A new Gallup poll shows that for the first since polling began in 1940, the number of Americans who belong to a church has fallen below 50%. This is part of the inexorable and welcome secularization of American, and goes hand in hand with the rise of the “nones:—people who have no formal religious affiliations. (“Nones” include nonbelievers, agnostics, “spiritual” folks, and people who believe in God but aren’t affiliated with a church.)
Click on the screenshot to read:
Here’s the chart of the proportion of Americans belonging to a church over the past eight decades. As the survey notes,”U.S. church membership was 73% when Gallup first measured it in 1937 and remained near 70% for the next six decades, before beginning a steady decline around the turn of the 21st century.” If this trend continues, in a century America will have very few religious people.
The trend won’t continue forever, of course, as there are some people who won’t give up their faith until it’s pried from their cold, dead hands (sadly, they’ll never discover they were wrong). But, as I’ve always maintained, this trend is part of the increasing importance of science, and the realization by many that religion is indeed a fairy tale.
There are actually three causes of this drop: people becoming “nones” within a generation (this includes church members who retain their faith but give up their church membership) and the trend that people who are younger tend to be less religious (the “one body at a time” theory):
The decline in church membership is primarily a function of the increasing number of Americans who express no religious preference. Over the past two decades, the percentage of Americans who do not identify with any religion has grown from 8% in 1998-2000 to 13% in 2008-2010 and 21% over the past three years.
. . . The two major trends driving the drop in church membership — more adults with no religious preference and falling rates of church membership among people who do have a religion — are apparent in each of the generations over time.
This is a remarkably fast erosion of religion. Here’s a plot of the decline in formal church membership among people who retain their religion—down around 13% in 20 years.
And the age effect:
Church membership is strongly correlated with age, as 66% of traditionalists — U.S. adults born before 1946 — belong to a church, compared with 58% of baby boomers, 50% of those in Generation X and 36% of millennials. The limited data Gallup has on church membership among the portion of Generation Z that has reached adulthood are so far showing church membership rates similar to those for millennials.
The decline in church membership, then, appears largely tied to population change, with those in older generations who were likely to be church members being replaced in the U.S. adult population with people in younger generations who are less likely to belong.
This decline of religion is, argues Steve Pinker in Better Angels and Enlightenment Now, one of the reasons for the increase in morality over the last few centuries in Western nations. You can argue about whether he’s right, but the trend is, as Nixon might have said, “perfectly clear.”
Two of the last holdout areas for religion—countries and regions that have historically been resistant to nonbelief—are now becoming surprisingly secular. Those are Ireland in the West and seven countries in the Middle East—at least according to recent surveys. The stunning thing about both areas is how fast the change is coming.
Let’s take the Middle East first. There are two studies mentioned in the article below in Die Deutsche Welle (click on screenshot):
The article itself gives data for only Iran, but you can find data for six other countries by clicking on the article’s link to a study at The Arab Barometer (AB), described as “a research network at Princeton University and the University of Michigan.” (The sample size for that study isn’t easily discernible from the various articles about it).
First, a graph showing a striking increase in secularism across the six nations:
The change from the blue bar to the burgundy one is at most 7 years, yet every index in each country has dropped over that period save for a few indices that appear to be unchanged. The true indices of religiosity itself—profession of nonbelief and attendance at mosques—has fallen dramatically. And remember, this is over less than a decade. Trust in religious leaders and Islamist parties has also dropped.
Here’s the summary among all these countries. (Note that many Muslim countries, including those in Africa and the Far East, as well as nations like Saudi Arabia and Yemen, aren’t represented.)
In 2013 around 51% of respondents said they trusted their religious leaders to a “great” or “medium” extent. When a comparable question was asked last year the number was down to 40%. The share of Arabs who think religious leaders should have influence over government decision-making is also steadily declining. “State religious actors are often perceived as co-opted by the regime, making citizens unlikely to trust them,” says Michael Robbins of Arab Barometer.
The share of Arabs describing themselves as “not religious” is up to 13%, from 8% in 2013. That includes nearly half of young Tunisians, a third of young Libyans, a quarter of young Algerians and a fifth of young Egyptians. But the numbers are fuzzy. Nearly half of Iraqis described themselves as “religious”, up from 39% in 2013. Yet the share who say they attend Friday prayers has fallen by nearly half, to 33%. Perhaps faith is increasingly personal, says Mr Robbins.
And some data from Iran, not represented in the survey above. Remember, Iran is a theocracy. The survey is for those over 19, and the sample size is large: over 40,000 “literate interviewees”.
An astonishing 47% have, within their lifetime, gone from being religious to nonreligious, while only 6% went in the opposite direction. As we see for almost every faith, women retain their religion more than men. The “non-religious people” aren’t all atheists or agnostics, but instead appear to be “nones”—those with no formal affiliation to a faith. (This includes atheists and “spiritual people” as well as goddies who don’t belong to a formal church.)
I say that many are “nones” because another study in Iran, cited in the AB article, showed that 78% of those surveyed in the Middle East believe in God: a lot more than the 47% below who professor to being “non-religious” (of course these are different surveys and might not be comparable). Still, in this other survey, 9% claim that they’re atheists—comparable to the 10% of Americans who self-describe as atheists.
The sociologist Ronald Inglehart, Lowenstein Professor of Political Science emeritus at the University of Michigan and author of the book Religious Sudden Decline [sic], has analyzed surveys of more than 100 countries, carried out from 1981-2020. Inglehart has observed that rapid secularization is not unique to a single country in the Middle East. “The rise of the so-called ‘nones,’ who do not identify with a particular faith, has been noted in Muslim majority countries as different as Iraq, Tunisia, and Morocco,” Tamimi Arab added.
Inglehart’s book, Religion’s Sudden Decline, came out January 2, so it’s brand new, and you can order it on Amazon here.
It’s a pity that Grania isn’t here to comment on this article from Unherd’s new news site The Post, as she always had a good take on Catholicism in Ireland (she was, in fact, a German citizen born in South Africa). These data come from a study taken by the World Inequality Database, which I can’t access. I’ll just give the scant data for Ireland presented by David Quinn (click on screenshot):
The proportion of Irish people who say they never go to church:
That is a huge jump!
The proportion of Irish people who regularly attend church (once a month or more often):
This shows that the drop in Irish religiosity reflects a rise in who rarely or never go to church, not a falling-off of the regulars. Quinn reports that “just under half of Irish people were coming to church less than once a month four or five year [sic] ago and this is now just 22%. Many of those sporadic attenders have stopped coming altogether.”
Over much of the 12 years this website has been going (we started in January 2009), I’ve written posts showing the decline of religiosity in the West, predicting that it is a long-term trend that will end with religion becoming a vestigial social organ. Yes, it will always be with us, but in the future it won’t be very much with us. But I thought the Middle East would be a last bastion of belief, as Islam is so deeply intertwined with politics and daily life. But that appears to be waning as well, for the Middle East is becoming Westernized in many ways, and with that comes Western values and secularism (see Pinker’s Enlightenment Now for discussion of increased secularism and humanism.) This is to be applauded, except by those anti-Whigs who say that religion is good for humanity.
Quinn echoes much of this at the end of his piece, explaining why Ireland remained more religious than England and the countries of Northern Europe:
Secularisation has swept across the whole of the western world, and Ireland is part of the West. It was impossible for Ireland not to eventually be affected by social and intellectual trends elsewhere. What almost certainly delayed secularisation in Ireland is that, in the years after we gained independence, one way of showing we had shaken off British rule was by making Catholicism an integral part of our national identity. As we no longer believe it is necessary to do this, we are now shaking off the Church.
The third factor is that, as a small country it can be particularly hard to stand out from the crowd. Once, we all went to Mass. Now, below a certain age, almost no-one goes. We were a nation of nuns and priests. Now, we are becoming a people with no direct religious affiliation: a country of ‘nones’.
This ruling is a surprise to me, but the ruling was narrow. The Supreme Court has actually made a ruling favoring secular over religious interests, saying that restrictions on Church attendance in California were legal. Click on the screenshot to see the New York Times article:
From the Times:
The Supreme Court on Friday turned away a request from a church in California to block enforcement of state restrictions on attendance at religious services.
The vote was 5 to 4, with Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. joining the court’s four-member liberal wing to form a majority.
“Although California’s guidelines place restrictions on places of worship, those restrictions appear consistent with the free exercise clause of the First Amendment,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote in an opinion concurring in the unsigned ruling.
“Similar or more severe restrictions apply to comparable secular gatherings, including lectures, concerts, movie showings, spectator sports and theatrical performances, where large groups of people gather in close proximity for extended periods of time,” the chief justice wrote. “And the order exempts or treats more leniently only dissimilar activities, such as operating grocery stores, banks and laundromats, in which people neither congregate in large groups nor remain in close proximity for extended periods.”
Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel A. Alito Jr., Neil M. Gorsuch and Brett M. Kavanaugh noted dissents.
. . .The case was brought by the South Bay United Pentecostal Church in Chula Vista, Calif., which said Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, had lost sight of the special status of religion in the constitutional structure.
“The Covid-19 pandemic is a national tragedy,” lawyers for the church wrote in their Supreme Court brief, “but it would be equally tragic if the federal judiciary allowed the ‘fog of war’ to act as an excuse for violating fundamental constitutional rights.”
U.S. courts have a history of giving secular interests precedence over religious ones when the religious ones endanger either public health or the health of children. In most states, parents cannot withhold “real” medical care from their children if they practice faith-healing. And, of course, the “right to worship” surely must stop when that practice could endanger those believers who go out in public and could infect people not in their church.
You may already know that the country’s first—and still, I think, only—college program in Secular Studies is at Pitzer College in Claremont, California, founded by the estimable sociologist Phil Zuckerman. (You can see the curriculum here.)
Well, as the Austin Statesman (should they change it to “Statesperson”?) reported yesterday, The University of Texas at Austin has now received a $1 million endowment from a long-time secularist to fund a faculty position in secular research. It’s not a program, nor even a position for a new faculty member, but a lucrative chair for an existing UTA faculty member. And it’s the first endowed chair for secular research at a public university in the U.S. (They may exist in other countries, but I don’t know.)
Click on the screenshot to read the story.
Bolton somehow managed to accumulate a lot of money as a professor, which is unusual but, in this case, useful (he may have been independently wealthy). From the paper:
A Georgetown resident who has never set foot on the University of Texas campus has given $1 million to the school for a new professorship to focus on a growing segment of the U.S. population that holds no religious views.
The endowment is coming from Brian Bolton, 80, who is retired after a 35-year career in academia. He was an assistant professor of psychology at the Illinois Institute of Technology from 1968 to 1971. From 1971 to 2002, Bolton was a professor of rehabilitation and an adjunct professor of psychology at the University of Arkansas.
Bolton said he has never visited UT but shares common values with the educational institution. “My 35-year career was dedicated to scholarship and research in academia,” he said. “I know UT is a great university, and that’s all I need to know.”
Bolton said he wanted to donate the money to make a lasting impact.
What’s curious about this report are three issues. First, a million bucks is enough to endow a new professor, but they’re going to choose somebody already on the faculty. I doubt that there would be someone already there who’s doing “secular studies” in the manner of Zuckerman.
The indented statements are from the Statesman piece:
UT will not be hiring a new professor for Bolton’s endowment but will choose one who is already on the faculty, said Justin Michalka, the executive director of development for the College of Liberal Arts. The university has not yet chosen who that will be, he said.
Second, the University’s director of development is curiously silent about Bolton’s endowment:
Michalka declined to comment further on Bolton’s donation.
Finally, the paper says there’s a university news release on Bolton’s endowment, but I can’t find it (my emphasis):
“During the past two decades there has been significant increase in the U.S. among those who associate with a secular worldview, a trend particularly pronounced in younger people, prompting increased research in this emerging field,” according to a university news release on Bolton’s endowment.
I’m sufficiently cynical to think that they’ve deep-sixed that statement (readers can see if it’s on the Internet), and are playing down the endowment. Perhaps they like the dosh, but secularism, while it may play well in Austin, isn’t particularly popular in the rest of Texas. Or so I think, and I’d be glad to be proven wrong. The reader who sent me the link to the newspaper piece is contacting the reporter to try to find the university statement.
Brian Bolton is a longtime Life Member, for whom the executive wing of FFRF’s office, Freethought Hall, is named, due to his support of FFRF’s headquarters expansion. Bolton has also singlehandedly underwritten for a decade now FFRF’s essay contest for grad/older students, with up to $10,000 prize money in total. And he is financing a bible accountability project to call attention to the continuing harm of the bible to society that includes subsidization of the cost of mailing FFRF Director of Strategic Response Andrew L. Seidel’s recent book, The Founding Myth, to every member of Congress last fall. FFRF will be publishing Bolton’s new work, tentatively titled Why the Bible Is Not a Good Book, this year. Bolton, who lives in Texas, will be speaking briefly at FFRF’s annual convention in San Antonio in November.
“Now, the best public university in an immensely important state has a researcher focusing on a woefully neglected segment of the population,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “And it’s all thanks to Brian Bolton, who has been munificently boosting the secular movement.”
I’ve been to that new executive wing; it’s lovely, and must have cost a pretty penny. Here’s a photo I took when I visited in March of 2018:
By the way, if you’re ever in Madison, you must visit the headquarters. You can even pose with the life-sized statue of Darwin, as I did. It’s amazingly lifelike:
But enough about the money; here’s some more stuff about Bolton from the FFRF:
Bolton is a retired academic psychologist with a background in mathematics, statistics and psychometrics. His contributions in psychological measurement, personality assessment and rehabilitation psychology have been recognized by universities and psychological societies. His 10 edited and authored books include Handbook of Measurement and Evaluation in Rehabilitation, Psychosocial Adjustment to Disability, Rehabilitation Counseling: Theory and Practice, and Special Education and Rehabilitation Testing: Current Practices and Test Reviews. He is a licensed psychologist, Humanist minister, Karate black belt, and Distinguished Toastmaster.
If you want to read even more, nine years ago the FFRF featured an interview about Bolton on its “Meet A Member” feature. A few excerpts:
Where I’m headed: The same terminal condition as all sentient life forms — eternal nonexistence or everlasting nothingness.
Person in history I admire: Thomas Jefferson, a brilliant statesman and intellectual whose numerous accomplishments helped establish the robust government under which we thrive today.
A quotation I like: “Religious controversies are always productive of more acrimony and irreconcilable hatreds than those which spring from any other cause.” (George Washington, 1792 letter to Edward Newenham)
These are a few of my favorite things: Supporting animal welfare and environmental protection, reading philosophy and science, writing freethought articles, and raising African leopard tortoises.
These are not: FOX News, religious fundamentalism, sports evangelism, conservative politics.
How long I’ve been a freethinker: All my life.
Why I’m a freethinker: Even though I attended Sunday school as a child, my soul was never captured. My transition from indifferent unbeliever to outspoken nontheist was brought about by Falwell, LaHaye and Swaggart.
He’s an animal and environment lover, too—a fellow after my own heart! We’re still digging to find out of the University of Texas deleted the announcement of the donation, and I’ll report back.
A news release from the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) tells us that while this FFRF commercial featuring John F. Kennedy was played three years ago on the ABC television network, it was rejected by ABC for airing during the Democratic debates in Houston tomorrow. This was after ABC refused a much more provocative ad, one featuring Ron Reagan, the former President’s son (see it here).
From the FFRF:
“Every year we ask the major networks to reconsider and run our commercial,” explains FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “We were disappointed, but not surprised, when ABC once again refused to run the Reagan endorsement spot.”
But, Gaylor says, she was shocked that ABC next rejected a commercial largely featuring a video excerpt of a famous speech by John F. Kennedy. As a presidential candidate, JFK gave a talk to a gathering of Protestant ministers in Houston in 1960, intending to allay their fears that as a Catholic he would be beholden to the Vatican rather than to the Constitution.
In his strong remarks in favor of secular government, JFK said: “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.” FFRF’s commercial leads with footage from his speech, then states: “Let’s restore respect for America’s secular roots. Help the Freedom From Religion Foundation defend the wall of separation between state and church. Join us at FFRF.ORG. Freedom depends on freethinkers.”
The ad concludes with the strains of “Let freedom ring,” as FFRF’s emblematic image appears of a Lincoln penny with the words “In Reason We Trust” instead of “In God We Trust.”
FFRF produced this commercial, which first aired on “CBS This Morning” and the “Monday CBS Evening News” in 2012, in response to a remark by then-presidential candidate Rick Santorum, after he said JFK’s remark “makes me want to throw up.”
Ironically, FFRF had no trouble placing the JFK spot nationally on “ABC World News Tonight” on Sept. 24, 2016, to protest Pope Francis’ joint address to Congress.
Note that this ad is quite unprovocative. All it does is show a former President affirming the church/state separation principle of the First Amendment. Apparently the networks are so sensitive about Militant Atheism that they won’t even air an innocuous ad like this:
The Ex-Muslims of North America (EXMNA) just put up billboards in three cities—Atlanta, Chicago, and Houston—basically stating that a substantial proportion of Muslims raised in the U.S. have become apostates, and implicitly affirming that that’s okay (of course, to many Muslims apostasy is a capital crime). According to the EXMNA announcement, they had some trouble doing this:
After several rounds of rejections, changes, and even one contract termination from companies afraid of offending religious sensibilities, the billboards are scheduled to be placed on Tuesday and Wednesday, September 3rd and 4th, 2019.
“In a dozen Muslim-majority countries, ex-Muslims are condemned to the death penalty”, said Muhammad Syed, President of Ex-Muslims of North America. “In the West, our existence is not a crime, but we still face isolation, threats, and abuse by our own families and former faith community. Unsurprisingly, many former Muslims choose to hide their lack of belief. But the first step to gain acceptance is coming out openly, without shame or fear.”
“We want closeted ex-Muslims to know they are not alone”, said Sarah Haider, Executive Director of Ex-Muslims of North America. “We also want them to know that while the prospect of coming out as nonreligious is frightening, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. You can make it to the other side, you can rebuild your life and find joy in the freedom from religion.”
Syed, Haider, and their colleagues are doing useful and courageous work. Putting up a billboard that, say, noted that a high proportion of Christians had become “nones” would be unlikely to be rejected in this way. As we all know, it’s a lot more dangerous to offend Muslims than Christians.
This page gives more details about the difficulty of getting the billboards displayed:
The billboards took months of planning and countless rounds of rejections from companies who were concerned about offending religious sensibilities. Unfortunately, the process diluted our message quite substantially. Our billboards went from challenging religious claims head-on to a simple declarative sentence about our existence. Many of our first versions were rejected. Even the proposed hashtags were rejected, and fearing a longer delay in publishing, we decided to remove the “Awesome Without Allah” hashtag entirely from the billboards.
The most controversial of the billboards we drafted and proposed featured a drawing of the Islamic mythological figure called the “buraq”. This figure sports the face of a woman, the body of a donkey, wings and a peacock tail. The idea was to provoke critical thinking by pointing out the absurdity of religious myths. However, all companies we worked with rejected this concept. It appeared that the most distressing aspect was the cartoon itself. Of course, the fear is not surprising. There is a record of extremist Muslims answering a drawing with violence, such as the murders of Charlie Hebdo cartoonists and attacks on Danish cartoonists.
However, even after choosing a message as mild as possible, one of the contracts was cancelled. The company had not realized how near our billboard was to a mosque, and when they realized, they told us they could not honor the agreement.
The site has a number of short videos (“mini-documentaries”) of ex-Muslims explaining their departure from the faith. Here’s one of many, with the caption “A Canadian woman who converted to Islam in her late-teens, Stephanie married a Libyan Muslim man, and gave birth to two daughters.”
This is heartbreaking, for you see the mother’s anguish well up as she describes how her husband tricked her into going back to Libya and then basically kidnapped their daughters, whom she hasn’t seen in five years. I defy you to watch the whole thing without tearing up.
Join me in donating to EXMNA, which you can do by going here. They are way short of their $25,000 campaign goal, and that’s not a large amount. If every reader gave just a dollar, that would more than double the amount targeted. How about a buck or five?
The strategy of American courts in their desire to continue allowing religious incursion into the government—be it “In God We Trust” on our money or religious symbols on public land—has been to pretend that religious symbols and mottos morph into nonreligious, historical and secular icons over time. This is patently bogus, an offense to anybody with two neurons to rub together.
And so, in an important decision about the First Amendment, the U.S. Supreme court ruled today that a giant cross on public land in Maryland, commemorating war dead, was constitutional. And the vote of the Roberts court, though opinions were fractured, was 7-2 (only Ginsburg and Sotomayor dissented; where was Kagan?). Read the Washington Post‘s take by clicking on the screenshot below. The full range of opinions can be found in a pdf here.
As usual, the pretense is that the cross is no longer a wholly religious symbol. Here are the words of Justice Alito, who wrote for the majority:
The cross is undoubtedly a Christian symbol, but that fact should not blind us to everything else that the Bladensburg Cross has come to represent . . . For some, that monument is a symbolic resting place for ancestors who never returned home. For others, it is a place for the community to gather and honor all veterans and their sacrifices for our Nation. For others still, it is a historical landmark.
For many of these people, destroying or defacing the Cross that has stood undisturbed for nearly a century would not be neutral and would not further the ideals of respect and tolerance embodied in the First Amendment.
In other words, religious symbols are okay on public land because they have assumed other meanings as well. And we must have “respect and tolerance” for believers. But why a cross rather than a religion-neutral monument? Would the court be so tolerant of a Jewish Star of David, or a statue of Ganesha? f course not, because they see America as a “Christian nation”.
Ominously, instead of focusing on legal principles, Alito looks to “history for guidance,” trotting out typical Religious Right examples — such as legislative prayer, the day of thanksgiving Washington declared (which the court erroneously called a “National Day of Prayer”), some religious language in the Northwest Ordinance, and George Washington’s Farewell Address’ “religion and morality.” The central test for determining these violations, known as the Lemon test, was set aside in favor of the argument from history, though not explicitly overturned by a majority of the justices.
“The passage of time gives rise to a strong presumption of constitutionality,” writes Alito.
In an elegant and thoughtful dissent joined by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg gets it right.
“Using the cross as a war memorial does not transform it into a secular symbol, as the Courts of Appeals have uniformly recognized,” the dissent states. “By maintaining the Peace Cross on a public highway, the [Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning] Commission elevates Christianity over other faiths, and religion over nonreligion.”
Ginsburg persuasively lays out how such public crosses alienate a large and fast-growing segment of the U.S. population.
“To non-Christians, nearly 30 percent of the population of the United States (Pew Research Center, America’s Changing Religious Landscape 4 (2015)), the state’s choice to display the cross on public buildings or spaces conveys a message of exclusion: It tells them they ‘are outsiders, not full members of the political community,’” she writes.
Yes, Ginsburg and Sotomayor got it right. It’s still a cross, and still a religious symbol, and the rest of the court, in their desire to tear down the wall between church and state, is pretending that the cross on which Jesus supposedly died isn’t really religious—in a religious way, that is.
As Andrew Seidel (an FFRF lawyer) told the audience in our Chicago discussion nine days ago, we can expect this behavior to continue for a long time, as the conservatives on the Roberts court (save Thomas) are pretty young. But he also thinks that the inevitable secularization of America will, in the future, pull the pendulum back.
I hope so, but I don’t share his confidence. Americans, with their sense of fair play, may see decisions like this as a meaningless sop to the faithful (note Alito’s call for “respect and tolerance” for Christians). But they’re not meaningless, and that’s why the founders created the First Amendment.
A lawsuit involving 29 atheists trying to remove the phrase “In God We Trust” from U.S. currency has failed at the Supreme Court level, as reported by The Washington Examiner and other venues.
The backstory: this phrase, the official motto of the U.S., was established only in 1956 after President Dwight Eisenhower signed it into law. Before that, the unofficial motto had been E Pluribus Unum (“out of many, one”), which had been part of the Great Seal of the United States since 1782:
Note that the unofficial motto, a call for unity, was replaced by a motto that would divide Americans along religious lines.
The “Red Scare” and the Cold War of the 1950s bred a chronic discomfort in Americans, and in contrast to the perceived atheism of the Soviet Union, Ike struck back by ordering the new theistic motto put on all U.S. currency and coins. (The Freedom from Religion Foundation [FFRF] still auctions off old “clean” (i.e., godless) currency at its annual convention.)
This lawsuit (see here) has been wending its way through the courts for years. It’s certainly a winner on its face, as having a religious national motto explicitly violates the First Amendment prohibiting government establishment of religion—and that means even acceptance of a God. With the motto, and its appearance on our money, the government has in fact established religion as a national unifying force. No, many of us do not trust in God.
But, as FFRF attorney Andrew Seidel explains in his new book The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism is Un-American (recommended), the courts have been cagey in dealing with these religious incursions into public life (others include “under God” included in the Pledge of Allegiance, and taxpayer-funded chaplains in the House and Senate, costing us $800,000 a year). These mottos and religious intrusions are seen as “traditions with no religious connotations” by courts—a ploy that only a fool could accept. The Reuters article below gives the history of the lawsuit over the last three years:
And, on Monday, the Supreme Court declined to take up the case, in effect affirming the lower courts’ decisions and allowing a religious phrase to remain on U.S. currency (click on screenshot):
Note that in this article, as in many similar reports on right-wing websites (see here and here, for instance), the lawsuit is always called an “atheist challenge”, as if secularists or religionists who accept the First Amendment couldn’t mount such a challenge.
So the Supreme Court won’t even look at a case about a palpably unconstitutional incursion of God into government. That’s no surprise given the conservative court as well as lower court decisions, but it’s maddening that there is a fiction about “in God we trust” not being a religious phrase. When I asked Andrew about this during our discussion of his book on Tuesday, he was pessimistic about anything happening in the courts in the near future, but said that eventually things are going to turn around. That may take a century or more, I think, but it’s time to end these violations of the First Amendment. Here are some I listed for my discussion with Andrew:
“One nation under god” in the pledge of allegiance
“In God we trust” on the money
“God bless America” uttered during the Presidential oath of office (and after every Presidential speech since Nixon first said it during his Watergate fiasco)
Chaplains in Congress
A prayer room in Congress
The National Day of Prayer
National Prayer Breakfasts
And, of course, all the crosses and Ten Commandments erected on public land.
Wouldn’t it be nice to return to the days of the godless founders, who never would have permitted such stuff. Here, for example, is the first official penny, the “Fugio cent” designed by Benjamin Franklin in 1787. Note the mottos!
This article by Gregory Paul in the new journal Essays in the Philosophy of Humanism (click on screenshot for pdf) argues, based on polling data, that the proportion of Americans who are atheists is rising by 5-10% a decade, leading to the conclusion that within a century America will comprise mainly nonbelievers. (Note that the essay is not written very well and has a lot of typos; it may be a draft.)
Of course we know about the rise of “nones”: Americans not formally affiliated with a church A 2015 Pew poll estimated that American “nones” rose from 16% to 23% in only 7 years—between 2007 and 2014. Pew notes that in their survey, “nones” comprised “people who self-identify as atheists or agnostics, as well as those who say their religion is nothing in particular’”. While many of these might still believe in a higher power or a deity, I count these, as does Paul, as nonbelievers. The Pew link also shows that the proportion who say their religion is “nothing in particular” among all nones is also declining while atheists and agnostics within that category are increasing.
Those data are in line with Paul’s thesis that nonbelief increases 10% per decade, which he bases on several surveys.
So we have seven polling organizations agreeing that freethinking Americans who are not interested in religion or theism are currently going up by around one out of ten of residents in about a decade. That gross value is not, therefore, a statistical fluke limited to one or even two samples. One way or another it is real pattern. The next question is what is actually happening.
Paul considers several alternatives, including that the pattern isn’t real, but in fact it’s more likely that the increase in nonbelief is even more rapid than the surveys show, as people are loath to assert that they’re nonbelievers. Along with this comes an increase in those who reject creationism and theistic evolution, accepting purely naturalistic evolution. Paul suggests, as I have, that efforts to convert those who reject evolution into those who accept it are not very effective, and it’s better simply to wait for the inevitable rise in secularism that will bring an equally inevitable rise in acceptance of evolution. That’s because once you give up your faith, the main impediment to rejecting evolution—religious belief—is gone.
Why is this happening? Secularism has almost gone to completion in parts of Europe, including Scandinavia and Iceland, and is proceeding apace here. It seems to be a trend in all Western countries save, perhaps, parts of South America. Here are some reasons Paul suggests (I’ve paraphrased them and added my take).
The rise of science, which makes supernatural explanations untenable or hard to believe.
An increase in people reading the Bible, which, if you read that book rationally, is a great eraser of faith. But Paul gives no evidence that Bible-reading is on the rise.
The development of middle-class prosperity via industrialization and capitalization. Paul, oddly enough, sees this effect as drawing people away from church attendance and into open-on-Sunday chains like Walmart. I think that while the connection between rising well-being and rising secularism (adumbrated a while back by Marx) is real, it’s more likely to happen through the elimination of a need for the supernatural when you have money, healthcare, and other perquisites that reduce your need to accept a god.
A self-perpetuating system whereby atheists bring up their children as nonbelievers. That itself wouldn’t increase the proportion of nonbelievers in the U.S. unless we’re outbreeding the faithful, but there may be a ratchet effect whereby the more atheists there are, the more become public, encouraging others to either become nonbelievers or to confess their nonbelief. This, to Paul, is the key to making America a secular nation.
As for what we can do to increase rationality and reduce dependence on religion, Paul suggests this:
Because the rise of proevolution atheism is a largely automatic, casual lifestyle conversion in response to subtle but powerful socioeconomic forces usually done without deep thought, it will remain true that neither side can do much to alter the course of events one way or another.
In view of that future probability, it is advisable that the emphasis of the activist atheist-secular movement (as small as it is and will be) should shift to a substantial but not total degree. The main focus need not to be to promote conversion to rationalism for the simple sake of increasing the number of the nonsupernaturalists, seeing as how modernity is already doing that job about as fast as can be done. Actively convincing those in one tribal worldview to switch to another is very difficult and will produce modest results. Secularists are often criticized for living in their own bubble and not paying sufficient, respectful attention to, and reaching out to, the white heartlander theocons. I personally know a fair number of such people via familial relationships, and believe me they are noncurious folk who care little if at all about the research, opinions or hopes of the intellectual, scientists, or anyone else outside the confines of their bubble which is much tighter than ours. Nor is debating whether aggressive or nonconfrontational tactics are best important because many techniques work depending on the circumstances – let a Darwinian freedom of means of presentation reign. The primary effort should move more towards further changing the political culture, both at the national level, and within the atheist portion.
Regarding the national scene, atheism needs to come out into the open to maximize its societal influence. That in turn requires individuals to come out of the atheocloset enmass. They way to do that is to make atheism increasingly less culturally out of the norm until it is a norm, by boosting comfort and indeed pride in not being a supernaturalist – after all, there should be nothing wrong with thinking and coming to conclusions scientifically, it’s those who delve into irrational speculations about mysterious powers who have issues. All the more so because the best off societies are never highly religious.
Well, yes, we should be doing that, but I think we should be doing a number of things, including teaching evolution and criticizing religion. After all, Richard Dawkins and the other “horsepersons”, through both of those activities, have had an enormous influence in converting people away from faith and towards science. Of course, they do this by coming out publicly as loud and proud atheists, but just saying “I’m a nonbeliever” is, I think, far less powerful than making that statement by arguing why evolution is true and why religion is a crutch made of gossamer.
Atheism as a public movement is waning: I notice far fewer atheist conferences these days. But I think that’s fine. The heavy lifting is done, and the rest—the rise in secularism—is inevitable, for it comes with the rise in well being that Pinker writes so much about. All we should do, as Paul suggests, is to not be hidden about our nonbelief.
I once spent a pleasant few hours with James in a Harvard Square coffeeshop, trying to find out if he thought literature was a “way of knowing” (as I recall, he agreed that we can’t find truths about the universe from literature itself), and I don’t want to be hard on him. Most of his pieces for the magazine are excellent, and his literary judgment is keen. But I think he’s somewhat off the mark in this review. And that is mainly because he takes some gratuitous swipes at New Atheism (and, of course, the Great Satan Dawkins), as well as implying that we don’t need to consider evidence—or, rather, the lack thereof—when we give up religion.
When New Yorker writers bestir themselves to say something good about nonbelief, you can be sure of five things:
1.) They may praise atheism, but they will also diss New Atheism.
2.) They will disdain the need for evidence when deciding whether to be a believer or an atheist. Evidence is irrelevant. This is part of the magazine’s perpetual favoring of the humanities and their “ways of knowing” over science.
3.) They will conflate religion with “passion”. One example came from a piece in the New Yorker that, while praising this website, implied that I was quasi-religious:
If atheists underestimate the fudginess in faith, believers underestimate the soupiness of doubt. My own favorite atheist blogger, Jerry Coyne, the University of Chicago evolutionary biologist, regularly offers unanswerable philippics against the idiocies of intelligent design. But a historian looking at his blog years from now would note that he varies the philippics with a tender stream of images of cats—into whose limited cognition, this dog-lover notes, he projects intelligence and personality quite as blithely as his enemies project design into seashells—and samples of old Motown songs. The articulation of humanism demands something humane, and its signal is disproportionate pleasure placed in some frankly irrational love.
4.) They will show a sneaking sympathy with religious belief and ritual; and
5.) They will lard their arguments with heavy literary knowledge and references
These features are all on view in Wood’s article, and all but #5 are missteps, though, as I said, I think the piece is generally good and certainly worth reading.
According to Wood, the thesis of Hägglund’s book includes these ideas:
a. Religion is bogus, but it’s not bogus just because there is no evidence for gods. In fact, evidence is irrelevant to nonbelief.
b. Religion is bogus because the notion of eternity, which Hägglund sees as inherent in most religions (including Buddhism and Judaism, which don’t have a concept of heaven), is incoherent and, even if comprehensible, is palpably undesirable.
c. Even religious people act as if they’re atheists because they mourn the loss of loved ones who die, and have no concrete notion of seeing them again. This is an attachment to the secular—a hidden atheism.
d. If we reject eternity, and realize that the here and now is all we have, then we must construct our secular values around that notion. Hägglund thinks that this drives us to a form of socialism. Why? Because we are all striving for maximal freedom in our finite existence, and thus must balance our drive for individual freedom with our social duties. According to Hägglund, capitalism is opposed to this by constantly trying to increase our work time and reduce our free time. To counterbalance this, we need a form of democratic socialism that will “reduce, in the aggregate, socially necessary labor time and to increase socially available free time.”
Hägglund’s book, then, is a bipartite meditation on the uselessness of eternity and the need to accept our finitude, and then a set of ideological and political prescriptions on how to construct a society that takes our finitude on board. I’m not going to discuss this part: Wood talks heavily about Marx and Feuerbach, the architects of the kind of society Hägglund wants, and while this is interesting I’m not sure how convincing it is. Even Wood finds the author”s arguments for how to negotiate necessary labor with freedom unconvincing:
Rather than simply replace the realm of necessity with the realm of freedom—which would be impossible anyway, because there is always tedious and burdensome work to be done—we should be able to better “negotiate” the relationship between those realms. Hägglund gives an example of how this might be done when he talks about the way his own work on the book we are reading unites the two realms: writing “This Life” was labor, of course, but it was pursued as an end in itself, as a matter of intellectual inquiry. In a Hägglundian utopia, labor would be part of our freedom.
As Church Lady would say, “isn’t that convenient?” Academics like Hägglund already have that freedom. And Wood stresses the hypocrisy:
An ideal democratic socialism that harmonizes Hägglund’s idea of freedom with the state’s necessarily different idea of freedom will come to America, I guess, not just when the mountain comes to Muhammad but when the tenured academic willingly gives up his Yale chair for a job at New Haven’s Gateway Community College. Like many readers, I get anxious when literary academics use the verb “negotiate” at tricky moments; it forecloses argument, and seldom means actual negotiation. Indeed, Hägglund is unusually weasel-wordy when he concedes that such negotiation will demand “an ongoing democratic conversation.” That’s putting it optimistically.
Indeed. But let’s get to Wood’s criticism of New Atheism. Here’s some of it, channeled through Hägglund’s book (these are Wood’s words):
The problem with eternity is not that it doesn’t exist (Hägglund is uninterested in the pin dancing of proof and disproof) but that it is undesirable and incoherent; it kills meaning and collapses value. This is a difficult truth to learn, because we are naturally fearful of loss, and therefore attached to the idea of eternal restoration.
It’s clear that Wood isn’t interested in evidence, either, calling it “the pin dancing of proof and disproof”. But that’s bogus, for why would one reject eternity at all if you didn’t think that there was no evidence for it? If there were convincing evidence for a heaven, then surely we’d like to know about it and take it on board. If we knew that we would see our loved ones for eternity in some form or another (and yes, considering precisely what form gets you mired in the hinterlands of theology), we’d surely behave differently from how we do—perhaps mourning less when a loved one dies. Wood and Hägglund give plenty of evidence for literary figures showing the kind of mourning that seems inconsistent with a belief in eternity, including C. S. Lewis as well as writers like Primo Levi, Chekhov and Montaigne, but of course some mourning can still be consistent with belief in a heaven. After all, it may be some time before you see your loved ones again—if you even do. (If you believe in reincarnation, you won’t even remember them in the next life.)
It’s almost as if Wood (and Hägglund) don’t think evidence is even relevant to giving up religion: one can instead just say that the notion of heaven is incoherent, many people don’t act as if eternity exists, and therefore there are no gods.
But Wood is right that many religious people act as if this life is all they have. And he’s right that the notion of eternity as limned by various faiths isn’t something we’d really want. But he can’t help going after New Atheism and its dogged insistence on empirical evidence:
The great merit of Hägglund’s book is that he releases atheism from its ancient curse: its sticky intimacy with theism. Hägglund has no need for a parasitical relationship to the host (which, for instance, contaminates the so-called New Atheism), because he’s not interested in disproving the host’s existence. So, instead of being forced into, say, rationalist triumphalism (there is no God, and science is His prophet), he can expand the definition of the secular life so that it incorporates many of the elements traditionally thought of as religious.
This is an explicit criticism of New Atheism by Wood and an explicit rejection of the empirical argument made by people like Dawkins and Hitchens. But again, that’s bogus. For, after all, why would you even be an atheist unless you were convinced, though a lack of evidence—or in the case of theodicy, positive evidence against a god—that gods and heavens didn’t exist? Only once you have dispensed with the idea of gods and heavens can you then buckle down and do the kind of work that Hägglund prescribes.
Note, too, that Wood calls New Atheism a form of “rationalist triumphalism” (a clear slur) and also gets in a lick against science when he implies that the New Atheist creed is “there is no God and science is His prophet”. This is unworthy of Wood and in fact inimical to his argument. I’d ask both Wood (who may be an atheist; I’m not sure) and Hägglund this question: “Why don’t you believe in gods, heaven or eternity?” I’d bet their answer would be “Because there is no evidence for them.” And presto, you’re talking about the arguments of New Atheists.
I see I’m running on here, and can leave the rest of the article to you, but I’ll give one more quote. Again we see Wood apparently agreeing with Hägglund that the trappings of religion may be valuable, or even necessary, for modern humans. There’s also a gratuitous slap at Dawkins, who is apparently the Great Satan of Atheism.
Feuerbach wanted to liberate human beings from their harmful self-deceptions, but Hägglund sees no imperative to disdain this venerable meaning-making projection, no need to close down all the temples and churches and wash them away with a strong dose of Dawkins. Instead, religious practice could be seen as valuable and even cherishable, once it is understood to be a natural human quest for meaning. Everything flows from the double assumption that only finitude makes for ultimate meaning and that most religious values are unconsciously secular. We are meaning-haunted creatures.
This is the old argument that humans need ceremony and bonding, and religion gives us that. My response is that the churches and temples of Scandinavia have been closed down for a long time, and the country is no worse for it. People find their ritual and meaning in many ways, and as the growth of secularism and of the non-churchy “nones” continues even more churches will close of their own accord. And don’t forget that those temples and churches don’t just provide comity: they are often divisive toward those of other faiths, and enforce a kind of morality that is far inferior to secular morality. Not to mention that they buttress the habit of faith: belief without substantial evidence.
The reader who called this article to my attention said that Wood’s piece was “very positive on atheism.” I’m not so sure, and it’s certainly not positive on New Atheism nor its reliance on empirical standards. But you be the judge.