Well, That Changed Abruptly

Tom Flynn

There’s change, and then there’s change.

As Free Inquiry’s previous issue (April/May 2020) went to press, most Americans were focused on the juddering conclusion of President Donald J. Trump’s impeachment, followed by the rapid winnowing of candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination. Readers of this magazine might have been discussing the toxic Christian nationalism in Trump’s State of the Union address or the battle against anti-vaccination propaganda. As this June/July 2020 issue nears completion, there is no question what everyone—across America and the world—is focused on: the coronavirus pandemic.

With unimaginable rapidity, our lives have been scrambled. Millions shelter in homes they avoid leaving unless absolutely necessary. Non-essential institutions from department stores and restaurants to casinos and film production companies have closed; the economy has responded, understandably, as though garroted.

Most of all, we huddle in fear of an implacable, half-living enemy against which there is no remedy. (As I write, some three-quarters of Americans are under stay-at-home orders; by the time you read these words, the lockdown may be national in scope—or it may be winding down.)

COVID-19 sickens some, kills others, and strikes yet others only glancing blows for reasons we are barely beginning to understand. The best we can do, for now, is to “hunker down” and hope that the incredibly costly shutdown of our societies will “flatten the curve” enough to stave off the most dire worst-case scenarios: hospitals overwhelmed, the ranks of caregivers decimated, countless victims denied care because of the diminution of resources and the ruthless logic of triage.

Beyond the immediate horrors, hope beckons. Human understanding of biology has never been more powerful. We have reason for confidence that soon—maybe in months, maybe in a year or two—science will develop effective treatments and ultimately a vaccine. Until then, we distance. We keep one wary eye on our own well-being and the other on the death toll.

Meanwhile, those among us who are secular humanists recognize that the one thing that can never, ever help is prayer.

In his column in this issue, “A Letter to the Future,” Russell Blackford reflects powerfully on the speed with which the pandemic—and our frenzied responses to it—unfolded. Wryly, he notes the impossibility of saying anything meaningful about a future transforming this rapidly in a bimonthly publication that demands contributors’ words at least two months before you read them.

In her column, “The Picnic Is Over,” Ophelia Benson emphasizes the pandemic’s impact on millions whose privileged social and historical positions encouraged smug confidence that no such thing could ever befall them: “We’ve had decade after decade with no global wars or pandemics, only localized wars and epidemics we could register from a distance. That distance is over.”

Following Blackford’s lead, I won’t presume to guess what lies ahead for us. But perhaps I can isolate some areas that may merit secular humanists’ scrutiny as our crisis unfolds. One concerns the future of religious belief and expression in the United States. Mere weeks before the pandemic’s scope became clear, the Barna Group released a new study. (Though an evangelical Christian organization, Barna’s work tracking religion in American life is usually reliable.) The study found that the number of practicing American Christians has dropped precipitously: from 45 percent in 2000 to a mere 25 percent today. Of those who fell away, about half became non-practicing Christians; the other half abandoned Christianity altogether. Here, presumably, we see a consequence of the famous “Rise of the Nones” and of the long-delayed secularization of American society. Belatedly, the United States has begun to follow its peer advanced countries toward a post-Christian future.

All that was pre-COVID-19.

What might secular people expect from this trend now?

Optimists might hope the pandemic could lead millions to a decisive break with religion. That quarter of Americans who remain churchgoing, practicing Christians will now face weeks, perhaps months, cut off from church services and other in-person religious gatherings. Without the support that communal repetition brings, will churchgoing become even less central to their identities? Will even more jettison religion from their lives?

Pessimists might fear that the pendulum of secularization will reverse its course. Perhaps the pandemic will usher in a deep resurgence in formal religious practice. Might the pandemic’s trauma even trigger a third Great Awakening, a wholesale recrudescence of popular piety to sweep the country much as the coronavirus did? In a March 26 Wall Street Journal commentary, Christian philosopher Robert Nicholson suggested just that. “The pandemic has remade everyday life and wrecked the global economy in a way that feels apocalyptic,” he observed. But “cataclysms need not mark the end. They are a call for repentance and revival. … Great struggle can produce great clarity.”1

Then again, confronting harrowing existential dread and unprecedented economic dislocation, unchurched Americans may turn not toward organized religion but to a more amorphous spirituality. If so, we may be in for a metaphysical free-for-all on a scale we haven’t seen since the Beatles went to India.

Writing in early April, it’s far too early to guess which way this trend may lurch. But it’s fair to say that the pandemic will profoundly influence the direction of American piety—and of American irreligion—in ways that will be very much worth watching.

About the Cover Feature …

This issue of Free Inquiry surveys a variety of existential threats facing humanity: overpopulation, climate change, and even the way the internet is reshaping our minds. The topic was selected almost a year ago; our current situation requires that we distinguish these as medium-term threats. But threats they remain. Even as the pandemic consumes our near-term attention, I think it is beneficial to ensure we not lose sight of these longer-term hazards.

Longtime readers of the magazine will know that I’ve grown quite pessimistic about two of those hazards. In my view, humanity’s failure to engage seriously with the overpopulation crisis during the 1970s and 1980s allowed human numbers to swell so prodigiously that an effective response to human-caused climate change is now almost surely infeasible. (See my review of David Wallace-Wells’s The Uninhabitable Earth: Life after Warming, October/November 2019.) In this, I respectfully disagree with columnist and Center for Inquiry board member Barry A. Kosmin, who offers a more optimistic take in “The Rationalist Case for Rejecting Doomsday Predictions,” his column in this issue. In his view, population doomsayers such as Thomas Malthus and Paul Ehrlich were conclusively proven wrong. Of course, it is true that many of Ehrlich’s terrifying near-term predictions did not pan out, in large part because of technological advances. Nonetheless, if Ehrlich got the details wrong, I suspect that he—and Malthus too—were right about the broad strokes. Infinite growth upon a finite globe is irrational and unsustainable. Technological legerdemain may forestall the inevitable reckoning. With luck, it may do so repeatedly. Yet sooner or later the consequences of ever-swelling consumption and emissions must outrun our cleverness.

Perhaps they already have.

Consider the Green Revolution that forestalled the mass starvation Ehrlich predicted in his 1968 book The Population Bomb. At that time, Norman Borlaug’s achievement seemed an unalloyed boon—just the sort of “miracle save” that thinkers such as Steven Pinker now urge us to rely on. Yet a half-century later, we can see that the Green Revolution carried a terrible price. It increased farmers’ dependence on mechanical cultivation and chemical fertilizers while it encouraged greater reliance on crop monocultures. The consequences included:

  • Runaway water contamination due to fertilizer runoff; and

  • Heightened CO2 emissions associated with producing and distributing chemical fertilizers and with operating all that motorized farm equipment.

Oh, and if you think COVID-19 is something, wait until some as-yet unknown blight erupts, scything through a genetically bottlenecked staple such as corn or soybeans. To use a phrase resonant in the present pandemic, even the Green Revolution may turn out to have been “a cure worse than the disease.”

On that basis, I’m an admitted pessimist about humanity’s chances of overcoming the threat of climate change, which I (and cover author Kevin Casey) see not as an independent crisis but as a probably irremediable effect of overpopulation.

Yet at the same time, I can’t help hoping that I am wrong and Barry A. Kosmin is right.

Meanwhile, as I note in my introduction to this issue’s cover feature, one unanticipated consequence of the coronavirus pandemic offers a (perhaps fleeting) hope. For years, climate-change activists have issued foredoomed appeals for humanity to cut back on international travel, consume less fossil fuel, and reduce emissions of CO2 and other pollutants. Unexpectedly, COVID-19 has granted their wishes. At least for an interval, the pandemic and the near-universal lockdown it has triggered has managed what seemed impossible: to blunt humanity’s unrelenting assault on nature. The extent to which various microclimates have recovered has been most heartening.

When the pandemic clears, will we hurl ourselves back into business as usual—or, just perhaps, will we teach ourselves to tread more lightly? As cover author Brian T. Watson suggests, “Humbled by this catastrophe, people may possibly see with fresh eyes all the dysfunctional realities in our systems.”

It seems absurd to imagine that the coronavirus pandemic might prove humanity’s last-second reprieve from environmental self-extermination, another “miracle save” in which cornucopians can delight. But if that turns out to be the case, let us hope that our escape from humanity’s next existential threat might be, um, less accidental.

Gender-Neutral Pronoun Update

In “The Tragedy of Singular ‘They,’” my op-ed in the previous issue, I listed some science-fiction novels and other literary works that contained early examples of gender-neutral third-person pronouns. It turns out I missed a big one. Alert reader Dennis Middlebrooks reminded me about A Voyage to Arcturus, published by David Lindsay way back in 1920. This eccentric philosophical novel from the dawn of the genre influenced the science fiction of, among others, C. S. Lewis. It contained a character who, “although clearly a human being, was neither man nor woman, nor anything between the two, but was unmistakably of a third positive sex, which was remarkable to behold and difficult to understand.” Lindsay at once grasped the need for a non-gendered pronoun: ae/aer. Examples include “Ae was consumed by the grief of a lover eternally separated from the loved one.” and “Leehallfae (the phaen, or non-gendered creature) pressed a hand to aer heart.”

Lindsay’s work appears to stand as the first coining of a gender-neutral pronoun family motivated not by a desire to correct a lacuna in English grammar but by the need to refer more respectfully to the gender-fluid.



  1. Robert Nicholson, “A Coronavirus Great Awakening?” The Wall Street Journal, March 26, 2020.

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).