We're putting an end to religion: Richard Dawkins, Bill Maher and the exploding new American secularism

Religious right extremism, new atheists & late-night mockery have religion on the run. American secularism's rising

Published December 20, 2014 11:30PM (EST)

  (AP/Janet Van Ham/Fiona Hanson/Marion Curtis/Photo montage by Salon)
(AP/Janet Van Ham/Fiona Hanson/Marion Curtis/Photo montage by Salon)

Excerpted from "Living the Secular Life: New Answers to Old Questions"

What is going on? How do we explain this recent wave of secularization that is washing over so much of America?

The answer to these questions is actually much less theological or philosophical than one might think. It is simply not the case that in recent years tens of millions of Americans have suddenly started doubting the cosmological or ontological arguments for the existence of God, or that hundreds of thousands of other Americans have miraculously embraced the atheistic naturalism of Denis Diderot. Sure, this may be happening here and there, in this or that dorm room or on this or that Tumblr page. The best-sellers written by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris—as well as the irreverent impiety and flagrant mockery of religion by the likes of Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Bill Maher, House, South Park, and Family Guyhave had some impact on American culture. As we have seen, a steady, incremental uptick of philosophical atheism and agnosticism is discernible in America in recent years. But the larger reality is that for the many millions of Americans who have joined the ranks of the nonreligious, the causes are most likely to be political and sociological in nature.

For starters, we can begin with the presence of the religious right, and the backlash it has engendered. Beginning in the 1980s, with the rise of such groups as the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition, the closeness of conservative Republicanism with evangelical Christianity has been increasingly tight and publicly overt. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, more and more politicians on the right embraced the conservative Christian agenda, and more and more outspoken conservative Christians allied themselves with the Republican Party. Examples abound, from Michele Bachmann to Ann Coulter, from Mike Huckabee to Pat Robertson, and from Rick Santorum to James Dobson. With an emphasis on seeking to make abortion illegal, fighting against gay rights (particularly gay marriage), supporting prayer in schools, advocating “abstinence only” sex education, opposing stem cell research, curtailing welfare spending, supporting Israel, opposing gun control, and celebrating the war on terrorism, conservative Christians have found a warm welcome within the Republican Party, which has been clear about its openness to the conservative Christian agenda. This was most pronounced during the eight years that George W. Bush was in the White House.

What all of this this has done is alienate a lot of left-leaning or politically moderate Americans from Christianity. Sociologists Michael Hout and Claude Fischer have published compelling research indicating that much of the growth of “nones” in America is largely attributable to a reaction against this increased, overt mixing of Christianity and conservative politics. The rise of irreligion has been partially related to the fact that lots of people who had weak or limited attachments to religion and were either moderate or liberal politically found themselves at odds with the conservative political agenda of the Christian right and thus reacted by severing their already somewhat weak attachment to religion. Or as sociologist Mark Chaves puts it, “After 1990 more people thought that saying you were religious was tantamount to saying you were a conservative Republican. So people who are not Republicans now are more likely to say that they have no religion.”

A second factor that helps account for the recent rise of secularity in America is the devastation of, and reaction against, the Catholic Church’s pedophile priest scandal. For decades the higher-ups in the Catholic Church were reassigning known sexual predators to remote parishes rather than having them arrested and prosecuted. Those men in authority thus engaged in willful cover-ups, brash lawbreaking, and the aggressive slandering of accusers—and all with utter impunity. The extent of this criminality is hard to exaggerate: over six thousand priests have now been credibly implicated in some form of sex abuse, five hundred have been jailed, and more victims have been made known than one can imagine. After the extent of the crimes—the rapes and molestations as well as the cover-ups—became widely publicized, many Americans, and many Catholics specifically, were disgusted. Not only were the actual sexual crimes themselves morally abhorrent, but the degree to which those in positions of power sought to cover up these crimes and allow them to continue was truly shocking. The result has been clear: a lot of Catholics have become ex-Catholics. For example, consider the situation in New England. Between 2000 and 2010, the Catholic Church lost 28 percent of its members in New Hampshire and 33 percent of its members in Maine, and closed nearly seventy parishes—a quarter of the total number—throughout the Boston area. In 1990, 54 percent of Massachusetts residents identified as Catholic, but it was down to 39 percent in 2008. And according to an “American Values” survey from 2012, although nearly one-third of Americans report being raised Catholic, only 22 percent currently identify as such—a precipitous nationwide decline indeed.

Of course, the negative reaction against the religious right and the Catholic pedophile scandal both have to do explicitly with religion. But a very important third possible factor that may also account for the recent rise of secularity has nothing to do with religion. It is something utterly sociological: the dramatic increase of women in the paid labor force. British historian Callum Brown was the first to recognize this interesting correlation: when more and more women work outside the home, their religious involvement—as well as that of their families— tends to diminish. Brown rightly argues that it has been women who have historically kept their children and husbands interested and involved in religion. Then, starting in the 1960s, when more and more British women starting earning an income through work outside the home, their interest in—or time and energy for—religious involvement waned. And as women grew less religious, their husbands and children followed suit. We’ve seen a similar pattern in many other European nations, especially in Scandinavia: Denmark and Sweden have the lowest levels of church attendance in the world, and simultaneously, Danish and Swedish women have among the highest rates of outside-the-home employment of any women in the world. And the data shows a similar trajectory here in America. Back in the 1960s, only 11 percent of American households relied on a mother as their biggest or sole source of income. Today, more than 40 percent of American families are in such a situation. Thus it may very well be that as a significantly higher percentage of American moms earn a living in the paid labor force, their enthusiasm for and engagement with religion is being sapped, and that’s playing a role in the broader secularization of our country.

Additional Factors

In addition to the above factors—the reaction against the overt mingling of religion and conservative/right-wing politics, the reaction against the Catholic priest pedophile scandal, and the increase of women in the paid labor force—I would add two more possibilities concerning what might also be at least partial contributors to the recent rise of irreligion in America: the greater acceptance of homosexuality in American culture and the ubiquity of the Internet.

Since the days of Stonewall and Harvey Milk, more and more Americans have come to accept homosexuality as a normal, legitimate form of love and pairing. For many, acceptance of homosexuals simply boils down to a matter of fairness, civil rights, and equality before the law. The overall stigmatization of homosexuality has weakened significantly in recent decades. We see that those Americans who continue to malign homosexuality as sinful or immoral, and who continue to fight against gay rights, do so exclusively from a religious vantage point. And it is turning some people off religion. In my previous book, Faith No More: Why People Reject Religion, which was based on in-depth interviews with Americans who were once religious but are no longer, I found that many of those who have walked away from their religion in recent years have done so as a direct consequence of and reaction against their respective religious tradition’s continued condemnation and stigmatization of gays and lesbians. The fact that Americans today between the ages of eighteen and thirty are the generation most accepting of homosexuality in the nation’s history, and are simultaneously those least interested in being religious—and the fact that the states that have legalized gay marriage tend to be among the most secular—might be coincidental, but I highly doubt it.

Next, the Internet has had a secularizing effect on society in recent decades. This happens on various levels. First, religious people can look up their own religion on the Web and suddenly, even unwittingly, be exposed to an array of critiques or blatant attacks on their tradition that they otherwise would never have come across. Debunking on the Internet abounds, and whether one is a Mormon, a Scientologist, a Catholic, a Jehovah’s Witness—whatever—the Web exposes the adherents of every and any religious tradition to skeptical views that can potentially undermine personal certainty, rattling an otherwise insulated, confident conviction in one’s religion.

We see direct evidence of this happening more and more. For example, in her ongoing research on nonbelieving clergy, Linda LaScola has found that many pastors and ministers who have lost their faith in God cite their time spent on the Internet as a factor in their emergent atheism. In another study of an extremely segregated, close-knit, almost secretive Satmar Hasidic Jewish community in Brooklyn, New York, sociologist Hella Winston also found evidence of the Web’s secularizing potential. Many of her informants went online, often secretively, and what they found there helped to erode their religious provincialism, sometimes directly prodding their emergent questioning and even abetting their eventual rejection of their religion.

Second, the Internet allows people who may be privately harboring doubts about their religion to immediately connect with others who also share such doubts. In other words, the Internet fosters and spurs secular community. Nascent atheists, skeptics, humanists, agnostics—even those in the most remote or fundamentalist of communities—can reach out to others online, instantly finding comfort and information, which encourages or strengthens their secularity.

Third, and perhaps most subtle, the Web may be partly responsible for the rise of irreligion simply by what it is, what it can do, what it can provide, how it functions, and how it interfaces with us and our minds and our desires and our lives. The Internet may be supplying something psychological, or feeding something neurological, or establishing something cultural via its individual-computer-screen nexus, something dynamic that is edging out religion, replacing religion, or weakening religion. The entertainment available on the Internet, the barrage of imagery, the simultaneity, the mental stimulation, the looking and clicking, the hunting and finding, the time-wasting, the consumerism, the constant social networking, the virtual communication—all of it may be undermining religion’s ability to hold our interest, draw our attention, tap our soul.

* * *

Dr. Barry Kosmin is the founding director of the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture, housed (none too ironically) at Trinity College, in Hartford, Connecticut. This institute, founded in 2005, is the first of its kind in America—or the world, for that matter. Its goal is “to advance understanding of the role of secular values and the process of secularization in contemporary society and culture.” Dr. Kosmin is emphatic about the need to understand the rise of irreligion. As he argues, “We need to study secular people because they’re a growing proportion of the population. This has political, social, intellectual, and moral implications. While the salience of religion has been duly studied, we also need to see what is happening on the other side. We need to examine the nonreligious portion of humanity. If we only study religious people, and we ignore secular people, we are not getting the whole spectrum, the whole picture.”

I couldn’t agree more.

There is an important, durable line that links the ancient Carvaka, Kohelet, Lucretius, Wang Ch’ung, and Muhammad al-Razi to Sally, the American mom of the twenty-first century. It is a fascinating, compelling line—part philosophical, part practical, part political, part personal—and it courses through history and winds ever strongly through our contemporary society. But it is a line of human culture that hasn’t been adequately recognized, scrutinized, or appreciated. The Sallys of the world simply haven’t been studied much. And this is not only strange but unfortunate, as it skews our understanding not only of what it means to be secular or religious, or what it means to be American, but what it means to simply be human.

It’s Only Natural

Given that secular people are now more abundant than ever before, and that social scientists such as Barry Kosmin are finally beginning to study secular people with real deliberate rigor, hopefully our ability to counter some of the gross mischaracterizations out there concerning secular people will mature and strengthen. And the mischaracterizations out there concerning secular people—people like Sally—are quite troublesome. For example, many people characterize atheists or nonreligious men and women as some sort of aberrant, anomalous, or unnatural species of human being. And I’m not talking about Roman Catholic Inquisitors of the sixteenth century making such assertions but contemporary academics.

Consider Christian Smith, who is the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Sociology and director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame. At a 2012 roundtable conference held at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University, Professor Smith—who is one of the most prolific and erudite sociologists of religion in the country, as well as a really affable guy—put forth the thesis that religion is natural to the human condition, while secularity is not. By way of analogy, he characterized being religious as akin to walking forward and upright on two legs and being secular as akin to crabwalking backward on all fours; the latter can be done, but it goes against our true human nature.

And Professor Smith is far from alone in espousing this viewpoint; it is a fairly widespread notion, held by academics and nonacademics alike, that religiosity is the sort of natural, innate default position of humankind, while being secular is some sort of oddity, corruption, or aberration. Sociologist Paul Froese characterizes religiosity as “essential,” “universal,” and “fundamental” to the human condition, thereby rendering the secular condition as ultimately unnatural and untenable. Psychology professor Justin Barrett further argues that humans are literally “born believers,” and thus atheism is a problematic, indoctrinated retardation of an otherwise natural, normal human predilection. Theism, such individuals tell us, is simply in our wiring, in our human nature—while atheism is decidedly not.

* * *

I hear various permutations of this position all the time, and it basically goes like this: “Religion has existed in every human society and culture, right? Religion is basically a universal, isn’t it? So doesn’t that mean that religion is an essential and intrinsic component of the human condition?”

Not quite.

First off, one can readily agree that religion is pervasive the world over. And one can also happily acknowledge that religion has existed, in some form or another, in every society and culture for which we have data. Good enough. But that does not mean that every member of any given society or culture is religious, nor even necessarily a majority of any given society or culture. For example, 42 percent of the Dutch today describe themselves as being nonreligious, and another 14 percent describe themselves as being convinced atheists—meaning that being religious in the Netherlands today is actually to be in the minority. Same thing in the Czech Republic. And Japan. And anthropologists such as Daniel L. Everett have even lived among indigenous tribes deep in the Amazon rain forest whose members don’t believe in anything supernatural—no gods, no ghosts. So just because religion is culturally and historically widespread does not mean that it is embraced by everyone.

By way of analogy, consider dance. Dance is just as universal as religion: it has existed, in one form or another, in every culture and society, past and present. And yet we know that many individuals don’t care much for dancing. Many find it awkward. Many find it embarrassing. Many more are simply uninterested in it, or are downright oblivious to it. And still others are actively opposed to it, finding it to be immoral or wicked. So while dance may be “universal,” that does not automatically mean that all humans are dancers. Millions are not.

For yet one more analogy, consider violent crime. It is just as widespread as religion and dance. It exists in all societies and cultures, past and present. And yet we know that not all people are violent criminals. Most aren’t. So just because a phenomenon exists in all human enclaves does not make it innate or natural to all people. And I would argue that this is exactly the case with religion: not all humans are religious. As nineteenth-century abolitionist and feminist Ernestine Rose argued over a hundred years ago, “We are told that Religion is natural; the belief in a God universal. Were it natural, then it would indeed be universal; but it is not.”

Which leads to my second point: as the earlier part of this chapter revealed, there are a hell of a lot of secular people out there in the world—according to recent analyses, approximately 450 to 700 million nonbelievers worldwide. Given those numbers, it is problematic to consider something so widespread as an unnatural aberration. As sociologists Marta Trzebiatowska and Steve Bruce have recently argued, “The proposition that all people are innately religious might have been plausible in 1800, but there are now so many people . . . who do not hold supernatural beliefs, who have no involvement with religious organizations, and who describe themselves as ‘non-religious’ that . . . we have enough non-religious people to defeat the universal claim.”

Third, even if we can recognize that there are certain innate neurological, psychological, and/or cognitive predispositions that might tend to make humans religious (for example, the proclivity to see patterns, the tendency to assume some sort of agency behind certain phenomena, the desire to feel a sense of connection, to be part of a like-minded group)—as the work of such scholars as Pascal Boyer reveals—that does not mean that there aren’t other similar, simultaneous, competing, or complementary innate predispositions that tend to make some humans skeptical, agnostic, atheist, religiously indifferent, or affirmatively secular.

So while the author Nicholas Wade writes of a “faith instinct,” we can certainly argue that there is also a “doubt instinct” or a “reasoninstinct” that is just as persistent and inherent to our nature. As cognitive psychologists Armin Geertz and Guomundur Ingi Markusson so astutely argue, “Atheism . . . draws on the same natural cognitive capacities that theism draws on,” and both “religiosity and atheism represent entrenched cognitive-cultural habits where the conclusions drawn from sensory input and the output of cognitive systems bifurcate in supernatural and naturalistic directions. The habit of atheism may need more scaffolding to be acquired, and its religious counterpart may need more effort to kick, but even so, that does not, ipso facto, make the latter more natural than the former.” Amen to that.

Excerpted from "Living the Secular Life: New Answers to Old Questions" by Phil Zuckerman. Published by Penguin Press. Copyright 2014 by Phil Zuckerman. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

By Phil Zuckerman

Phil Zuckerman is Associate Dean of Pitzer College and the author of "What It Means to be Moral" (Counterpoint, 2019).

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