Secularization continues to make big gains. Those Americans who rank themselves as nonreligious and those who qualify as atheists (broadly defined as those who are not theists) each ballooned by a tenth of the total population in just ten years. Those who qualify as nonreligious compose half the nation. Globally, the self-identified nonreligious similarly rose from 30 percent in 2000 to 40 percent today.
The planetary rise in nontheism closely tracks with that of the middle class. In the United States, increasing nonreligiosity has paralleled decreases in crime and the adverse effects of sexual activity. These correlations are in tune with the well-documented hypothesis that religion does not thrive when socioeconomic conditions are good and getting better.
Yet things are far from as rational as they should be here and abroad. When the Cold War ended, many presumed that a golden age of secular democracy, popular science, and improving economics was at hand. Instead, democracy, especially the liberal sort that emphasizes civil and human rights, is on the defensive just about everywhere, including in the Western nations. Pseudoscience and other varieties of fake news are competing strongly with sound science and reality. This occurs especially among white working-class people in most first-world countries. Their economic circumstances are stagnating or contracting, and their life spans are actually decreasing in the United States. Yet the American blue-collar cohort is not getting more pious; it’s rapidly secularizing, like the more-educated and better-off. This has led even liberal seculars such as Peter Beinart to contend that the shrinkage of the Western church, by disconnecting citizens from shared social groups, is a major factor in the deterioration of American-European sociopolitics in this time of postmodern right-wing racism, nativism, nationalism, and hyperdivision.
Meanwhile, many Western conservative elites are becoming seriously depraved. Remember how theo-conservatives used to proclaim that liberty was the only godly way as they denounced what Ronald Reagan claimed was the focus of evil, the atheistic communist bloc? Nowadays, many perniciously embrace murderous neo-czar Vladimir Putin of Russia as an exemplar of a champion of traditional Christian values while that dictator strives to undermine democracy in favor of gangster autocracies. American theo-cons are traveling to Russia to hobnob on climate denial, gay bashing, and selling guns. Russian meddling was vital to providing the Norman Vincent Peale Prosperity Christian—and, therefore, hedonist but non–church-attending—Donald Trump the one hundred thousand blue-collar evangelical votes the budding strongman needed to get into the White House (which is why ardent Trump supporters are not upset at Russian influence). The cynical hypocrisy of the religious Right that claims to adore the Constitution has been exposed. It shouldn’t be surprising in view of how conservatives often have authoritarian personalities and adore their scandal-riven pastor overlords.
The current world crisis is not spiritual. Imagining that the solutions somehow stem from speculative faith in supernatural powers that either do not exist or have mucked up this naturally deadly planet big time is a self-aggrandizing fantasy rather than a practical program. The real source of the trouble is economic, and far from improving matters, experience shows that organized religion usually makes things worse.
The Abrahamic scriptures legitimized divinely ordained autocracy, misogyny, genocide, slavery, socially approved violence, homophobia, and religious intolerance. It was the Catholic Church that invented anti-Semitism, which Luther inserted into his Protestantism. Christian Manifest Destiny justified the ethnic cleansing of the original peoples of the Americas. It was industrial-consumer capitalism that did more than anything to finally end the ownership of fellow human beings by Bible-reading Southerners. As the 1930s economic implosion drove European politics into extreme Left/Right divisions, instead of the churches making things better, the papacy collaborated with Mussolini, backed Franco, and, after the entire Catholic Centre Party voted to make Hitler dictator, signed a concordat requiring all German bishops to swear loyalty to his Reich.1 The Lutheran clergy likewise enthused over the new Deutsch strongman. In the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s entirely secular economic-political New Deal, not the pulpits, saved the nation from similar disaster.
After Hitler’s war and the Holocaust, the massive failure of the churches in the giant wars, combined with fast-rising prosperity and security in hybrid capitalist-socialists states, improving education, and corporate-consumer materialism caused the churches of Europe to empty out without significant sociopolitical disruption. Indeed, as I detailed in an online 2009 paper in Evolutionary Psychology, the rise of European atheism has been associated with the best human conditions in history.2 Who are the happiest and most satisfied people on the planet? The atheistic Danes and Norwegians.
After 2008, the European Union made critical economic mistakes, including ill-timed austerity policies, that deepened the economic stagnation driving the right-wing populism that incorporates hardline Christian elements.
Russia never enjoyed secular prosperity and remains financially decrepit. It’s the one major country where theism is enjoying a significant revival as the democracy-loathing, modernity-hating Russian Orthodox Church allies with a certain ex-KGB agent to try to return Russia to those longed-for old-fashioned Christian ways. Not that that’s working that well: Russians remain as modernized as Westerners.
Then there’s India, where religious strife persists. It has half the economic growth of never-very-religious China, where claims of fast-growing piety are greatly exaggerated.
The greatest current source of evil—the largely autocratic Islamic world—remains an economic basket case, with the greatest financial growth being found in the least conservative Muslim countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia, while increasingly Islamic Turkey becomes increasingly undemocratic.
Atheism is not a magical elixir that solves all problems—consider Mao Zedong. And there are liberal-progressive religious sects. But irrational religion is trying to regain popularity and especially power by attacking rationalism and intellectual, social, and political freedom—its ability to regain the first two items is dubious, but the rest are appearing rather more vulnerable than hoped. Fixing the afflictions of the world—including those of the white working class—is a practical, secular, social-ethical-economic project that will require clear-headed, rational, science-based analysis and action, not a roll of superstitious religious dice and the hope that if more folks go to church it will somehow bring us all together. Theism is, after all, the original fake news.
- See my two-part article, “The Great Scandal: Christianity’s Role in the rise of the Nazis,” Free Inquiry, October/November 2003 and December 2003/January 2004.
- Available online at http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/147470490900700305. Accessed May 26, 2017.