by Greg Mayer
In the spring of 1979, the Shiite revolution in Iran was in full swing. The Shah had fled, Ayatollah Khomeini had returned, and summary executions had begun.
Often the only notice that a person is on trial is the announcement on the morning radio news that he has been executed. The front pages of the afternoon Persian-language newspapers are filled with grisly pictures of the bodies. (New York Times, April 11, 1979)
The full extent to which Iran would become a theocracy was still not entirely clear. On February 4th, the New York Times‘ R.W. Apple had asked “Will Khomeini turn Iran’s clock back 1,300 years”, and the short answer turned out to be “yes”.
I was an undergraduate in the department of Ecology and Evolution at the State University of New York at Stony Brook at the time, and often had lunch with a group of faculty and grad students in a cafeteria across the street from the biology building. At one of these lunches, during a discussion of events in Iran, a young assistant professor commented, “If this doesn’t give religion a bad name, nothing will.” And for a long time, I thought nothing would. The following year marked the ascent of Ronald Reagan, and the beginning of the agonizing descent of the Republican party from being the party of Lincoln to the party of Limbaugh, Beck, Robertson, Inhofe, and the Family.
I recalled this lunch time comment while thinking about Razib’s post on the greater acceptance of evolution among younger cohorts of Americans. I also recalled that the percentage of religiously unaffiliated had gone up noticeably from 1990 to 2008, and that another survey found the percentage was higher among young people. What could have happened so that younger people, growing up in the 90s and 00s, would be less religious? And then it occurred to me: 9/11. Something finally happened which gave religion a bad name. This was forcefully expressed at the time (here, here, and here) by Richard Dawkins.
Now, there may well be other or better explanations for these survey results (indeed, several alternatives have been proposed regarding acceptance of evolution in comments here at WEIT and GNXP, which alternatives might be tested with GSS data); and, clearly, religious believers can accept evolution (witness the young Catholic poll results). But 9/11, while not giving religion a bad enough name for most people to give it up, may have led people to question on what grounds religious claims are to be evaluated, and what entitles them to respect.
UPDATE. Razib has done exactly what I had hoped: he’s tested my suggestion by looking at survey data [updated link to Razib’s new blog host] (26 surveys from 1973 to 2008). While not a decisive refutation of my suggestion, there’s not much support for it. Secularization increases from 1993 to 2008. The biggest increases occur from 1991 to 1998, with something of a plateau from 1998 to 2004, then there’s another bit of a jump from 2004 to 2006. It might be safest just to say that it increased from ’93 to ’08, and not try to interpret what may well be random variation around that rise. I would say the evidence for a lagged post 9/11 jump is modest at best, and most of the increase occurred pre -2001, so 9/11 is at most a lesser contributing factor.