Who Is It Still OK to Hate?
As news of the legal decision came out, she was reminded that atheists/non-believers are still one of the most discriminated-against groups in America: local Christians flooded the facebook and twitter accounts of this 16 year old girl with threats of rape, torture and murder. (See: “Religious Banner Opponent Jessica Ahlquist Stands Tall Despite Threats”)
In a similar vein, across the pond in Great Britain, 17 year old Rhys Morgan posted a relatively benign image of Jesus and Mohammad to support freedom of speech. The response was immediate and similar, with threats of violence from both Christians and Muslims. Unlike Jessica Ahlquist, this time the religious bullies won, with Rhys removing the image after his school threatened Rhys with expulsion.
People today fall on that spectrum too, but overall, the trend toward wider circles of care has been inexorable. (Just compare today with 1950, or 1900, or 1095, or earlier.) It is our great privilege to be participants in this form of social and moral progress – to be able to contribute to this growing love by remembering that all people are brothers and sisters, and acting accordingly.
A Cure for Collective Insanity?
America's Secular Revival
The following was written by Tana Ganeva and is cross-posted from Salon AlterNet, here. For a deeper and broader look at this subject, see Davidson Loher's, "Evidence: The Decline of Christianity in America," James Haught's, "America's Religious Decline and Secular Boom," and the late Michael Spencer's "The Coming Evangelical Collapse".
America's Secular Revival
by Tana Ganeva
Five signs that, despite the GOP's efforts, religion's impact on U.S. politics will soon decline
In between bragging about the number of people they’ve killed and vilifying gay soldiers, the GOP presidential candidates have spent the primaries demonstrating how little they respect the separation of church and state. Michele Bachmann seems to think God is personally invested in her political career. Both she and Rick Perry have ties to Christian Dominionism, a theocratic philosophy that publicly calls for Christian takeover of America’s political and civil institutions. (Even Ron Paul, glorified by civil libertarians for his only two good policy stances — opposition to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and drug prohibition — sputtered about churches when asked during a debate where he’d send a gravely ill man without health insurance.)
GOP pandering to the religious right is just one of those facts of American public life, like climate change denial and creationism in schools, that leave secular Americans lamenting the decline of the country, and of reason and logic. Organized religion’s grasp on the politics and culture of much of Europe has been waning for decades — why can’t we do that here?
But there are signs that American attitudes are changing in ways that may tame religion’s power over political life in the future.
Annie Laurie Gaylor, founder of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, tells AlterNet that she thinks what happened in Europe is (slowly) happening here. While questioning religion remains controversial — Gaylor says the group’s work on church and state issues often elicits hate mail strongly suggesting they move to, you know, Europe — atheism, skepticism and agnosticism are becoming more widely accepted.
“The statistics show there are more of us … If you’re in a room of people you can count on more to agree with non-belief or to be accepting of non-belief,” says Gaylor.
Here are five trends that give hope one day religion will reside in the realm of personal choice and private worship, far away from politics — something like what the Founders intended hundreds of years ago.
1. American religious belief is becoming more fractured
The intrusion of religion into places where it doesn’t belong, like government or public education, naturally requires high levels of organization and control — it’s not something that just happens. So it’s a good sign that even many Americans who maintain a personal religious faith are distancing themselves from heierarchical, top-down religion. Polls have repeatedly shown that even among the devout, emphatic proclamations of faith do not translate into actual churchgoing. In fact, church attendance rates hovered at around 40 percent until pollsters realized there’s a major gap between what Americans tell them about their religious habits and their actual religious habits. Tom Flynn summarizes the over-inflation of U.S. churchgoing and offers more accurate stats:
Americans may believe in a god who sees everything, but they lie about how often they go to church. Since 1939, the Gallup organization has reported that 40 percent of adults attend church weekly. (The most recent figure is 42%.) Gallup’s figure has long attracted skepticism. Were it true, some 73 million people would throng the nation’s houses of worship each week. Even the conservative Washington Times found that “hard to imagine.” New research suggests that there may be only half to two-thirds that many people in the pews.
Americans are also actively shaping their religious beliefs to fit their own values. Profiled in USA Today, religion statistics expert George Barna shares recent findings that show religion is becoming increasingly personal. Believers might drift from faith to faith until they find one that works for them, or cobble together a belief system drawn from many religious traditions. The U.S. is becoming a place of “310 million people with 310 million religions,” Barna is quoted as saying.
2. Non-belief — and acceptance of non-belief — on the rise
Last month was the first time atheists were knocked from the top of America’s most hated list, an honor that now belongs to the Tea Party. While this development may have more to do with the fact that the mainstream media’s love affair with the Tea Party is not shared by most Americans, it also dovetails with increased visibility and acceptance of atheism.
Gaylor tells AlterNet that the FFRF’s membership has never been bigger, and her observation conforms to larger trends. In a 2008 study by Connecticut’s Trinity college, 15 percent of Americans polled as “nones,” a group composed of vehement atheists, agnostics or people without religious affiliation. In 1990s, only 8.1 percent of the U.S. population could be categorized in this way, according to the report.
In an interview on NPR, Blair Scott, founder of the North Alabama Free Thought Association, says he’s noticed people are becoming more and more open-minded about non-belief: “I mean, I’ve been the victim of discrimination and harassment. They are very real, and they are legitimate concerns that people have. But what we’ve seen recently is an increase in the general public’s, maybe not acceptance, but more curiosity of what atheism is and is not.”
Scott also points out that the controversial writing of the New Atheists like Richard Dawkins regularly makes it onto the New York Times bestseller list, which in turn helps popularize atheist arguments and philosophies, even in unexpected places:
I mean, I expect an atheist group in New York, L.A., San Francisco, Seattle, etc. But where we’re seeing them pop up is little places like Jackson, Mississippi; Hattiesburg, Mississippi; Tallahassee, Florida, you know, so these little bitty mid-size and small towns, and that’s an incredible phenomenon because what that means is that these people are finally willing to say, okay, I live in a small town or a midsize city, but you know what, I know there’s others out there like me.
3. Growing numbers of young people who do not identify as religious
America is still a shockingly religious country by Western standards. But a more nuanced breakdown of religious belief tells a different story. Statistically the most devout demographics are middle-aged and older, while young Americans are increasingly likely to shun religious identification, according to professors Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell, writing in the L.A. Times:
As recently as 1990, all but 7 percent of Americans claimed a religious affiliation, a figure that had held constant for decades. Today, 17 percent of Americans say they have no religion, and these new “nones” are very heavily concentrated among Americans who have come of age since 1990. Between 25 percent and 30 percent of twentysomethings today say they have no religious affiliation — roughly four times higher than in any previous generation.
The writers point to a surprising culprit: the powerful religious right movement whose tight grip on American political life has steered the country in an aggressively right-wing direction for decades:
Throughout the 1990s and into the new century, the increasingly prominent association between religion and conservative politics provoked a backlash among moderates and progressives, many of whom had previously considered themselves religious. The fraction of Americans who agreed “strongly” that religious leaders should not try to influence government decisions nearly doubled from 22 percent in 1991 to 38 percent in 2008, and the fraction who insisted that religious leaders should not try to influence how people vote rose to 45 percent from 30%.
This backlash was especially forceful among youth coming of age in the 1990s and just forming their views about religion. Some of that generation, to be sure, held deeply conservative moral and political views, and they felt very comfortable in the ranks of increasingly conservative churchgoers. But a majority of the Millennial generation was liberal on most social issues, and above all, on homosexuality. The fraction of twentysomethings who said that homosexual relations were “always” or “almost always” wrong plummeted from about 75 percent in 1990 to about 40 percent in 2008. (Ironically, in polling, Millennials are actually more uneasy about abortion than their parents.)
4. Hate group that exploited religion to bash gays hemorrhaging funds
As Americans increasingly reject the politics of hate, the right-wing groups that thrive on it are facing tough times.
While many practicing Christians live their faith without trying to impose their values on others, the aggressive Christian extremism of organizations like Focus on the Family has always been charged by the demonization of people who are not like them.
Unfortunately for FOTF, many Americans just don’t hate gay people enough to keep them afloat. In 2008, FOTF had to cut its staff by 18 percent. Last week, FOTF had to do another round of cuts, again citing a drop in donations (though it claims the lower funding is a result of tough economic times). On the issue of gay rights, Focus on the Family CEO Jim Daly said:
“We’re losing on that one, especially among the 20- and 30-somethings: 65 to 70 percent of them favor same-sex marriage,” Daly said in the interview. “I don’t know if that’s going to change with a little more age—demographers would say probably not. We’ve probably lost that.”
It’s important to note that the religious right is still exceptionally powerful, as evidenced by the prominent role right-wing Christianity still plays in American politics. It is a powerful movement with lots of followers, smart P.R. and tons of organizational muscle. But as Sarah Seltzer pointed out, “The Christian right is far from dead, but it’s good to see one of its biggest wedge issues losing its power to wedge.”
5. Getting married by friends
On a lighter note, it looks like increasing numbers of Americans are looking to jettison religion out of their marriages as well. The Washington Post reported last week that more Americans are choosing wedding ceremonies without the trappings of religion, including the clergy. Reporter Michele Boorstein finds a crew of college friends who officiate at each other’s weddings:
Their decision to forgo the more traditional route is a slightly extreme example of a once-quirky trend that is becoming more mainstream. A study last year by TheKnot.com and WeddingChannel.com showed that 31 percent of their users who married in 2010 used a family member or friend as the officiant, up from 29 percent in 2009, the first year of the survey.
Boorstein points out this trend is likely the result of young people’s drift away from traditional expressions of religious faith.
The Evidential Reformation: Humanity Comes of Age
“We will never achieve a just and sustainably lifegiving future on the resources of the existing religious traditions, and we can’t get there without them.” ~ Thomas Berry
The 21st century will be seen historically as humanity’s rite of passage. We’re growing up as a species, going through the very same process we’ve all gone through as we mature. As children we’re guided by beliefs and we think the world was made for us. As adults, we’re guided by knowledge and we live our lives (at least in part) as a contribution to others and the world. Indeed, for healthy adults, self-giving is actually one of life’s greatest satisfactions. As well, most of us needed no special training or incentives to begin questioning the beliefs we were spoon-fed as children – just the usual dose of hormones and peer focus that signals adolescence.
These two transformations, from beliefs to knowledge and from self-focus to contribution, are precisely what we’re now collectively experiencing. I call this species-wide rite of passage the “Evidential Reformation,” and I believe it is destined to transform not only the science-and-religion debate and how religious traditions relate to one another, but, even more importantly, how humans relate to the larger body of life of which we are part and upon which we depend.
Big history, also known as the epic of evolution, is our common creation narrative. It is the first origin story in the history of humanity that is globally produced, derived entirely from evidence, and will soon be taught to high school students around the world (see here, here, and the YouTube clip at the end of this post).
In our “childhood” as a species – as tribes, then villages, then chiefdoms and kingdoms, then city-states and early nations – our main source of guidance came from religious beliefs. Shared allegiance to a particular religion that bridged even ethnic and linguistic differences was a crucial factor in the rise of civilizations across the globe. Consider: our instinctual heritage as social mammals will suffice for fostering cooperation at the scale of a clan. (Biologists call these instinctive forms of cooperation kin selection and reciprocal altruism.) Mutually advantageous trade then facilitated greater circles of cooperation. But for 10,000 or more human beings to be induced to cooperate: for that, you need religion – a singular, shared, unquestioned religion, and probably one that doles out harsh consequences (including ostracism) for apostates.
A multitude of religions arose independently of course, because in any bioregion where fierce competition for territory or resources arose, there would have been a survival advantage to groups that could forge cross-clan alliances for mutual defense. As well, there are two functional issues that all cultures need to address: what’s real and what’s important. (In a six-minute YouTube video based on his book, Religion Is Not About God, philosopher of religion Loyal Rue refers to these two functions as “how things are” and “which things matter.”) These two functional issues will be answered differently based upon where and when you live and upon the happenstance of interpretive imagination of one’s ancestors. Each “wisdom tradition” thus reflects regional collective intelligence encoded mythically. That is, the regional collective intelligence is encoded in pre-scientific language that reflects a people’s daytime and nighttime experience. (See here for a discussion of “Day and Night Language,” which was a central concept in my book, Thank God for Evolution.)
In our “adolescence” as a species (which was a threshold crossed as the modern era swept the globe), we began to question the beliefs, interpretations, and meanings we had inherited. The birth of this new form of collective intelligence, global collective intelligence, occurred when access to powerful new technologies (beginning with the telescope) ramped up our ability to discern how things are. We then faced the frightening truth that ancient understandings were not, in fact, the best maps of what is real. This challenging process is still facing much of the world, as traditional religious beliefs are increasingly found to be obsolete and simply no longer credible when interpreted literally.
Some individuals thrilled to the prospect of participating in this threshold event: of valuing measurable observation, rationality, and collectively encouraged skepticism and testing as the preferred means for discerning what’s real and what’s important. In the 19th century these “natural philosophers” became known as “scientists.”
The two institutions responsible for ensuring that the self-interest of individuals and groups are aligned – namely, governance and religion – were impacted differently by the rise of modern science. Democratic forms of governance were the first to embrace evidence as authoritative. Religions are only now beginning to catch up and to not only experience the terror but also taste the thrill of what the Evidential Reformation offers.
Like any rite of passage, once one voluntarily steps through the threshold there is no integrous and healthy way of going back. So of course there are shrill voices of protest and deep institutional inertia.
But ultimately, this shift will happen. One by one, segment by segment, the great religions of the world will pass through the threshold – else they will wither and the new generations will leave them entirely behind.
What the Evidential Reformation offers for religion is centrally this: Science reveals “God’s word” for humanity today – that is, what’s real and what’s important, or how things are and which things matter – far more accurately than the Bible or Qur’an could ever hope to. And Moses, Jesus, the Apostle Paul, and the Prophet Mohammad would surely be among the first to applaud this trend were they alive today.
Yet, until faith leaders become a whole lot bolder in proclaiming to their flocks the goodness and necessity of this shift, religious people will remain blind and deaf to what God (Reality personified) is revealing today through scientific, historic, and cross-cultural evidence. And that means that God/Reality will continue using the New Atheists to mock unchanging religious beliefs and those who espouse such beliefs.
The main hindrance to religious people wholeheartedly embracing evidence as divine communication – divine guidance (i.e., how Reality reveals itself) – has been what I have long been characterizing as idolatry of the written word (also here). Idolatry of the written word occurred anywhere in the world where ancient oral stories (which surely evolved for millennia as conditions and needs changed) became frozen into unchanging scripture – scripture that was then deemed as the foundational (even the sole) locus for discerning priorities, values, right thinking, and right behavior.
This shift from oral storytelling to unchanging scripture as the way wisdom, morality, and a sense of the sacred (supreme value) is generationally passed forward set the stage (albeit centuries later) for a profound and now exponentially expanding mismatch. This mismatch is between globally shared and empirically tested updates of (once-again) evolving wisdom versus what religious people still preference as “God’s Word”.
Idolatry of the written word has thus led to what could be considered “demonic beliefs.” I do not hesitate to use such harsh language because any and all beliefs that cause good people to do bad things and to vote in evil ways (ways that are shortsighted, self-centered, and harmful to future generations) are demonic. And who among us does not see where such beliefs have led to a kind of collective insanity? The only cure, as far as I can tell, is for religious leaders to accept – indeed, to celebrate – that scientific, historic, and cross-cultural evidence are the actual venues through which Reality/God is speaking and guiding humanity today. Fortunately, this shift is happening rapidly…and seems likely to be fleshed out in just another generation or two.
I do not decry or disvalue this aspect of religious history. Indeed, I accept that idolatry of the written word could not have been avoided. Without the shift to literacy, humanity would never have been able to access the fruits of modernity: the rule of law, exponentially growing knowledge, cumulative technological and medical advances, and a widening sense of one’s “in-group” and compassionate treatment thereof.
Nonetheless, the negative social consequences of this form of idolatry have been quite severe – and threaten to become even more terrifying and destructive as deadly weapons come in ever smaller packages. It is thus time to prophetically speak out against continued favoring of ancient scriptural ‘authority’ over our best collective understandings of facts and values today. Said another way, the Church, currently shipwrecked (also here) on the immovable rock of “biblical authority”, can still be saved, but only by embracing “the authority of evidence”. Reality would have it no other way.
One of the most significant and hopeful insights to emerge from the early days of the Evidential Reformation is a re-envisioning of what “self-interest” really is. Self-interest actually exists at all biological and cultural levels – not just at the obvious, individual level. Indeed, the key to ever-increasing social complexity in the human realm over the past 10,000 years has been the aligning of self-interest at multiple levels. It could even be argued that nothing is more important for ensuring a just and thriving future than aligning the natural self-interest of individuals, corporations, and nation-states with the wellbeing of the body of life as a whole. The outcome of this shift would be to make competition co-operative, self-interest nontoxic, and society wise.
One could thus conclude that humanity’s “Great Work” in the 21st century is to co-create global and bioregional governance such that individuals and groups that benefit the common good benefit themselves, while individuals and groups that disregard or harm the common good are taxed, penalized, or face moral strictures.
By organizing and managing ourselves so that the impact of parts on the whole, for good or ill, are reflected back to the parts, we shall create a system through which individuals, corporations, and nations are incentivized to do what is just and ecological – while simultaneously being incentivized to not do what is unjust or un-ecological. This aligning of self-interest at multiple scales would ensure that what is perceived as the cheaper, easier, more convenient thing to do is also the right thing to do, rather than the harmful thing, as it is now. This re-incentivizing of societal goods and services to comport with human nature (as it really is, not as we wish it would be) would also help all elements of society to access and make decisions based on humanity’s collective intelligence (also here and here).
The promise of the Evidential Reformation, as I see it, is this: As the world’s great religious traditions come to honor and celebrate evidence as divine guidance, and big history as our common creation story, they will begin to wield their moral authority in ways that assist, rather than resist, the passage of our species out of the desert of destructive and unsustainable adolescence and into the promised land of contributing and fulfilled maturity.
Thank God for the New Atheists
I've been thinking, writing, and speaking quite a bit lately about my gratitude for the New Atheists. I see them as playing an indispensible role in helping the religions of the world evolve so that each can bless humanity and the larger body of life, now and into the future. Prophets historically were those who issued a word of warning to their people: "Come into right relationship with Reality—or perish!" Right relationship with reality today requires our species to grow from belief-based to evidence-based guidance and inspiration.
To be clear, I thank God for the New Atheists not because I want everyone to be like them or think like them (though I do wish everyone would value evidence like they do), nor because I consider them perfect vessels of divine wisdom. Rather, I'm grateful to them because of how they are helping religious people (like me!) get real about God, guidance, and good news, and also because of how they are prodding religion and humanity to mature in two absolutely essential ways. (For those interested, I discuss these two ways briefly on this 3 minute YouTube clip, and more thoroughly in this 20 minute sermon.)
Re how I see the New Atheists playing a vital role in the evolution of religion, the resources I particularly recommend are the following text of my sermon on the subject, two online audio recordings (which bookend my nine month cancer saga), and a video of my sermon delivered on August 1, 2010 in Oklahoma City:
SERMON TEXT: Thank God for the New Atheists! (I deliver my sermons extemporaneously, so this is a template, not a word-for-word transcript. I suggest reading this sermon first, before expriencing any of the other resources that follow.) HERE is an edited version of this same sermon, published in the February 2011 issue of Skeptic magazine. And HERE is an even shorter version, published in the December 2010 issue of Australasian Science magazine.
PODCAST: "The New Atheists As God's Prophets" [September 6, 2009] - 25 minute podcast that I recorded just two hours after I learned that I had an especially aggressive form of cancer. I asked myself, 'If I have only one message left to deliver to the world, what would it be?' The answer that came: "Show people how the New Atheists are God's prophets."
SERMON AUDIO: "The New Atheists As God's Prophets?!" [June 6, 2010] - 20 minute recording of a sermon I delivered at People's Church in Ludington, Michigan, just days before learning that my cancer was in remission (after 6 rounds of R-CHOP chemotherapy last fall and having my spleen with large tumor attached surgically removed in February).
SERMON VIDEO: The New Atheists Are God's Prophets: [delivered 8-1-10 at Mayflower UCC in Okhlahoma City, OK]
For those wishing to explore this subject beyond the aforementioned resources:
Three of My Best Sermons [descriptions and audio links to my May 30, June 6, and June 13 sermons]
Evolutionize Your Life: Heaven Is Coming Home to Reality [June 13, 2010]
December 2010 issue Australasian Science Magazine: Thank God for the New Atheists
Idolatry of the Written Word [April 26, 2010]
God Is a Divine Personification, Not a Person [May 28, 2010]
Idolatry of the Written Word [April 24, 2010]
Atheists Promote Bible Reading?! [January 27, 2010]
The Salvation of Religion: From Beliefs to Knowledge [January 28, 2010]