If there was a hell, it would be garlanded with icicles. According to recent survey data, two longtime dreams of American secularists have come true:
After years of growth in the number of Americans who don’t attend church or declare a religion (19 percent in the last Pew Center study), neither result is surprising. Moreover, neither is an unvarnished victory for the nonreligious. For now, let’s focus on the good news.
According to the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, whose annual report Giving USA is a statistical benchmark for the nonprofit sector, giving to religion in 2011 declined 1.7 percent in current dollars—4.7 percent adjusted for inflation—relative to giving in 2010. One might suspect this just reflects the dismal economy, but apparently not. Religion was one of only two charitable categories to decline in 2011, while the other nine categories tracked by the Center on Philanthropy rose. Across all categories, giving rose 4 percent. So giving to religion lost ground relative to giving to causes such as education, human services, health, international affairs, arts, and the environment.
What’s more, religious giving decreased in three of the last four years, dropping in 2008 and 2009 and posting a small gain in 2010 before declining in 2011.
Is this development connected to recent growth in the numbers of unchurched and nonreligious Americans? Correlation is not causation, as the maxim goes. But Thomas W. Mesaros, chair of the Giving Institute, told the NonProfit Times: “Giving to religion, along with membership in certain mainline Protestant denominations, is declining, while the American population grows, on average, 1 percent every year. It might be too soon to call the drops in this particular category a trend, but I think they bear watching.”
Patrick M. Rooney, executive director of the Center on Philanthropy, linked the drop in giving to a very long-term trend toward disaffection from faith. “We have seen every generation going back to the Great Depression attends at a lesser rate than parents and grandparents,” he said. “If they are not attending, they are not giving or giving as much.”
University of Tampa sociologist and frequent FI contributor Ryan T. Cragun suggests another possible cause. Many Americans becoming newly wealthy in today’s economy are very young and working in tech-related occupations. It is well known that younger Americans are less religious than their elders. There’s also strong anecdotal evidence that people in tech are less religious than others their age. As Cragun told me in private correspondence, “Mark Zuckerberg isn’t giving to religions. The next generation of the ultra-wealthy is likely to be top-heavy with freethinkers who use their money to advance scientific agendas to end suffering rather than religious ones.”
I’d like to add a theory of my own, which I concede is purely speculative. I wonder whether some of the drop in giving to religion might be attributable to public understanding that religious charities attract government funding more easily than they used to.
Here’s what I mean. To the chagrin of many seculars, President Barack Obama continued the Faith-Based Initiative introduced by former President George W. Bush, maintaining the flow of federal dollars to explicitly sectarian charities. At the same time, state-level controversies over government support for religious organizations have attracted strong local publicity. (Consider Florida, where a Council for Secular Humanism lawsuit challenging government support for religious organizations has spawned a controversial referendum to amend the state’s constitution.) People who know that Uncle Sam and their state governments are shoveling dollars to religious charities may reduce their own giving to such groups because they think government is picking up the slack.
I have no evidence for this hypothesis. (There is evidence that political progressives give less to social-welfare causes because they think government either is or should be shouldering more of that burden, but that’s not precisely the same thing.) It sounds like a wonderful project for some enterprising social-science researcher with access to student labor and powerful analytical tools.
By the way, I promised I’d mention the downside of this story. Here it is: don’t expect your friendly neighborhood church to go dark anytime soon. Despite the declines, religion remains far and away the largest single category of charitable giving. At $95.88 billion, 2011 giving to religion accounted for 32 percent of the $298.42 billion received by all U.S. charities that year.
Gallup reports that for the first time since it began tracking this question, a majority of telephone survey respondents said they would vote for a generally well-qualified atheist for president of the United States. In some prior years, response on this question came close to a tie, but never before has a majority expressed willingness to vote for an atheist.
On this item, the downside comes quickly. Atheists are still the minority for whom the smallest number of Americans would vote, often by a substantial margin:
Black 96% A woman 95% Catholic 94% Hispanic 92% Jewish 91% Mormon 80% Gay or lesbian 68% Muslim 58% An atheist 54%
Good news: The train of equality chugs on. Bad news: We atheists still sit in the caboose.
Paul Clolery and Mark Hrywna, “2011 Giving Estimated at $298.42B: Religious Giving Erodes while International Relief Jumps.” The NonProfit Times, July 1, 2012, pp. 1, 13–15.
Jeffrey M. Jones, “Atheists, Muslims See Most Bias as Presidential Candidates.” Princeton, N.J.: The Gallup Organization, June 21, 2012.
A new idea is afoot in our movement: atheism—just atheism—ought to stand for a particular moral or political viewpoint. In the April/May 2012 FI, columnist Greta Christina explored “Why Atheism Demands Social Justice.” In August/September (“Atheism’s Third Wave”), columnist PZ Myers proposed “that we adopt ... a socially conscious, activist atheism” whose goals include equality, diversity, and “a more peaceful, more progressive culture.” At this past spring’s Reason Rally, several speakers sounded similar themes.
Is it time to outgrow the old confining notion that atheism is just the absence of belief in a god or gods? When someone says “I am an atheist,” should that also tell us something specific about that person’s ideals, favorite social causes, or politics?
No, it isn’t. And it shouldn’t.
Look, I get it. After decades of a social consensus equating atheism with evil, it’s tempting to advocate an understanding of atheism that equates it with positive good. What a delicious turnabout! The problem is that atheist is a perfectly good word whose established definition does important conceptual work. Stretching its meaning to include particular moral/political commitments will be confusing at best, misleading at worst. Moreover, we have better and more accurate ways to describe someone who holds no belief in gods and embraces a particular moral, social, or political commitment. (One of those terms, of course, is secular humanist.)
For Christina and Myers, specific moral/political insights seem to proceed from the atheist viewpoint. In her column, Christina derived from atheism a slate of values and a political agenda that looked, well, an awful lot like Greta Christina’s. In his column, Myers presented a list of atheist desiderata that looked just like those of PZ Myers. This shouldn’t surprise anyone.
What seems to be afoot here—naturally enough, since political progressives are overrepresented among the nonreligious—is a sense that anyone who views the world honestly through atheist eyes will end up embracing some recognizable version of the left-progressive agenda. Sorry, that’s not true. Ask the libertarians among us, or the economic conservatives, or the moral nihilists. (Just because I’ve become a Keynesian on economics since 2008 doesn’t mean I think real atheists can’t also be nostalgic for the gold standard. I think they’re wrong, but I don’t think there’s anything about atheism that should have shielded them against that error.)
Anyway, atheism in its existing sense has plenty of work to do. It’s the label for the category whose members include Katha Pollitt and Ayn Rand, Eugene Debs and Bill Gates—even (sigh) Josef Stalin. (Okay, tell me again how atheism necessarily entails a particular values agenda!) There is ample need for a word that means “without belief in God” and nothing more.
Starting from atheism one can as easily become a social Darwinist as a left-liberal progressive, as easily a hedonist as an ascetic, and so on. Pure atheism simply doesn’t skew in the direction of the value systems Christina, Myers, or even I might prefer. Ethically speaking, it doesn’t skew in any direction at all. Instead, it does something more important.
Rather than providing a platform for moral inquiry, atheism helps to make authentic moral inquiry possible. Here’s why: if a god exists, we might be living under command morality. The good might be good only because the deity says so. That would make the landscape of right and wrong wholly arbitrary, devoid of contours reason might discern. Given command morality, moral inquiry is a doomed exercise. By removing the threat of command morality, atheism grants would-be moral thinkers a clear range on which to build their value systems.
“It’s curious how ... many atheists simultaneously want to claim that they are good without gods,” Myers wrote, “while also asserting that atheism is nothing but a simple answer to one question.” Actually, there’s nothing curious about that. When atheists are being good without gods, they are being more than atheists. From their starting points as atheists, they are engaging in value inquiry and arriving at their value systems, which vary widely. Some wind up as atheists and secular humanists. Others end up atheist and conservative ... or utilitarian, or pragmatist, or transhumanist. The point is, whatever values atheists arrive at, when they live out those values they will be being atheists plus something else.
In years past, American Atheists spokespeople used to talk about “positive atheism,” acknowledging that atheists who expressed particular values were engaged in something more than atheism alone. Blogger Jennifer McCreight’s recent coinage “Atheism +” also recognizes this.
In closing, pardon me if I plump once more for my favorite moniker for men and women who start from atheism and then apply reason, compassion, and common sense to build value systems conducive to flourishing in this world. I call them “secular humanists.”
Tom Flynn is the editor of FREE INQUIRY and the executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism.