Is Religion Dying?

Tom Flynn

In case you missed it, Roman Catholics have a new pope. Pope Benedict XVI resigned, which no pope has done in almost six hundred years, and the College of Cardinals met in conclave and elected Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who chose the name Pope Francis.

But of course, you didn’t miss it. No one with a functioning central nervous system could have overlooked the papal succession extravaganza, a story that ruled the world’s news media for thirty-one days straight.

Viewed one way, this is astonishing. For the span of one long month, the world’s biggest news story was that an institution that styles itself as the representative on Earth of a deity who does not exist would name a new leader. The method of his selection was by a secretive cluster of elderly males, many best known for facilitating subordinate priests in evading punishment for sexual abuse, who would elevate one of their own. When chosen, the new pope became head of state of an, ahem, sovereign nation with a land area of 110 acres and a population of around eight hundred.

Was there really nothing more important going on in the world between February 11, when Pope Benedict announced his resignation, and March 13, when Pope Francis greeted the faithful in St. Peter’s Square?

The people who run most of the world’s news organizations seemed to think not, and in that there’s a lesson for us secular folk. Much as we may have moved past religion in our personal lives—outgrown it, if you prefer your language loaded—faith remains important to vast numbers of our fellow humans. Even though (from our point of view) no religion is true—even though most of the world’s actually existing creeds are in varying measures ahistorical, reactionary, authoritarian, misogynistic, and repressive—nonetheless, religion and religious institutions are hugely influential, in culture and (unfortunately) politics as much as they are in the domain of faith.

Whether we like it or not, news organizations that put religion stories front and center know what they’re doing. That’s another way of saying that religion still matters. Religion merits our efforts to understand it, to criticize it, and perhaps most of all to resist it when it seeks improper influence over society and culture.

But some don’t see it that way. Memes newly afoot in our movement—some concerning younger nonbelievers, others circulating principally among them—suggest that traditional freethinker attitudes of vigilance toward religion may be losing relevance. Advocates note that in recent surveys, 20 percent of American adults now disdain any religious identification; among the eighteen-to-twenty-five set, more than a third do so. A recent micro-trend among atheist twenty-somethings—believe it or not, giving up something for Lent—has lit up the blogosphere while attracting mainstream-media coverage from The New York Times and the Religion News Service (RNS). Faitheist author Chris Stedman told RNS’s Kimberly Winston that younger atheists are more open to borrowing forms and practices from the churches, perhaps because they grew up in a more religiously diverse environment than older unbelievers. “There is definitely a transition going on,” Chelsea Link, a twenty-three-year-old humanist, told Winston. “A lot of younger atheists are saying, ‘I don’t believe in God either, but I don’t understand why you are foaming at the mouth about it.’”

The message to older unbelievers seems to be “Relax, religion is dying. It’s just not relevant any more, not the way it used to be, and we in the movement ought to find better things to do than being on guard against it all the time.”

This attitude raises two issues. First, are younger atheists, agnostics, secular humanists, and freethinkers more open toward religion—or is this simply a case of a small cadre of young accommodationists attracting disproportionate media attention? Second, if younger unbelievers are more tolerant of religion, is that a good thing? Are they opening themselves to experiences and ideas that their elders narrow-mindedly shun, or are they turning their backs on an opponent that is still dangerous?

I suspect that some younger members of our movement are less mistrustful of religion and its trappings than their elders. And I suggest that this new openness can be imprudent if taken too far.

Survey data makes clear that the so-called Rise of the Nones has been building momentum for decades. Baby boomers may be the last generation most of whose members grew up in an America that was (nearly) monolithically Christian. Gen Xers grew up in a more diverse religious environment, Gen Yers more so, and the trend continued for today’s Millennial twenty-somethings. Once upon a time, most atheists had had the experience of rebelling against more or less demanding, conservative, literalist churches that cast giant shadows over their childhoods. Today, many young atheists come to the movement having never experienced a truly oppressive religious community firsthand. So it’s easy to understand why many of them might feel their elders’ suspicions go too far.

Still, this old-time atheist and secular humanist (who began his childhood in the über-traditional pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic Church) begs to offer the younger generation a bit of advice. Just because many of you have been lucky enough not to experience religion at its worst, don’t be too quick to decide that this wolf has no teeth. Whatever media you prefer to consume, think back to that inescapable media orgy over the papal succession. Even if you don’t know anyone to whom that mattered, it surely did matter to a hell of a lot of people. If not, the media would have focused on something else!

Do the math. If 20 percent of adults have no religious identity, that means 80 percent still do. If a third of the young are not religious, that means two-thirds of the young still are. Religious believers are still very much in the majority, and they are still enormously powerful.

Want more evidence? Consider that so far this spring, Arkansas has passed a law banning abortions after twelve weeks of pregnancy. North Dakota has banned abortion after six weeks. These are the first state laws directly challenging Roe v. Wade’s standard that abortion must remain legal until fetal viability, about twenty-four weeks. Similar legislation is pending in other heartland states. North Carolina even (briefly) introduced legislation reserving the right to establish a state religion!

Or consider the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (USCCR), an independent, non-partisan, fact-finding body created by Congress as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1957. The USCCR has no legislative authority, but Congress is frequently influenced by its findings. The Commission will soon hold a special hearing on “religious discrimination.” Commissioner Pete Kirsanow has voiced deep concern that “government has been encroaching on expression of religious beliefs.” But he isn’t talking about the kinds of government encroachments in religious matters that will probably leap to the minds of most Free Inquiry readers—the evils of governments allowing Christian crèches in public parks in December, say, or legislative bodies opening their sessions with sectarian Christian prayers, or the inappropriateness of “In God We Trust” as the official motto of a supposedly secular country. He isn’t even complaining about the evils of the Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, whose grants of public funds compel all taxpayers to support religions not their own.

No, Commissioner Kirsanow is alarmed by antidiscrimination rules that, among other things, prevent officially sanctioned campus religious groups from restricting their membership to members of a single religion. (Several universities have decertified student religious groups and other groups have opted to forgo official recognition because antidiscrimination policies requiring recognized groups to admit “all comers” would oblige them to accept members—or even officers—who disagree with their beliefs.) Kirsanow is also alarmed by Department of Health and Human Services mandates requiring employers or insurers to pay for contraception. In other words, in a country where genuine religious discrimination against people who belong to a minority religion or none at all is not difficult to find, Commissioner Kirsanow wants to use the power of the Commission on Civil Rights—a creature of Congress, don’t forget—to channel yet-higher levels of public privilege for the benefit of Christianity.

Or consider that as I write this, Indiana’s Supreme Court has ruled that the nation’s largest and most expansive state school-voucher program is constitutional and can continue giving both poor and middle-class Hoosier parents public money so that they can enroll their children in the (probably religious) private schools of their choice.

I could go on … and on … and on. But I think the point is made. Younger members of our movement, please recognize that America’s religious majority still is both pretty devoutly religious and in the majority. Recognize that within it, a still-vital religious Right continues scrabbling to hang onto power—and in some areas is continuing to expand. America’s more conservative churches are home to millions of believers who think we’re all going to hell and don’t think God will mind if they figure out new ways to curtail our civil liberties. Just because many of you have been lucky enough never to meet such believers doesn’t mean they’re not out there.

If there is a sense among younger unbelievers that exposing the absurdities of religion and defending Jefferson’s wall are no longer worthwhile pursuits, I hope they’ll think again. If that’s too much to ask for, I hope they’ll stay out of the way of us old-timers while we fight the battles that truly (yes, still) demand to be fought.


Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn is editor of Free Inquiry, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, director of the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum, and editor of The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (2007).

In case you missed it, Roman Catholics have a new pope. Pope Benedict XVI resigned, which no pope has done in almost six hundred years, and the College of Cardinals met in conclave and elected Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who chose the name Pope Francis. But of course, you didn’t miss it. No one …

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