An Unprecedented Time in Human History

Ronald A. Lindsay

Don’t look now, but we’re in the middle of a revolution in human attitudes and belief. In Europe and North America, large portions of the population are nonreligious; that is, they reject belief in God and transcendent spiritual entities of any sort. This is an unprecedented phenomenon in the history of humanity. Widespread religious skepticism was largely unknown until modern times; indeed, it’s principally a phenomenon of just the last few decades. Not that there were not doubters in the past, but, as far as we can tell, they were few and far between. (Of course, given that open atheism often meant either a social or a very real death, there were, admittedly, significant disincentives to going public with one’s doubts.)

Granted, there were some freethought organizations in the United States and some European countries in the nineteenth century, but outside of these organizations religion remained dominant. In other words, their influence on the broader culture was minimal. Others may protest that mass atheism has been around at least since the early twentieth century, given that Russia (formerly the Soviet Union) had a Communist regime as of 1917, and a number of other countries went Communist about thirty years thereafter. Without question, Communist ideology incorporated atheism as one of its tenets, but that’s precisely the problem. This was top-down atheism. Rejection of the supernatural was largely imposed by the Communist leadership and did not necessarily reflect the views of the populace. This has been corroborated by the religious revival in many formerly Communist nations and by the continuing (if not increasing) strength of religious/spiritual beliefs and practices in China.

The contemporary embrace of religious skepticism by large numbers of individuals in Europe and North America is the result of wholly voluntary decisions. It’s a popular movement, and this widespread voluntary rejection of God and gods is something new in human history.

How widespread is it? Estimates vary, in part because until recently surveys did not focus on measuring unbelief (the nonreligious category was what was left over after the different varieties of religious belief were catalogued), and different surveys have used different criteria for determining whether someone is nonreligious (see last issue’s cover feature, “Bridging the Gulf: At Last, Social Science Measures Secularity” with articles by Frank L. Pasquale and Tom Flynn). Let’s begin abroad. Reasonable estimates indicate that about 61 percent of Czechs do not believe in God. In other words, a majority of Czechs are nonreligious. The Czech Republic is arguably the most nonreligious country, but other countries do not lag far behind. About 49 percent of Estonians, 48 percent of Danes, 45 percent of Slovenians, 42 percent of the Dutch, 39 percent of the British, and 31 percent of Norwegians do not believe in God. (These statistics are from two 2004 surveys; the percentages have likely increased since then.) The exact percentages matter less than the unmistakable overall trend: many people are simply no longer accepting belief in transcendent spirits. Moreover, given their large numbers, the influence of the nonreligious is not limited to their own groups or a few select social issues. Instead, their influence has begun to permeate their cultures. Sociologist Phil Zuckerman has characterized some Scandinavian countries as societies “without God.”

As readers of Free Inquiry are well aware, the United States is something of an outlier in that it remains much more religious than most other developed countries. Nonetheless, even in “God’s country” people are moving away from religious belief. A very conservative estimate of the percentage of nonreligious in the United States would be 10 percent—substantially lower than some of the levels of unbelief in European countries but still a marked difference from the level of unbelief in the United States just twenty years ago.

To what can we attribute this dramatic change? No one really knows, although theories abound. Some attribute it to higher standards of living, increased longevity, and more secure social safety nets, which remove some of the anxieties that motivate some people to turn to God for help. Others maintain that education has played a significant role. A contributing factor may be the “snowball effect”; that is, once public unbelief reaches a certain level, the pace at which religion is abandoned increases. If one’s friends and colleagues are giving up religious belief, can this atheism thing be that bad?

All these factors, as well as several others, may be at work. Religious belief is a complex phenomenon with many different causes and many different levels of commitment. Similarly, there is presumably no single, simple explanation for unbelief.

Whatever the explanation, overall, the abandonment of religion in many developed countries must be considered a welcome phenomenon—if for no other reason than true beliefs are preferable, generally speaking, to false beliefs. And, of course, all too often religious beliefs are coupled with dogmatic insistence on “moral” precepts that range from pointless to seriously harmful.

Let’s not pop the champagne cork just yet, however. There are several things to bear in mind as we experience this revolution in religious beliefs.

Predicting Trends in Religious Belief Is Difficult

It appears that the developed world is becoming more secular. Will this trend continue? Will it accelerate? Will it be a short-lived phenomenon, with religious belief regaining overwhelming predominance?

As naturalists and empiricists, the nonreligious should candidly acknowledge the limits of prognostication. The reality is we simply do not know what will happen. The rise and fall of religious beliefs is difficult to predict with confidence. I doubt whether many Romans in the early second century would have predicted the rise of Christianity, whether many Americans in the mid-nineteenth century would have foreseen the survival and prospering of Mormonism, or whether many Americans in the early twentieth century correctly conjectured there would be a simultaneous decline among mainstream Protestant denominations and a rise in Protestant fundamentalism. That said, a likely outcome, at least within the next several decades, is a steady growth in the number of nonbelievers, accompanied by further erosion in the once dominant position held by traditional Christianity in many Western countries.

But other outcomes are possible. Perhaps traditional religion, in particular Christianity, will rebound, as two journalists recently argued in their book God Is Back. Perhaps Islam will come to dominate Europe, replacing a fading Christianity and suppressing freethought. Perhaps in the next fifty years some presently ignored or unknown faith will sweep aside other beliefs. None of these possibilities can be foreclosed.

The Developed World Is Less Than Half the World

One reason a religious resurgence cannot be ruled out is that secularization has been limited, for the most part, to the developed world. Religious beliefs and practices still dominate over half the globe. As I write this editorial, I’ve just been made aware of a news story about an Indonesian man who was beaten and arrested for stating on his Facebook page that God does not exist. Open atheism is illegal in Indonesia, and this person could be facing a five-year prison sentence. In terms of population, Indonesia is the world’s fourth-largest nation; it’s a democracy with the world’s eighteenth-largest economy; and it’s not considered a backward, isolated country. That an open expression of atheism would draw this type of reaction in Indonesia gives one a sense of the animosity with which much of the world still regards religious skepticism.

Yes, the world is becoming more interdependent, and there are numerous cultural, social, and economic ties that knit together the various parts of the world. (Note that the Indonesian atheist used Facebook to post his message.) Secular trends in the West can influence beliefs and attitudes in other areas. Similarly, however, religious beliefs and practices from other parts of the globe can take root and spread in the West, especially when they are accompanied by immigrant populations. Whether religious belief as a global human phenomenon is on its way out or is merely undergoing one of its periodic transformations is a question unresolved.

Religion Is Not Going Away Quietly

Believers are aware of these secularizing trends, and religious leaders—and their political sympathizers—are doing whatever they can to combat and reverse them.

For Americans, this is especially evident in this election cycle as most Republican presidential candidates loudly proclaim their faith and seem to vie for the title of “most God-fearing.” Some of this can be dismissed as political pandering and posturing, but perhaps less important than the sincerity of the politicians’ expressed views is the reaction they receive from their audiences when they proclaim the need for faith and denounce secularism.

Newt Gingrich may be the most outspoken of the GOP contenders, and his speeches seem to strike a chord among true believers. Gingrich repeatedly denounces “radical secularists” and has asserted that a person who does not pray cannot be trusted with power. These attacks on secularism are often greeted with thunderous applause. Sure, those are Republican partisans, but they represent a not inconsiderable portion of the American population. Whether the religious can be effective in stemming the tide of rising secularism is uncertain. What is certain is that they will try. At a minimum, this means we are facing a short-term intensification of the culture wars, focused on issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, and stem cell research.

OK, We’re Atheists. Now What?

As indicated, atheism is, all other things being equal, a good thing. It’s better to be correct than mistaken about the existence of supernatural beings, especially if those supernatural beings are supposedly issuing directives about how one is supposed to behave. (“Yes, you don’t have to wear that silly hat anymore, and your wife can drive the car.”)

Atheism doesn’t supply a code of conduct. It doesn’t have to; its job is to get us out from under the dead hand of religion, and that’s a sufficient task unto itself.

However, we will need to get our ethics from somewhere. The religionists claim that we nonreligious people have no rational basis for our morality, because without God we have no foundation for our ethics, and, therefore, atheism implies nihilism or a dependence on the commands of a human dictator who will replace the divine law-giver.

The religionists’ claim is false, but it’s important to understand why. If we continue to think of morality as something based on rules “from above,” then removing the “above” does present us with a problem. But morality should be regarded as a human-centered institution serving human needs. Morality serves certain purposes, such as providing security to members of the community, creating stability, ameliorating harmful conditions, fostering trust, and facilitating cooperation in achieving shared or complementary goals. In short, morality enables us to live together and, while so doing, to improve the conditions under which we live.

Religion has obscured the proper, practical function of morality by assigning to God—meaning his priestly interpreters—the role of imposing rules, some of which had no purpose other than maintaining existing power structures and increasing the authority of the priestly class. Forging a truly humanistic ethics is a task that does await us and which we must accomplish if we are to finally live a life free of gods. Refusing to accept fairy tales is not enough. We also have to take responsibility for reasoning together about how we can best achieve our shared goals while maintaining respect for the dignity and worth of all humans.

To end the childhood of humanity we not only have to put away our fantasies; we also have to accept the responsibility that comes with recognizing there are no gods to tell us what to do. I am cautiously optimistic that we are ready for this challenge.

Ronald A. Lindsay

Ronald A. Lindsay is the former president and CEO of the Center for Inquiry. Currently, he is senior research fellow for CFI and adjunct professor of philosophy at Prince George’s Community College.

Don’t look now, but we’re in the middle of a revolution in human attitudes and belief. In Europe and North America, large portions of the population are nonreligious; that is, they reject belief in God and transcendent spiritual entities of any sort. This is an unprecedented phenomenon in the history of humanity. Widespread religious skepticism …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Subscribe now or log in to read this article.