A recent survey indicates that Americans have been changing their religions at a rapid rate. Remarkably, some 44 percent have moved from their religions of birth into other denominations, other religions, or none at all. This Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life survey, released in February of 2008 and based on 35,000 responses, also shows that 40 percent of Americans have intermarried with persons of other religions or denominations, which further intensifies the breaking of ancestral bonds. Historically, immigrants who came to America from Europe and other parts of the world brought with them the religions of their forebears. They would congregate in ethnic communities in various cities or rural areas, build a church or temple, and raise their children within their denomination. Apparently, this is now changing. The biggest losses seem to be occurring in the Roman Catholic Church, mainline Protestant churches, and relatively liberal synagogues.
The key to understanding religion in America is that the free market is at work. Religions are being offered—and evaluated—like other consumer products. Americans tend to select religions that satisfy their tastes and needs. No longer living in the neighborhoods in which they were born and freely moving to other parts of the country, they are easily able to change.
The Pew study demonstrates that large numbers of people are abandoning the religions in which they were raised. Most likely, Americans are now undergoing the process of secularization that has already occurred in Europe. Europe has become post-Christian and largely postreligious, with the exception of growing and highly devout Islamic minorities.
In addition, other surveys have shown that some 43 percent of the population today is already unchurched: though unchurched individuals may identify with the religion of a church, synagogue, mosque or temple, they have not joined one. In one sense they’re rootless—which can be a good thing when it connotes openness, flexibility, and freedom from preconceived limits.
This new data signals a great opportunity for secular humanists to appeal to those who are in flux and who may not identify with existing religious denominations. Secular humanists need to make it clear that it is possible to provide a rational, scientific interpretation of the universe and the human species instead of relying on the ancient mythologies of the past, none of which are in accord with modern knowledge. It is crucial that we provide a new basis for ethics. There is a great difference between dogmatic morality handed down from On High and a new morality of humanism and secularism that speaks to current concerns.
In spite of our television-oriented, Internet-permeated society, there is still a need for communities. If the old-time religions no longer satisfy, then we need to build secular centers that do—places where intelligent men and women can meet like-minded people and share ideas and values, especially with those who are unaffiliated or have intermarried.
Although scientific and skeptical criticisms of religion and the paranormal have served a certain segment of the population as a powerful antidote for their creeds of birth, our movement has thus far been unable to develop an effective ethical eupraxsophy—a full-featured approach to living that can serve as a vibrant alternative to religious doctrines. That, I submit, is the frontier for neo-humanist and multi-secular appeals.
Secular humanists are uniquely committed to a set of humanist values and principles. These include the civic virtues of democracy and the toleration of diverse lifestyles. Such humanists cherish individual freedom. They celebrate human creativity and fulfillment; love and shared experiences; happiness and well-being; the values of the open, pluralistic society; the right of privacy; and the autonomy, dignity, and worth of each person. Neo-humanists, as we might call them, are deeply concerned with social justice and the common good, environmentalism, and planetary ethics. They may have a deep appreciation for nature and a sense of awe about the magnificence of the universe and the continuing evolution of life. Their focus is on the good life here and now for themselves and their fellow humans. They recognize that humans are responsible in some sense for their own destinies and that they need to use intelligence and goodwill to solve problems. They attempt, wherever possible, to deal with conflict rationally and to work out compromises using science, reason, and humanist values.
If today’s polls are correct, there is an eager audience for what we have to offer.