The Long View

S. T. Joshi

Let’s step back a bit.

At a time when we are constantly bombarded with information (true, false, biased, or fabricated), it can be difficult to take note of broader social and cultural developments that have radically changed the simple act of living in the United States at this moment in history—and, in my view, changed it for the better. Having recently entered the ranks of sexagenarians, I have found myself reflecting on how different things are now from that remote period—the summer of 1963—when, as a wide-eyed five-year-old immigrant from India, I attempted to take stock of the country, halfway across the globe from my native land, where my parents had brought me.

The civil rights movement of the 1960s, set against the grim backdrop of the Vietnam War, was painful and bloody, but it did achieve significant gains in the fairer treatment of persons of color and other previously scorned minorities. And an entire treatise could be written on the strides women have made in social, political, and legal equality. One only has to look at any film or television show of fifty or sixty years ago to see how a bland and unthinking misogyny was deeply rooted in the culture as a whole and pop culture in particular. An episode of Bewitched from 1970 featured little Tabitha Stephens complaining about a puppet show in which Punch repeatedly beat Judy with a stick—whereupon her mother Samantha immediately branded her a “women’s libber”! The upshot of the episode was not that Punch should give up his violent abuse of his wife; apparently the best we can hope for is that Punch hits Judy a little less hard with that stick.

Then there’s the environment. I can remember a time when Lake Erie occasionally caught fire because of the oil slicks coating its surface. What a revelation the first Earth Day (April 22, 1970) was! Who knew that we couldn’t heedlessly keep using up the planet’s resources without ultimately paying a penalty? That same year President Richard Nixon (a Republican, in case you’ve forgotten) established the Environmental Protection Agency, and the results have been revolutionary.

The animal-rights movement has emerged from nonexistence to a significant force in the humane treatment of the creatures we share this Earth with. I can remember a time when casual cruelty to animals was so widespread—especially among teenage boys—that it was hardly remarked upon. One of my friends would seize his cat, whirl it around his head, and fling it violently to the floor. For him it was all great fun! I was too cowardly to make even the slightest protest at the time. Today, if he had done that, I would have made sure to give him a swift kick where it counted most and render him incapable of having children.

Many people much younger than I have seen a wholesale revision of our understanding of gay rights. If anyone in 1990 had suggested that gays and lesbians would be allowed to marry in twenty-five years, I would have replied with derisive ridicule. I can remember a time when I unthinkingly absorbed the prevailing culture’s prejudice toward gays. But then I went to New York and actually met some gay people—and what do you know? My prejudice fell away like an ill-fitting cloak.

It is a sad fact that orthodox religion has stood in the way of many of these developments. I have witnessed with appalled bemusement the rise, decline, and fall of the religious Right. Fall? Yes, fall! (Disclosure: This was written shortly before the mid-term elections on November 6.) It may well be that the last election was the last hurrah of this pestiferous movement, for we are witnessing signs of its demise everywhere:

1. In great numbers, young evangelicals are sloughing off the stiff-necked dogmatism of their parents. Some are even embracing the fight against climate change (on the principle of being good “stewards of the Earth”) and other causes relating to social justice. I suppose we should embrace our allies wherever we can find them.

2. The religious Right’s close embrace of President Trump has resulted in a devastating annihilation of its (always hollow and hypocritical) claims to moral uprightness. The idea that evangelicals are now nothing but one more political pressure group—analogous to the NRA or the pharmaceutical industry—is thoroughly entrenched in the public mind.

3. Some evangelicals are simply throwing in the towel. Read The Benedict Option (2017) by the political and religious conservative Rod Dreher. The book is a scream. For you see, Dreher is so despondent over the rampant secularization of society that his only solution is for the dwindling numbers of the faithful to gather into tightly knit communities to protect their faith—although he envisions occasional forays into the wider world to “evangelize barbarian peoples” (that would be us). Pull your kids out of public schools, deny them television and the internet, and so on and so forth! All I have to say to Dreher is: Good luck with that.

Nothing I’ve said here should be taken as an argument for political, religious, or social passivity. I’m no Pollyanna, and I am well aware of the dangers of backsliding (pardon the religious metaphor). There is no shortage of recent evidence that we have a long way to go on all the issues I’ve outlined, but I think we need to take a realistic view of the immense progress that has been made. However viciously the forces of reaction seek to drag us back to the bad old times when women, gays, persons of color, and others were consigned to the margins of society, there are too many vested interests leading us forward. When corporations (yes, corporations!) are increasingly taking a role in promoting fairness, you know an important threshold has been reached.

So, despite recent setbacks, the wind is at our backs. We will prevail—and deserve to prevail.

S. T. Joshi

S. T. Joshi is the editor of Atheism: A Reader (2000) and other works on atheism, agnosticism, and freethought.


Let’s step back a bit. At a time when we are constantly bombarded with information (true, false, biased, or fabricated), it can be difficult to take note of broader social and cultural developments that have radically changed the simple act of living in the United States at this moment in history—and, in my view, changed …

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