Being nontheistic in a culture that is still predominantly religious can be, well, really, really hard. It seems that almost everyday I have some discouraging encounter with popular religiosity. Sometimes it comes from something as simple as reading a news article about a former presidential candidate predicting the “End Times” of “scripture” out of disagreement with some less-than-apocalyptic U.S. foreign policy decision. Other times it comes from meeting people whose understanding of American politics can basically be summarize by this (and who, more disturbingly, are probably registered voters). Or other times it comes from merely logging on Facebook and being bombarded by a slew of “inspirational” memes like this posted by conservative friends and family.
It can all be immensely frustrating and discouraging. As a secular humanist, I believe very deeply that, at this point in history, progress cannot truly be made nor human society be truly advanced until religion becomes an artifact of our past rather than something we practice in everyday life. Encounters like those cited above, however, demonstrate that a high degree of religious delusion still saturates our culture. I’m sure that I am not the only atheist who is depressed by these encounters.
But never fear, fellow humanists, for in this cultural tug-of-war, we are winning.
Below is a list of things I like to remind myself of whenever I am saddened or frustrated by the reality of a religious global and national majority. I hope you too will use it to remind yourself that, for every frustrating online exchange with an apologist, atheists and secular humanists are winning. For every report of dogma-bred terrorism in the Middle East, we are winning. For all the times you’ve held your tongue or turned away or gone to Christmas Mass with your family to be nice, we are winning. The road of change ahead is long and arduous, and there is still much work to be done, but I for one will hold my head high because no matter what, we are still winning. Here’s why.
Reason #1: The current generation is the most secular generation ever.
Let’s talk numbers, specifically 14, 32, and 70. “14” as in the 14% of U.S. adults, according to a recent Pew survey, who do not identify with any religious tradition (up from 8% in 1987). “32” as in the 32% of Millennials (ages 18-29) who make up the highest demographic of these religiously-unaffiliated Americans (followed by only 21% in the 30-49 age group). And, finally, “70” as in the 70% of Millennials who would, according to a recent Gallup poll, vote for a presidential candidate who was openly atheistic.
These numbers tell us a wonderful story about the changing culture we live in. Though American culture is still largely saturated by religion, roughly a seventh of the population has opted-out of creating a religious self-identity. Further and more exciting than this, nearly a third of young people have done the same. This trend has been on the rise for decades and, while the numbers do not necessarily indicate the adoption of an atheistic or secular humanist worldview, they do indicate the movement of an entire population away from religion into other forms of spirituality or self-expression. If this trend continues into the future, as all markers indicate it will, we could soon see a secular majority and eventually the institution of political and social systems that more closely resemble secular humanist principles.
Additionally, that 70% of young people would vote for an atheist shows the open-mindedness of a generation for whom the term “atheist” is not synonymous with “Voldemort”… a step in the right direction indeed. Need more proof? Consider that secularism and atheism are even more successful in many other countries than they are in the U.S. So long as this trend continues, the future of humanity has the potential to look very different from its past. On a similar note…
Reason #2: Religion has become less fundamental.
One of the last books I read as a Christian in the last, desperate throes of trying to hold on to my faith was Rob Bell’s Love Wins. The work is a soothing balm for the Christian soul torn by the sudden realization of its religion’s implications: namely, the eternal torture that awaits the vast majority of human beings. The book, at least when I read it in that state, seemed to center on this question of hell. It talked weakly for a while about possible mistranslation or misunderstanding of the Bible, but soon launched into its largely unsubstantiated refrain of “There probably isn’t a place called hell, and even if there is, it probably isn’t torturous. Just believe in Jesus, practice the good parts of Christianity (like loving your neighbor and whatnot) and the love and glory of God will reign down on you.”
Rob Bell and the sentiment his signature work expresses have come, over time, to represent in my mind the majority of popular Christianity. Not literally– this book upset many, many professing Christians (in fact, I originally tried to track down this book locally before ordering it online, but all of the Christian bookstores in my town had refused to carry such a blasphemous text). Nonetheless, this book is a symbol of the majority of popular Christianity because it is an example of “watered-down” religiosity. Bell’s lack of respect for the traditional tenants of Christianity (again, namely the “God roasts you forever unless you let his son live in your soul chamber” part) made a lot of religious people very angry, but, in truth, they had no right to be because the majority of popular Christianity is watered-down.
Seriously, think about it. Remember that there was a time, and not too long ago, when religion was an absolutely integral part of an individual’s daily life. And not in the “Oh, I pray every chance I get and read my Bible every day” sort of way but in the “I missed church one day and now I’m a social pariah” sort of way.
The most shocking thing about traveling through Europe is all the cathedrals. A favorite memory of mine is standing atop the Castle St. Angelo in Rome and counting the ancient domes of sixteen different cathedrals in our immediate area. Sixteen cathedrals in what may have been a square mile. It really brings home the realization that, for so long, religion was not just an element of life so much as it was life’s operating system. Religion was the phenomenon by which wars were waged, by which artwork and entertainment were commissioned, and by which individuals were inducted into society and, often, violently forced out of it. It was the end-all be-all, the alpha and omega of daily life, which defined social standards and determined who mattered and who didn’t. It could exalt a man to extraordinary power for his ability to analyze Scripture; it could burn a woman at the stake if her neighbor accused her of witchery.
Compare that, if you will, with modern popular Christianity. Modern Christians maybe go to church sometimes, maybe crack the Bible open now and then, maybe pray when something has been weighing especially heavy on their minds. Even if you are a professing Christian, in this day and age, your religious affiliation is little more than a word, a little cross necklace, and the ability to recite John 3:16 and John 17:17. It dictates some political leanings and lets you not think too much about life’s bigger questions, but really, to call oneself a Christian is to stamp an easy, socially acceptable label on one’s forehead and forget about it (except when convenient). It is just one little element of life, just another “About Me” slot to fill in on Facebook. It is Rob Bell’s “let’s all just be nice to each other” message with irrelevant incorporations of God and Jesus, without any context or necessity. Unless you belong to a very strict church a la Westboro Baptist, your modern religiosity is not fundamental to your life, but elemental.
(Note: I deal mostly with Christianity here (specifically my observations of Christianity in America) because I am shamefully unfamiliar with other religions’ non-fundamental practices. However, if I were to guess from various Internet grazings, I would say the same observations could be made in many different countries and of many different religious practices as well. However, this decline in fundamentalism is not across the board, and there are many places in which a society’s majority religion does still control much of the society’s going-ons. Consider the treatment of women in some Islamic-controlled countries, or the social sanction of honor killings in India. Religion is still a life-or-death force in these and other societies, and we should remember this even as the fundamentalism of religion in other areas of the world declines.)
Reason #3: Modern scientific research is focused on fixing the human condition.
The human condition is essentially the situation that we as conscious, self-aware hominids occupy. It is the fabric of our species and the impetus for our asking the “big questions” about life, the universe, and everything. In a nutshell, it is the common, shared realization by human creatures that 1) we don’t know why we’re here, 2) we don’t know where we came from, 3) we don’t know what happens to us when we die, and 4) not knowing all of these things scares the crap out of us.
Given this unfortunate condition we find ourselves in, it is not at all surprising that religion developed as it did. We don’t know why we are here, do we? Well, we must be here to worship Allah. We don’t know where we came from? Of course we do, Jehovah made us of the dust of the ground. What happens to us when we die? We reincarnate into an animal, or a hungry ghost, or a turnip. Obviously.
Religion does wonders to alleviate that fourth element of our condition; it gives us the answers our consciousness intrinsically craves so we need not feel the fear of the unknown. But it has never truly sought to fix our condition because religion doesn’t have the capacity to do that. It is a force of placation, not an instrument of innovation.
Science, on the other hand, per its dependence on naturalism, is one of these instruments of innovation. With appropriate scientific inquiry and observation, human beings for centuries have created infrastructures of knowledge that we use as tools in innovating new technologies. Modernity owes all of its pleasantries (and, surely, many of its woes) to the scientific reinvestment of the Enlightenment, which in turn owes its foundations to the scientific greats of ancient Greece and to every innovator in between.
For much of history, because of the social power of religion, even scientists were bound by the limits of religious beliefs. And I don’t just mean usual-example Galileo here; I also mean folks like Newton and Darwin, who did good science but always with the concerns of religion weighing on their minds and their work. Even in the post-Enlightenment period, science walked for a long while alongside religion, supporting religion where it could, and morphing itself into something more palatable where it couldn’t.
Today, however, science doesn’t seem to concern itself with whether or not it offends religion; today, science is just done. Even though something like evolution is still a controversy in the social sphere, the scientific community has no qualms about it, and does not attempt to prove the theory in light of religious beliefs, but rather just presents it as it is. Thankfully and finally, we live in an age when the inductive discoveries of science do not have to answer to the deductive strongholds of religion.
More than this, we live in a scientific age when the flavor of innovation and discovery is geared towards the improvement of the human condition. In every field, from physics to health sciences, and from communications to engineering and information technology, researchers are working on a variety of projects that are not only discovery-based but results-intensive. Further, these results are ones meant to improve the whole of human life and to answer all those questions we’ve had in our shared condition. The theory of evolution and the continuous discoveries in the field of evolutionary biology help to answer, if only slightly, the question of where we are from. Physics, from the astronomical level to the quantum, is trying to figure out the intricate rules of why it is even possible that we are here. Though we haven’t yet found a solution for death, medical researchers from all field are working to alter the reality of human demise with genius cures for diseases and anti-aging technologies– and already, the projections are optimistic. Additionally, information and communications technologies, like widespread cell and Internet usage, are battling our fear of the unknown with constant access to nearly infinite amounts of information. Social networking or other information sharing sites are increasing a sense of global community and allowing voices to be heard that only a couple decades ago would have been snuffed out by physical or political limitations. This rhetoric of scientific progress and its potential has even been adopted by powerful big-wigs like Bill Gates or the Obama administration, who insist that the future lies in the innovations of the present.
You may be tempted to call me a techno-utopian, and you would be right. Nonetheless, even if you take out all utopianisms, the tone of scientific progress is undoubtedly towards fixing the worse elements of our shared human condition, toward alleviating the pains of conscious beings trapped by unconscious nature, and, ultimately, towards disseminating little by little the unknowns that have haunted our species since our beginning.
Reason #4: Philosophy has been reclaimed from theology.
Religion can have a toxic effect on many layers of our lives and culture. It affects not only what we do and what we believe, but also the ways we think and the underlying philosophies by which we see the world. When someone is indoctrinated within a heavily religious environment, it is not only difficult for her to question or leave the religion that she was raised in, but, for many, it is also difficult to even *think* outside of religion. This is because religion is so pervasive that it not only affects individual beliefs, but also contaminates whole systems of belief.
This in large part explains why the philosophies of the Christian Middle Ages and the Muslim Middle East are so much more theologically-centered than the secular philosophies of the post-Enlightenment period. For people raised in such cultures, consumed by dogmatic religions, one cannot even think outside of religion. Everything that they try to explain about the world or their lives has to be placed beneath the lens of the religious dogma in which they were indoctrinated. In the words of medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas, all other forms of science and inquiry are the mere “handmaidens” of theology. No wonder scientific discovery took so long to flourish in Medieval Europe. Literally a whole ten centuries of potential great thinkers had their minds controlled by viral religious memes that prevented them from thinking in any other way beyond the religious status quo. Philosophy thus became chained to theology.
However, we finally live at an age where we have not only have achieved secular societies and constitutions in the West, but also one in which secular philosophy has been reclaimed from theology. Scientific and philosophical thinkers no longer have to frame every discovery or theory within a narrow religious framework. Instead, ideas and theories can now thrive, not based on whether or not they reinforce previous religious beliefs, but rather by whether or not they are supported by evidence and reason.
When philosophers are not forced into religion and can follow their conclusion wherever evidence and reason lead them, the majority come to the conclusion of atheism and naturalism. In fact, about 70% of modern philosophers are atheist, despite the overwhelming majority of the general population still endorsing theism. This is because critical inquiry, for people informed in the correct disciplines, simply cannot support theistic beliefs. The philosophy of the future (if not already the philosophy of today) will be naturalism and secular humanism. For a further analysis of these trends in professional philosophy, see here.
Reason #5: Secular humanist principles have market appeal.
Maybe I’m a bit of a weirdo, but I love commercials– infomercials, political ads, the previews they play in the theater before the movie starts, all kind of commercials– because they tell me so much about the state of my society. Commercials are unique because they try simultaneously to influence and entertain; they appeal to buyers by using entertainment conventions and general interests to sell products or influence opinion. A commercial is like a nice little sample of real-time social and business interests; each commercial can suggest to you so much about the business that produced it, the audience it is targeting, and the values and systems it is working with to convey its message.
So, when I was YouTubing it up, I came across this ad that appealed to nature, glorified technological innovation, and vowed to try and “make the world a better place.” Wow, the commercial must have been made by a secular humanist organization, right?
Ha, nope. It was an ad for pet food.
The appeals and messages that underly that pet food commercial are becoming more and more common. Maybe you are familiar with the commercialized Intel campaign to support girls’ education? Or how about this commercial for Expedia that self-promotes using an anti-homophobia message?
I don’t especially condone any of the ads or companies mentioned here, but I find them all very interesting because they use tenants of secular humanism as marketing tools. That means these companies see enough of a trend towards humanism in their target audiences that they are using humanist appeals to try to sell their products. Even now, secular humanism is sexy enough to be used as a marketing ploy. It’s values are prominent enough that companies selling pet food, computers, and travel services are using messages of kindness, innovation, and social transformation to market their products.
This is evidence of a cultural shift towards more humanist values. Imagine that these commercials had come about 20 years ago– would they have nearly the same appeal? Advertising is an excellent indicator of a society’s values. Why, for example, do sexist and racist vintage ads make us so uncomfortable? Because they are indicative of a less accepting time when people actually believed these things to the extent that sexism and racism were selling points. There are still a lot of things wrong in advertising today, but as we move into a new era of increased humanism, we can expect to see more and more ads like those mentioned above that celebrate humanist values.
Advertising is just one example, but what it reflects is a broader trend in our social attitudes. Old prejudices and belief systems are simply going to be displaced by a new secular humanist outlook, even in popular culture. Secular humanism will no longer be an obscure term restricted to the ivory towers of academia, but will instead be something understood and embraced by all sectors of society. This new social shift will eventually shape the underlying attitudes we hold in every aspect of life. When voting at the polls, or making a purchase, or choosing a school to send one’s child, secular humanism will be the new framework upon which we base our decisions. That, if nothing else, proves that secular humanism is winning.
Would you have interpreted any of these reasons differently, or included another on this list? If so, please let me know in the comments below!
Onward and upward,