and short-sightedness of the past."
"But although we face great challenges, let it never again be said that Americans are afraid to offer equally great solutions. We'll no longer be afraid to dream big, to take bold action, to make decisions that advance the common good while keeping an eye on the future. Most importantly, we'll no longer be afraid to rely on the guidance of science and reason, rather than the irrational passions of prejudice or faith. If we keep to the course we're following, we have the potential to create a future bright beyond imagining, not just for the United States of America, but for the entire human species and all our descendants yet to come."
No religious groups were in evidence to protest any of the National Day of Reason rallies. However, a statement e-mailed to the press by a group identifying itself as the New Reformed Campingists denounced the "godlessness that has brought humanity to the brink of ruin" and asserted that the Rapture was due to happen "any day now".
Dispatches from Future America: Court Upholds National Day of Christianity
[Editor's Note: The day after after publishing my article on the abuse of standing, I found a message with a strange attachment in my inbox, sent through an anonymous remailer. This attachment presented itself as a story clipped from a newspaper published in a future version of America. The author of the message wouldn't explain how they acquired it, other than a cryptic comment about wormholes. I have no way to verify this admittedly fantastic account, but thought it best to reprint the story so you can judge for yourself. —Ebonmuse]
WASHINGTON, D.C. (June 24, 2035) — In a case closely watched by legal experts, the Supreme Court defeated a challenge to the law passed by Congress last year establishing a National Day of Christianity. Ruling unanimously, the high court found that the controversial law, which requires the President to issue an annual proclamation declaring Christianity the established religion of the United States, does not do any injury to atheists and agnostics that would grant them standing to sue.
"In issuing this ruling, we uphold the glorious traditions of our founding fathers," Supreme Court Chief Justice Sarah Palin said in a statement outside the courthouse. "Great men like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams knew that America would never prosper unless all its citizens were washed in the blood of Jesus Christ. That's why they explicitly implied when they signed the Constitution that our country was always meant to be a Christian nation."
Court watchers weren't surprised by the outcome of the case. "The groundwork for this ruling was laid in the 2007 Hein decision," said CNN analyst Stewart Kilgore. "When the Supreme Court found that it didn't violate the Constitution for the President to use tax dollars to fund religion, they began a decades-long trend of narrowing the criteria under which citizens could sue for church-state violations. This ruling is a logical followup to the 2032 Flask decision which gave churches with more than 10,000 members the power of eminent domain so that they could seize and condemn neighboring houses to expand their parking lot."
Prior to today's ruling, several aspects of the law had drawn fire from the left. Among its most controversial provisions is a measure which requires all Americans to attend worship services once per week at a church which is on the government's official list of approved congregations. This measure, which required the hiring of over one million enforcement agents by the newly created Department of Homeland Orthodoxy, was denounced by liberal activists.
The court also found this aspect of the law to be constitutional.
"The mandatory worship-attendance measure is simply ceremonial deism," said Associate Justice David Barton, "which serves the secular purpose of teaching Americans about the history and culture of our country in a neutral and objective manner. The mandatory minimum sentences for not attending are in no way coercive. After all, no one is being forced to agree with what they hear from the pulpit."
Spokesmen for the Republican Party praised the decision. "The National Day of Christianity law is a much-needed countermeasure to the out-of-control influence of the godless American left," said RNC chairman R.J. Rushdoony Jr. "This lawsuit was utterly without merit, a publicity stunt concocted by angry, Christian-hating radicals who want to scrub any vestige of God from the public square. We're gratified that the high court has seen fit to agree."
But while they're still celebrating their latest Supreme Court victory, American Christians have set their sights on grander goals. Republican members of Congress have voiced grave concern over the fact that, in spite of the controversial creationism and Biblical Science classes added to public school curricula in 2029, the last census still found the percentage of atheists and agnostics in America as high as 1%.
"This overbearing atheist majority won't be able to impose its will on real Americans for much longer," promised President Michele Bachmann, who last week introduced a bill to create "patriotic education camps" within the large open-pit mine formerly known as West Virginia, as well as the still highly-radioactive forbidden zones of the Nevada desert. "We need all Americans to come together in faith if we're going to build a prayer wall around our nation that's strong enough to hold back the seawaters that have already executed God's judgment on the sinful cities of New York and San Francisco, as well as most of Florida. The God-haters and Sodomites whose presence keeps bringing God's wrath on us will soon learn the error of their heathen ways."
Liberal groups were not contacted for comment regarding the President's remarks.
Movie Review: Into Eternity
This weekend, my wife and I saw Into Eternity, a gripping documentary by the Danish filmmaker Michael Madsen. It's well worth a wider audience, so here's a review of it that I hope will provoke some interest.
Every nuclear power plant in the world produces several tons of high-level radioactive waste each year. In total, there exists in the world about 250,000 tons of radioactive waste, which is potentially deadly and will be for tens of thousands of years. Most countries that rely on nuclear power have no clear plan for disposing of it permanently (such as the U.S., where the proposed Yucca Mountain repository was canceled), and are resorting to temporary storage in water pools until a long-term solution is decided on.
One of the few exceptions is Finland, which is building a repository called Onkalo - Finnish for "hiding place" - drilled thousands of feet deep into the granite bedrock on an island 300 kilometers northwest of Helsinki. When Onkalo is finished, probably around 2020, it will be large enough to store all the radioactive waste Finland will generate in the next hundred years, after which it will be closed and sealed permanently.
But even though Onkalo will be open for about a hundred years, the wastes that it will contain will be dangerous for the next 100,000 years, and must be kept safe for that entire enormous span of time. That's the almost unimaginable challenge that its builders face, and that's the underlying idea that motivates this documentary and suffuses it with an eerily mythic, almost apocalyptic feel.
100,000 years is a span of time difficult for the human mind to grasp. The oldest pyramids of Egypt are less than 5,000 years old; the most ancient human settlements in the world, like Jericho and Çatalhöyük, are about 10,000 years old. Even the cave paintings of Lascaux are only about 17,000 years old. Onkalo will have to outlast all of these, and Madsen very effectively conveys the awful grandeur of that idea, the sense of standing at the lip of a vast abyss of time. In between interviews with the engineers, lawmakers, and scientific advisors of the project, he juxtaposes scenes of ghostly white, snow-shrouded Finnish woods with the vast, cavernous tunnels of Onkalo far below, where gloved and masked workers use heavy industrial equipment to drill ever deeper into the earth. Madsen's narration is addressed to a hypothetical far-future audience, explaining to them why we built this place and wondering what they may think of us.
The engineering challenges in building Onkalo are formidable. For one, it's essential that the repository be entirely passive, able to safeguard its contents without needing human beings to guard or maintain it. The engineers building Onkalo designed it to be immune to fires, floods, earthquakes - even to withstand the glaciation of the next ice age.
But natural disasters, over these long time scales, are a predictable quantity. The biggest threat to Onkalo by far is human intrusion. We can't predict the twists and turns of contingency; we can't be certain how long our society will endure, what may cause it to fall, or what might rise in its place. If Onkalo is ever rediscovered, some day in the far future, the people who find it may not have anything in common with us: not culture, not language, not even our scientific understanding of the world. How can we make them comprehend the danger, how can we persuade them to leave this place alone? How can we possibly communicate across the gulf of a thousand centuries?
This is where nuclear waste storage becomes less an engineering issue and more a philosophical problem. Into Eternity discusses some of the ideas that have been proposed: stone monuments engraved with warnings in every U.N. language, or more imaginative proposals that convey ideas on a level deeper than words, like huge, forbidding black monoliths or a jagged "landscape of thorns" protruding from the earth. One interview subject suggests reproductions of Edvard Munch's "The Scream". Still others suggest that any marker at all will only invite curiosity, and the best thing we can do for our descendants is to seal up Onkalo and leave it entirely unmarked and forgotten, hoping they never stumble across it.
Although this isn't explicitly an environmental documentary, the subject looms unavoidably in the background. Paradoxically, the building of Onkalo shows both the worst and the best of humanity: how insanely selfish and short-sighted it is to light our homes and offices today with a poison that will endanger our descendants for hundreds of generations; and how inspiring it is that we're able to think this far into the future and be willing to consider such extreme measures to safeguard them. But the most terrifying idea of all is that Onkalo, as huge as it is, will only store the nuclear waste of one country. Ultimately, the world will need dozens or hundreds of places like this. How many hidden dangers, how many buried traps, are we going to have to leave for those who live after us?
Last month, in "Dreams of a Better World", I considered some of the immediate problems humanity could solve if we had the collective will to do so. I want to continue that theme in this post, but from a longer perspective.
Historically, humanity's knowledge has exceeded its wisdom. As soon as we invent a new technology, we begin adopting it on a wide scale, without asking whether we should or what the consequences might be. Many of our most pressing problems - multidrug-resistant diseases, global climate change, air and water pollution, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the ongoing extinctions of species and destruction of habitat - trace back to this impulse.
Our powers of reason have brought us amazing advances in understanding and controlling the world; but those rational faculties have not, as of yet, mastered the baser instincts of greed, xenophobia, violence and tribalism that underlie them. Instead, our reason is too often enslaved to that darker side of our nature, becoming the servant of our destructive passions rather than their master. Hence, we see absurdities such as Islamist fanatics, who reject every other scientific advance of the last several hundred years, struggling to create nuclear weapons. The only scientific knowledge they accept is that which they can use to destroy. Doubtless, if evolutionary theory offered the key to creating deadlier biological weapons, all the universities in Islamic theocracies would have top-notch biology departments as well, next door to the theology departments still repeating the narrow dogmas of a medieval desert nomad.
But it's not just on those easy targets that I want to pin the blame. Too often, we in the allegedly enlightened West have been guilty of similar deeds, selectively using the fruits of science that offer us the most immediate benefit rather than asking what is moral or sustainable in the long run.
We invent ever-more efficient fishing technologies to scour the ocean of the increasingly few remaining fish, refusing to recognize the downward spiral our actions have created. We fuel our economy with dirty, polluting, high-carbon coal and oil because it's cheap - at least by the usual accounting - and to get it, we think nothing of drilling oil wells in delicate habitat, or bulldozing whole mountains and dumping the rubble into nearby streams and watersheds. We drain rivers dry to build ever more lavish cities and communities in the middle of the desert. We run industrial agriculture on vast quantities of fertilizers and antibiotics, and let someone else pay the cost for poisoned groundwater, dead zones in the oceans, and multidrug-resistant staph and tuberculosis.
To build a human society that can survive over the long term, we need to turn away from this. What we need, and what I hope, is that we'll begin asking ourselves not just whether we can do something, but whether we should - and if the answer is that we should not, that we will then collectively agree to forbear.
I don't mean to imply that there will be a single global authority dictating which technological avenues will or will not be pursued. That would be an abhorrent tyranny. I have in mind a different future: a world where people have as much as or more liberty than they do now, yet where the human race can come, freely and without coercion, to a universal consensus on which courses of action should be taken and which left alone.
This may strike you as an impossible dream. I admit that the evidence so far is against me: historically, if one person or group has been unwilling to cross a boundary, there's always another that will. But that's precisely the attitude that needs to change if humanity is to survive and prosper. As technology grows more and more powerful, smaller and smaller groups of people wield destructive potential that the entire human species didn't have even a hundred years ago. We need to make the transition to a world where this kind of power is used wisely by all who have access to it, and I believe we will.
How can the human race reach this level of unanimity? I answer that the things that hold us apart are mainly irrational impulses - racism, sexism, nationalism, religion - which encourage their followers to value one group, one land or one belief more than a rational accounting of its value would suggest. Thus, the answer is simple: Humanity will come together when we learn to overrule those superstitions and fully acknowledge - and live out - the supremacy of reason as a guiding principle. When that happens, we will be able to reach agreement on all the things that matter.
This isn't going to be a single event, nor will the world be transformed overnight. It may take centuries to complete. But I believe we're on the cusp of the transition, and we may even witness the beginning of it in our lifetimes. We'll begin to see consensus breaking out, unanimity gradually developing. By the time agreement finally arrives, it will doubtless seem so easy and natural, we'll wonder why it took us so long in the first place.
The literal meaning of the word "apotheosis" is "elevation to divine status" - and as I've previously said, I reject the idea that this should be our goal. The gods are petty, jealous, easily provoked creatures; they embody our worst traits, not our best, and we shouldn't be seeking to emulate them. But "apotheosis" has another, more fitting meaning: "the supreme or the best example", and that's a goal I can support without hesitation. We should all seek to become the best example of humanity, to unleash the potential for goodness inherent in every person. This state may seem to be impossibly far off, but if each of us does what we can to bring it into being, we may find it isn't as far as we think.
Dreams of a Better World
As I've written in the past, I'm an optimist when it comes to human progress: I'm confident that we can overcome the problems that beset us. This isn't to say that I think our triumph is inevitable, or even that optimism is the only possible position for a rational person to take. There are plenty of reasons to despair, for those who seek them out. Nevertheless, I think there's one major, counterbalancing reason for hope, and that reason is this.
Simply stated, our greatest dangers are not external hazards, things over which we have no control, but rather arise from the immorality or inaction of human beings. Just think of all the cases where our only enemy is each other: racism and sexism, secular tyranny and religious theocracy, pollution, war, terrorism, overpopulation, climate change, and environmental degradation. Evils like this are not natural forces that arise of their own accord; they persist because of the inertia of human society, our stubborn self-interest, and our valuing of dogma and superstition over the lives and well-being of our fellow people. Even many epidemic diseases, like AIDS, thrive only because of our actions. If people did not act - whether out of irresponsibility, malice, or simple ignorance - in ways that made their propagation possible, they would swiftly die out.
I won't deny that changing these harmful attitudes is tremendously difficult - moral progress always is - but it can be done. If our primary enemies were natural forces that could never be persuaded to relent, we would face a much grimmer and more difficult path. But as it stands, natural disasters like floods, hurricanes and earthquakes can destroy individuals and communities, but not humanity as a whole. The only global dangers, the only threats that truly menace the entire human community, are the ones that we have created for ourselves and perpetuate through our actions.
The truth of this statement can be discerned through a thought experiment. Imagine that all of humanity was united in purpose, that all people were willing to do whatever was necessary to put an end to these evils. Take this as a given, and then ask yourself: if this were so, what could we accomplish in just a single generation? The possibilities are almost limitless. We could eradicate AIDS and all the other diseases that depend on us for their propagation, as well as all the ones we have vaccines against. We could decarbonize our economy, end our dependence on fossil fuels, and create a green civilization powered by sun, wind and tides. We could end war and tyranny and establish peace, democracy and justice for every society on earth. We could redirect all the resources and energy that are currently wasted in superstition and sectarianism, instead using them for the common good of humanity. Ending poverty would take significant investments in infrastructure and education and would probably be a multi-generational process, but even that could be done relatively quickly if we had the will.
Of course, this is a limiting case. All of humanity will never be united in this way, at least not any time in the foreseeable future. There are too many squabbling political parties, too many stubborn religions and nationalisms, and too many rigid ideologies battling each other across the memetic landscape. We are too diverse and too opinionated for one cause to ever win everyone's allegiance. But, knowing what is possible if everyone were to cooperate, the next step should be to ask what is possible with less than that. Knowing that some percentage of humanity will always react with indifference or outright hostility, is it still possible to make moral progress? And any fair consideration of the historical record would have to answer this question with a resounding Yes!
In spite of everything - all the dogmatism, the stubbornness, the selfishness, the ignorance and hate - humanity's star has been rising, these past few centuries and more. So long as there's freedom to speak our views and to lobby for change, good causes have been able to win out time and again. As slow and difficult as it is to shift the monolithic block of human opinion, it can be done. That's why I'm an optimist, and that's why I dream of a better world. My reason for hope follows the lines of the famous saying attributed to the anthropologist Margaret Mead:
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.
The Amorphous Enemy
In a previous post, "The Soft Landing", I wrote about the future and about one potential scenario that I find disturbing: that militant, fundamentalist churches will grow at the expense of moderate and liberal ones, leaving behind a world split between atheism and angry, intolerant religion. In this post, I'll again look to the future, this time to outline another possibility that I find worrisome in a different way.
In this scenario, both moderate and fundamentalist religion will decline together. But instead of secular humanism and rationalism growing in their place, a different belief system will fill the gap: not any kind of formal or organized religion, but a vague, amorphous, anything-goes kind of credulity. We already see devotees of such a belief system in the modern New Age and pagan movements, in the alternative-medicine and anti-vaccination camps, in the fans of TV psychics, alien abductees, ghost-believers, channelers, and preachers of the "law of attraction". The members of all these groups may not have any specific beliefs in common, but what unites them is the conviction that personal intuition is a reliable guide to truth, as well as a willingness to form their own beliefs by picking and choosing whatever sounds good to them.
A world such as this, instead of violence, would be more likely to suffer stagnation. Scientific discoveries would not be opposed by a rigid ideology, but diluted and drowned out by a society that cheerfully embraces every superstitious fad that sweeps by. For skeptics and rationalists, facing down such an amorphous enemy would be like cutting the heads off a hydra: for every one defeated, two more sprout in its place. And as more of society's resources are diverted from genuinely valuable and productive endeavors to serve the cause of credulity, the pace of progress slows, knowledge fades, and people value science and critical thinking less and less. Ultimately, we could squander the legacy of the Enlightenment and end up in a new dark age like the one we so recently struggled up out of.
What can we do to avert this outcome? The most important principle, I feel, is that we need to keep in mind that our mission should be broader than just attacking whichever supernatural beliefs are causing the most harm. Even if we were successful at that, human beings can dream up an unlimited number of new beliefs to replace whichever ones we vanquish. To win the battle against superstition, we need to work towards a broader goal: a renewed allegiance to reason and the principles of critical thinking in society. We need not just to point out the bad ideas, but to give people the tools to tell the difference between good and bad ideas for themselves.
What this means for us is that, to promote a brighter future of reason, and not just more diversity of superstition, atheists should be guardians of good education. We should see it as our role to ensure that public schools are universal, secular, well-supplied, and staffed by qualified teachers with a curriculum based in science and reason. As well, we must support the effort to make higher education accessible and affordable to everyone. Doing anything else - abandoning the poor to underfunded and inadequate schools, trusting that the market will solve the problem, calling for the privatization of education - is to invite every kind of superstition to take root and grow in the fertile soil of uneducated minds. Surveys consistently show that more highly educated adults are more likely to be skeptics and atheists; the converse is true as well. In the long run, investing in an educated public is an effort that will pay genuine dividends to all of us.