I have long been interested in what you might call the “sociology” of religion–the effects of various forms of religiosity on the body politic, especially when that body politic is diverse. That interest led to the publication of my first sabbatical project–God and Country: America in Red and Blue, back in 2007. (I think Baylor University Press still publishes it.)
The conundrum, of course, is that certain aspects of religious devotion can be very positive–especially the support offered by religious communities. Those studies showing that religious folks were healthier or happier or whatever weren’t wrong, but the value was the existence of that supportive network, not a direct line to deity.
Other aspects of religiosity are negative–especially fundamentalist belief systems. Our current culture wars come courtesy of people who act on their belief that their God wants everyone to behave in a certain way, and those who pander to them. (“Live and let live” is simply inconceivable to folks who talk to God….)
Scholars tell us that the growing secularization of America has been accompanied by a loss of community and an epidemic of loneliness, which is certainly troubling, so I was very interested in this article focusing on the positives of secularization.
It began with the facts:
Last week, Gallup released new data showing that standard Christian beliefs are at all-time lows. Back in 2001, 90% of Americans believed in God; that figure is now down to 74%. Belief in heaven has gone from 83% down to 67%; belief in hell from 71% down to 59%; belief in angels from 79% down to 69%; belief in the devil from 68% down to 58%.
These declines in personal belief are tracking with church attendance, which is at an all-time low (even when accounting for the pandemic’s social distancing). Religious wedding ceremonies are similarly at an all-time low, as the percentage of Americans claiming to have no religion has hit an all-time high.
The author acknowledged that weakening of religion meant the loss of strong congregational communities and the “comfort of spiritual solace and the power of religiously inspired charitable works.” Nevertheless, he insisted that it is good news for democracy.
When secularization occurs naturally within free societies and people simply stop being religious of their own volition, such a change comes with many positive correlates — not least healthier democratic values and institutions…
Democracy requires citizen participation.
On that front, atheists and agnostics stand out. When it comes to attending political meetings, protests and marches, putting up political lawn signs, donating to candidates, working for candidates or contacting elected officials, the godless are among the most active and engaged. Americans who are affirmatively secular in their orientation — atheists, agnostics, humanists, freethinkers — are more likely to vote in elections than their religious peers.
Another crucial pillar of democracy is tolerance, the acceptance of people who are different from us, or behave and believe differently. In a diverse and pluralistic nation such as ours, civic tolerance of difference is essential. In study after study, nonreligious people are found to be much more tolerant than religious people.
Ironically, atheists are far more accepting and tolerant of religious people than religious people are of them.
What about information? Democratic self-government requires an informed citizenry–and these days, that means citizens who are able to separate the wheat of reality from the chaff of misinformation.
Research shows that secular people are on average more analytically adept than religious people. Religiosity, especially strong religiosity, is significantly correlated with greater acceptance of fake news.
The very first sentence of the U.S. Constitution’s very First Amendment states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This fundamental principle of our democracy, which bars the government from either promoting or persecuting religion, is essential in a society that contains millions of people with multiple religious faiths, and no religious faith at all. In recent years, the U.S. Supreme Court has shown a willingness to bulldoze this safeguard, threatening one of the founding premises of our nation.
The best hope for our democracy may be the growing number of secular Americans, who are by far the most supportive of repairing this principle.
Secular Americans, and the many Americans who belong to less dogmatic, more inclusive religious denominations, need to attend to the loss of community, the loss of the comfort that comes from being a valued part of something larger than family or clan. It’s notable that some atheist/humanist groups have regular Sunday meetings, to supply that very human need for companionship and fellowship.
Meanwhile, we should celebrate the waning belief that your God is the only “right” God, and He (always a He) wants you to impose “his” will on everyone else.Comments