16 September 2007

Atheism Is Front Page News

The Denver Post decided to run a story on the growth of atheism in response to religious extremism, both Muslim and Christian, from the Washington Post on the front page of its Sunday edition today. Their fact box was particularly lovely:

28 percent: Atheists with post-graduate degrees or professional training.

15 percent: Non-atheists with post-graduate degrees or professional training.

1.3: Atheists' average number of children.

1.95: Non-atheists' average number of children.

3 percent: Atheists who are "strong Republicans."

16 percent: Non-atheists who are "strong Republicans."

Source: 2005 Baylor University Religion Survey and Barna Group

The fact box does leave out the Barna bombshell that atheists divorce less, while born again Christians divorce more than the general population, but I'm not complaining.

I also like the brief mention about terminology:

The term atheist can imply aggressiveness in disbelief; many who don't believe in God prefer to call themselves humanists, secularists, freethinkers, rationalists or, a more recently coined term, brights.

The term "secular humanist" is both relatively unambiguous, and provides a nutshell description of beliefs and values held by the lion's share of American, European and former Muslim atheists.

I think that the article has its history wrong.

After coming into its own as the next big thing in the Englightenment era (late 18th century), often then under the flag of deism, and then making progress in connection with Darwin's discoveries (the Origin of the Species came out in 1859) and the growth of transcendentalism and Unitarianism in the Northeastern United States (early to mid-19th century), atheism had a long dark era, interrupted a bit by the insanity of warfare in Civil War and World War I.

Religion's triumph over atheism climaxed first in the triumph and subsequent debacle of Prohibition and then again in the McCarthy/Eisenhower era that brought "In God We Trust" to our coins and put God in the Pledge of Allegiance as anti-communist symbols at the dawn of the Cold War, when mainstream protestantism dominated the nation's pulpits.

Atheism started to reinvigorate itself in the general liberal social revolution of the late 1960s and early 1970s, gained ground and motivation in the 1980s in opposition to the rising political power of Christian fundamentalism (the most organized atheists in Colorado are in evangelical tinged Colorado Springs), with help from the likes of Carl Sagan, who helped popularize the factual history of the universe to counter the religious one. Atheism was quite a mature movement by the time 9/11 came along.

The pre-9/11, post 60s trend has been even more dramatic across the pond in the Church of England, where church attendance has fallen about 45% in the last 40 years.

The current Pope in the Catholic church has been remarkably warm towards Islam, making some of the most overt overtures in that direction in recent memory, while remaining constantly wary of secularism which has left him with a hollow empire across Catholic Europe with near universal official membership matched by negligible actual involvement in the church. Some Catholic countries now have less than 10% of its members who actually worship regularly, and the countries which historically established the Lutheran Church are in similar straights.

The long term decline in religious beliefs has as much to do with the rise of science and the declining moral relevance of religion. Also, despite the 9-11 attacks and our bumper crop of fundamentalist preachers, the United States remains one of the most religious countries in the world. Indeed, the polls have shown that the post 9-11 era has turned public opinion increasingly against both atheism and Islam.

The difference between the American situation and the European one is in part that Americans have less tolerance of, and less need for hypocrisy. The First Amendment has spared us an established church and the need for atheism to be an underground movement. There are far fewer people in the United States, on a percentage basis, who are non-religious, but we can afford to be far more public about our beliefs.

As a result, atheism has just recently dared to say its name in England, despite the fact that a non-religious worldview is shared by a huge percentage of the population, while it has been much more bold in the United States, where only 1-2% of the population identifies as atheist and only one in four to one in six are "non-religious" or mostly "secular" in the way they view the world.

1 comment:

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

This post considers whether a very famous religious personage was a closet atheist.