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.
To Win, We Just Have to Show Up
In the wake of marriage equality's victory in New York State last Friday, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Albert Mohler posted the following to Twitter:
Now, fully 1 in 9 Americans will live in a state with legalized same-sex marriage. Our mission field is getting more complicated.
On the surface, this is a strange statement. Mohler apparently believes that the legalization of same-sex marriage will make it more difficult for Christians to win converts. Why would he think this?
My wife and I discussed this, and I can only come up with one explanation that seems reasonable: Mohler is against same-sex marriage because he wants society to discriminate against non-Christians, thereby making conversion to Christianity a more attractive offer. If all people have equal rights, then Christianity will be forced to rely on its own persuasive power to make converts, rather than holding out unique privileges that are only available to Christians - and that's a competition he fears!
And it's not hard to see why. If proselytizers like Mohler seek to convince gay people that their sexual orientation is sinful, wrong and must be changed, they'll have a much harder time making the case to people in a happy, stable, committed relationship with all the benefits offered by the state to opposite-sex couples. They'd prefer that GLBT people be a downtrodden and oppressed minority, punished and scorned by the state, unprotected against discrimination in jobs or housing, shut out from all the legal benefits society has to offer. They don't want to compete on a level playing field, but one that's tilted in their favor; they want people who won't convert to suffer for their defiance.
The same thing happens with atheism. In their furious hushing of atheists and demanding that we be more respectful, in their efforts around the world to pass bills punishing speech that insults or denigrates religion, we see that what the major religious groups and their allies want is to silence dissent. Again, they don't want to compete in a marketplace of ideas; they want society to be their parishioners, sitting in enforced silence while they alone stand in the pulpit and preach.
There's a lesson here for freethinkers: to win the debate, we just have to show up. If we can speak freely and make our case, we've already won. If we can successfully claim the same rights and the same privileges as religious people, we've already won. If ordinary people have friends and family who are atheists, and know that they have friends and family who are atheists, we've already won. If the battle is waged on a level playing field, our victory is assured, because we know that in an open and fair debate, our arguments are the better ones and will carry the day. It's only coercion and prejudice that can hold us back, and both those obstacles are weakening and falling one by one.
* * *
In other news, New York's churches are still sputtering in fury over the passage of marriage equality this weekend. The Catholic bishops were caught off-guard and were never able to mount an effective opposition, but now that they've lost, they're venting their anger by spitefully vowing to ban pro-equality politicians from events at Catholic schools and churches:
Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, of the diocese of Brooklyn, called on all Catholic schools to reject any honor bestowed upon them by Gov. Cuomo, who played a pivotal role in getting the bill passed.
He further asked all pastors and principals to "not invite any state legislator to speak or be present at any parish or school celebration."
Personally, I couldn't be happier that this naked bigotry is on open display. I want the bishops to announce it far and wide, preferably in bright neon signs. I want the whole world to hear the message loud and clear: "If you believe gay people deserve the same rights as everyone else, we don't want you in our church!"
I say this because every survey shows that the younger generations are overwhelmingly in favor of equality. By making assent to bigotry a non-negotiable condition of membership, by vocally insisting that the one thing that defines a Christian more than anything else is being anti-gay, the bishops are accelerating their slide into irrelevance. Some denominations are bowing to the inevitable, but the Catholic authorities have made this their hill to die on. And the way they're going, they'll get their wish. Already, as many as one in ten Americans are ex-Catholics, and that number is only going to increase. In twenty years or so, the religious landscape in the Western world is going to be very different, and that's a change that I look forward to seeing.
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.
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.
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.
The Beginnings of an Arab Enlightenment?
I've written recently about the vicious, dispiriting murders of human-rights advocates in Pakistan and Uganda. I'm an optimist by temperament, but stories like these are enough to drive me to the edge of despair. In my worst moments, it makes me wonder: is it possible for liberal, secular democracies to survive over the long term? Can free and enlightened nations ever endure, or are they nothing more than a momentary flicker in the dark?
No republic can survive if its people don't value it, if they're not willing to defend it - and in so many cases, the people have proven all too eager to listen, instead, to religious demagogues who preach that free speech is blasphemy, that women are divinely ordained to be slaves, and that the role of the state is to compel faith and enforce ancient dogma. Even in modern, advanced states, those hard-won freedoms seem to be slipping away.
So yes, I do have moments when despair creeps up on me. But then, a few weeks ago, the Arab world exploded, and we're suddenly glimpsing the possibility that everything may change.
Tunisia was the first: a small but well-educated secular Arab state, run by a kleptocratic dictator. A few weeks ago, a street vendor immolated himself in a cry of protest when the government denied him his last chance to make a living, and his final despairing act became the catalyst for a vast, spontaneous uprising that drove the dictator out with amazing swiftness. Almost as quickly as that, Egypt became the next domino to fall. Seemingly overnight, the country erupted in massive protests airing long-pent-up grievances over its rampant corruption, appalling poverty, widespread police brutality, and an absolute ruler with designs on monarchy. And now there are tentative reports of protests in Syria, in Jordan, in Yemen... And I think, too, of Iran's embryonic Green Revolution, stopped for now by a brutal show of state power but, I have no doubt, still simmering beneath the surface.
What I find most inspiring, and most incredible, is that the protesters in these countries aren't rising in support of Islam, aren't marching to demand a theocracy. They're marching for liberty, for a society free of corrupt dictatorships and presidents-for-life, for the right to self-determination and democratic representation. (Egypt's largest opposition party, the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, was taken by surprise by the protests and has been scrambling to keep up.) And both in Tunisia and in Egypt, the protesters have been amazingly peaceful. There were even reports of ordinary people forming human chains to protect the country's museums.
So far, the marchers aren't looking to the United States, and I don't blame them. We've spent so much money for so long propping up tyrannies and arming dictators that they're right not to trust us. They're working out their destiny on their own, and the best thing we can do is stay out of the way. Nevertheless, this is a dramatic confirmation that America's founders were right. Their assessment of human nature isn't just a pleasantly naive fantasy or a self-serving pipe dream: people the world over really do want freedom, independence, human rights. And given the right set of circumstances and the right spark, they'll arise and fight for them, just as our patriots did over two hundred years ago.
That said, it's much too early to tell what will come of these revolutions. Egypt is poised on a knife edge, and the Egyptian streets could still explode into an all-out bloodbath (there are already scattered reports of police brutality and killings, difficult to confirm or disprove under a government-imposed media blackout). Even if the protesters are successful and governments fall, new dictatorships could replace the old. The Islamists may yet find a way to subvert the revolutions to their advantage. Still, these uprisings are dramatic evidence for the hypothesis that tyranny never lasts forever, that the people will always rise up and throw off dictatorships eventually. In the face of so much evidence to the contrary, it's a dramatic reconfirmation of the great, soaring potential inherent in the human spirit.
Britain Defends the Enlightenment
Despite the ongoing schism of the Anglican church, which I wrote about in my last post, I'm happy to see that there's still plenty of good sense and reason in the U.K. One outstanding example is this story from last month, where the British Medical Association voted to stop funding homeopathy in public hospitals. (UK readers, do you know if is this a binding vote or just advisory?) There's been some trenchant commentary on the decision, like this column from Ed West:
The most outspoken supporter of the motion, Dr Tom Dolphin, had earlier compared homeopathy to witchcraft, but then apologised to witches on the grounds that this was unfair. Homeopathy, he said, was "pernicious nonsense that feeds into a rising wave of irrationality which threatens to overwhelm the hard-won gains of the Enlightenment and the scientific method".
And from Martin Robbins, responding to a supporter of homeopathy:
Apparently 'thousands' of people - including Peter Hain's son - get better after taking homeopathy. This is absolutely true, but the problem is that most people get better anyway, whether you give them antibiotics, homeopathy, or a slap to the face. Humans tend to be quite good at healing themselves. Once you control for this sort of variable, the outcomes are much clearer.... the more rigorously we test homeopathy, the more it fails.
By way of response, defenders of homeopathy are reduced to reading from a by-now-familiar script:
Apparently... I'm displaying what Dr Le Fanu describes as "Dawkinsite arrogance", but there's nothing arrogant about researchers collectively testing ideas and accepting the results. What's arrogant is to ignore evidence when it doesn't produce the result you expect. Particularly when that evidence has been accumulating for two centuries – a period of time in which homeopaths apparently haven't even managed to agree on how much you have to shake the vial.
Yes, that's right - in two hundred years, homeopaths haven't gotten around to figuring out how many times a homeopathic remedy has to be "succussed" (i.e., shaken) in the course of dilution to activate its supposed curative powers. Do you really want to take medicine from people who can't be bothered to perform even the most basic tests on their own ideas? And what does it say about the homeopaths' level of devotion to scientific rigor that they've never even tried to determine this?
And this isn't the only good news out of England. It seems that Colin Hall, the recently elected mayor of Leicester, is a nonbeliever, and he's taken some commendable steps toward ending Christian privilege in his town:
Writing in this month's edition of the Leicester Secularist, the journal of the city's Secular Society, Cllr Hall, who will serve as Lord Mayor for the 2010-11 municipal year, said: "Contrary to the myths that certain organisations like to promote, the practice of observing prayers at the start of council meetings is a relatively recent one.
"I am delighted to confirm that I will be exercising my discretion as Lord Mayor to abolish the outdated, unnecessary and intrusive practice.
"I personally consider that religion, in whatever shape or form, has no role to play at all in the conduct of council business... This particularly applies in Leicester, where the majority of council members, myself included, do not regularly attend any particular faith service."
Although Hall's decision appears to have gone over smoothly with the majority, there was some predictable squawking from pushy Christians who are unhappy that their special rights are being taken away:
A Fellowship Pastor, Ian Jones, said: "I find it deeply sad that anyone would want to suppress the rights of others to pray.
"If someone has a problem with this practice, could they not simply join the meeting once it is over?"
Although the U.K. as a whole is friendly to reason, it seems its pastors suffer from the same disease that's endemic in America - the belief that they have the right to force their religion on others and that their free speech is being suppressed if they're denied this. I have a better idea, Pastor Jones: why don't you do your own praying before the meeting if you want to, and spare everyone else the wasted time of listening to your superstitious mumbling?
This isn't Mayor Hall's first action standing up for the rights of nonbelievers. He's hired the president of the local secular society to serve as the town's chaplain. When he took office, he also refused to take part in a service at Leicester Cathedral to ceremonially welcome him into his new role. As he wrote on Twitter, "Bear in mind though, I am Lord Mayor for all people of Leicester and not just those from the Church of England."
Hall's decision to stand up for secularism and conduct the people's business without giving special privileges to religion is a wonderful breath of fresh air, and something I wish we'd see more of in America. And for truth's sake, the U.K.'s current deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, is an atheist! You British people are just out to make us look bad, aren't you?
Happy Holidays! Atheism Is Growing!
As we ring in the new year, here's some news to give you a sense of optimism for 2010. This holiday season, we can add another piece of evidence to the growing pile which indicates that atheists are becoming more numerous and more successful:
This Christmas season, 78% of Americans identify with some form of Christian religion, a proportion that has been declining in recent decades. The major reason for this decline has been an increase in the percentage of Americans claiming no religious identity, now at 13% of all adults.
Granted, 13% doesn't seem like much, especially compared to the size of the Christian majority. But considering it was 2% in 1948, and only 6% even as recently as 1998, it can't be denied that this represents a major demographic boom for atheists and nonbelievers of all stripes. I can't think of any religion, historical or modern, that's ever enjoyed such rapid success. And given the steadily increasing rates of secularism among the younger generations, we can expect this rise to continue.
What this shows, as I've said before and will doubtless continue to say, is that we should ignore the brow-furrowing and finger-wagging of the Very Serious theologians who sternly inform us that we're doing a disservice to our own cause by advocating and defending it in public. We have every reason to believe that atheist campaigns of persuasion are working, achieving their intended purpose of convincing more people to become atheists and weakening the social prejudice that treats religious belief as immune to questioning.
Further evidence of this comes from the Gallup poll, which shows not only that more people are walking away from religion, but also that those who stay are beginning to question whether religious belief has all the answers:
Note that the percentage who say religion is "old-fashioned and out of date" now stands at 29%, significantly higher than the 13% of Americans who say they have no religion. We could call these people "soft atheists". Most likely, the majority of these people aren't formal members of any organized church, and either don't attend religious services or attend only infrequently. But because of societal pressure to conform, or their own belief that belief in God is necessary for virtue or community, they continue to call themselves religious even as they reject most of religion's factual claims.
These people are the low-hanging fruit whom atheists can reach. We need to deliver a strong, effective message that belief in God is not necessary for the things human beings care about - that nonbelievers can justify morality with reason and conscience, and build a secular community without reference to faith. And given that our audience's sympathies are already leaning in that direction, we should continue to make the case that religious belief is archaic superstition, contains many immoral rules, and has no solutions for the ethical problems humanity faces today. Let the theologians and mystics continue to carp and complain that atheists are being disrespectful, that we're not acknowledging the magnificence of the emperor's new clothes. We don't require their consent, and they're not our target audience anyway. The continuing growth of atheism throughout the world is all the encouragement we need to speak out.
In Defense of Optimism
Among the writers who oppose the New Atheists, one common theme in their criticism is that we're too optimistic about the possibility of human progress. For example, take this essay by Terry Eagleton attacking Richard Dawkins, in which the sneering condescension drips from every word:
It thus comes as no surprise that Dawkins turns out to be an old-fashioned Hegelian when it comes to global politics, believing in a zeitgeist (his own term) involving ever increasing progress, with just the occasional 'reversal'. 'The whole wave,' he rhapsodises in the finest Whiggish manner, 'keeps moving.' There are, he generously concedes, 'local and temporary setbacks' like the present US government – as though that regime were an electoral aberration, rather than the harbinger of a drastic transformation of the world order that we will probably have to live with for as long as we can foresee [ed.note: this was written during the Bush administration]. Dawkins, by contrast, believes, in his Herbert Spencerish way, that 'the progressive trend is unmistakable and it will continue.' So there we are, then: we have it from the mouth of Mr Public Science himself that aside from a few local, temporary hiccups like ecological disasters, famine, ethnic wars and nuclear wastelands, History is perpetually on the up.
The venom is even more apparent in another essay by Chris Hedges, which fulminates against atheists for not all being nihilists like himself:
There is nothing in human nature or human history to support the idea that we are morally advancing as a species or that we will overcome the flaws of human nature. We progress technologically and scientifically, but not morally. We use the newest instruments of technological and scientific progress to create more efficient forms of killing, repression, and economic exploitation and to accelerate environmental degradation as well as to nurture and sustain life. There is a good and a bad side to human progress. We are not moving toward a glorious utopia. We are not moving anywhere.
...the New Atheists, like all believers in myth, refuse to listen. They peddle the alluring and enticing fantasy of inevitable moral and material progress. This vision is not based on science, history or reason. It is an act of faith. It is a form of the occult. It is no more scientifically legitimate than alchemy.
Despite the flippancy and the anger of those who issue it, this is a challenge worth meeting on its own ground. Are we New Atheists unjustifiably optimistic? Do we too readily discount the potential for evil in mankind? Have we, as some of these critics would surely charge, replaced the unfounded faith in Heaven with an equally unfounded faith in human progress?
These are legitimate questions. To answer them, I'll begin by citing a few statistics.
If you lived in a hunter-gatherer society prior to the advent of modern civilization, what were your chances of dying by violence? The anthropologist Steven LeBlanc, in his book Constant Battles, estimates that in some primitive societies it was as high as fifty percent. And that's solely from deliberately waged warfare between competing tribes, without counting additional deaths from disease, accident, or starvation. As Steven Pinker puts it in What Are You Optimistic About?:
Most people, sickened by the headlines and the bloody history of the 20th century, find this claim incredible. Yet as far as I know, every systematic attempt to document the prevalence of violence over centuries... has shown that the overall trend is downward [p.4].
The wars of the 20th century caused untold devastation and suffering, but part of the reason for the great loss of life was simply that, due to industrialization and population growth, there were more people around to kill. Yet as a percentage of the total population, the number of people who lose their lives to violence has been declining for centuries. The 17th century's Thirty Years' War, for instance, may have killed as many as two-thirds of the population in some areas, whereas in World War II, even the countries that suffered the most generally lost no more than about 5% of their population.
John Horgan, in another chapter from the same book, puts the comparison vividly:
In War Before Civilization, the anthropologist Lawrence Keeley estimates that in the blood-soaked 20th century 100 million men, women and children died from war-related causes... The total would have been 2 billion, Keeley notes, if our rates of violence had been as high as in the average primitive society. [p.7]
By Keeley's numbers, violence in primitive societies was twenty times as high as in ours. And the trend of decreasing violence is on a path to continue. It's widely agreed that the wars of the future, rather than conventional conflicts between great powers, will be what Charles Kurzman and Neil Englehart call "the remnants of war", asymmetric conflicts between states and non-state actors like terrorist and guerrilla groups. For all their power to grab the headlines with lurid acts of violence, these types of conflicts will incur still lower death tolls than the wars of eras past.
In areas aside from warfare, the statistics still paint an optimistic picture. Over the last few decades, global poverty rates, infant mortality and other negative indicators have steadily fallen, while literacy, life expectancy, per capita income, and other positive indicators continue to rise. One of the more underappreciated factors contributing to this trend may be the ongoing urbanization of the world's population. As Stewart Brand puts it, "cities cure poverty" - consistently producing a drop in birthrate and a rise in economic prosperity among those who migrate to urban centers.
We have completely cured smallpox, and stand on the brink of wiping out several other contagious diseases, like polio, through worldwide campaigns of vaccination. "Soft" indicators of progress, like democracy, transparency in government and protection for human rights, are harder to measure, but in these areas as well, there are significant signs of progress globally (with, of course, many exceptions and local reversals).
None of this, of course, is to say that the world is on a smooth and inevitable trajectory towards utopia. A terrible, genocidal war might begin tomorrow, or next year, or in the next decade. There will still be natural disasters, crime and terrorism for the foreseeable future. Human rights, in all places and times, must be vigilantly defended against those who try to take them away. The looming crisis of global climate change still demands swift and decisive action if we are to avert the worst of its effects. And there will most likely be new challenges we must face in the future that we have not yet thought of or foreseen.
But these events, terrible as they are for those who experience them, should still be viewed against the appropriate background: as frustratingly slow as it is, as halting and zigzag as it is, progress is happening. The world is becoming a better place. The world we live in today is a far better place than the world a hundred years ago, and the world a hundred years from now will in all likelihood be better still. If your eyes are always riveted on the latest sensationalistic news report, moral progress is easy to miss - but it's happening regardless. On the grand scale of history, the human species is rising. (And as an atheist, I might add one more hopeful sign: the ongoing rise in the numbers of nonbelievers throughout the industrialized world!)
One wonders at the motivation of those who insist that moral progress is impossible. There's one causal factor that can't be overlooked. Namely, the evidence is unequivocal that happy, contented, economically secure people see less need for religion. Religion always flourishes among the poor, the downtrodden, the underclass - people who console themselves over their lack of power and prosperity in this world by believing that they'll get their just desserts in the next - and understandably so.
But the corollary is that the evangelists of religion have something to lose from moral progress. In a very real sense, they need the world to contain its measure of pain and misery, because the promise of relief from same is one of their selling points. The more peaceful, the more prosperous human society becomes, the less receptive people will be to their message. Small wonder, then, that they insist progress is a fool's dream. Their worldview depends on people believing this to be true!
Granted, it would be too harsh to attribute these sinister motives to every religious apologist. Some of them may just be irrefragable pessimists. But whether their pessimism is a personality trait or whether it's strategic, in either case, there are good reasons to think it's unfounded.
Making Progress Toward a Secular America
The Fourth of July should be a time for patriotic Americans to reflect on the progress our country has made and to rededicate ourselves to the cause of making it better where work still needs to be done. We can find material for both of those avenues in this article by Katrina van den Heuvel in the Nation, Rediscovering Secular America (HT: DC Secularism Examiner). It's a heartening glimpse into the political progress that freethinkers are making, including at least two news items I didn't know. First, the Secular Coalition for America was invited to the White House to meet with Obama administration officials, the first time an explicitly nontheistic group has ever been extended such an invitation:
After meetings with the Obama transition team in coalition with other groups interested in church-state issues, the Secular Coalition for America was invited to the White House for its own meeting with Associate Director of Public Engagement Paul Monteiro. Kaplan, Silverman, Legislative Director Sasha Bartolf, and Associate Director Ron Millar all attended.
Second, the Secular Coalition has also announced that it knows of twenty-two members of Congress who have admitted to being nonbelievers - although so far, only one has been willing to go on the record about it:
Indeed when the Coalition ran a contest to find the highest ranking official who identifies as a nontheist (or one of the terms within the nontheist nomenclature), 60 members of the House and Senate were nominated. The Coalition spoke to each of them, and 22 admitted it but refused to go public. Only Congressman Pete Stark was willing to be identified.
Both these items show the progress that freethinkers are making, as well as the obstacles that still remain to be overcome. Being invited to the White House is well and good, and being mentioned in presidential speeches is also encouraging. But President Obama has shown a bad habit of trying to placate his supporters with symbolic but largely meaningless gestures, rather than exerting his political muscle to make substantive progress on our behalf. One egregious example is the faith-based initiative, where Obama has failed to keep his campaign promise that federal money could not be used to discriminate in hiring or to proselytize.
His inaction on the issues of gay rights and religious discrimination in the military, as well as his embrace of some of the most corrosive and lawless aspects of Bush-Cheney claims about executive power and secrecy, are other examples. Progressive groups can't take it for granted that our work is done now that Obama is in office - we need to criticize him where necessary and to apply strong, consistent pressure for him to bring about the change he promised his supporters and, so far, has failed to deliver on many fronts.
The revelation of 22 in-the-closet nonbelievers in Congress is also both heartening and discouraging. Even if all 22 of them went public, we still wouldn't be represented proportionally to our numbers. The 15% of nonreligious Americans would imply a proportional 80 members in the House and Senate! We're not there yet. And though it's a good thing that they're there, it's an object lesson in American prejudice that they're too afraid to go public:
"But we see at the very least there are 22 people who think that honestly admitting their worldview would cause them not to get reelected," Kaplan says. "That's an awful commentary on a pluralistic, liberal America."
As much progress as nonbelievers have made, we have a long way left to go. We need to spend more time and money promoting the message of atheism as a positive, worthwhile philosophy, so that it becomes an acceptable option and candidates will not be ashamed to admit it. We need to work harder and to organize in order to put greater pressure on politicians to support our causes.
The steps we've already taken are small ones, and this may be frustrating to freethinkers who were hoping for faster, more sweeping change. But small as they are, they're the vital prelude to greater and more important accomplishments. For now, we can take comfort in knowing that we are being heard. If we continue to stand and fight, our impact and our influence will only grow. The wheels of democracy always turn slowly at first, but the harder we push, the faster their spin will become, until all the world turns in the direction we want it to go.