When good things happen, such as the fall of a dictator's totalitarian government, other hopeful possibilities come to mind. Could Iran's theocracy be next? How about Mugabe in Zimbabwe? How about Ratzinger in Vatican City? Yes, the latter would be on a fantasy list of ignoble states I'd love to see go down.
Ingersoll wrote extensively about the decline of religion and predicted it would be rare in the century to come (writing in the final years of the 19th century). His optimism was not prophetic. Philosopher-historian Will Durant half a century later also professed the coming decline of religion, not just within this country but in all Western democracies. Durant saw it as the basic event that would define modern times. Another half century has passed and we are still hip deep in the muck of religious babble, fervor and nastiness.
Is there a freethinker in today's America announcing the end of faith? Well, there is Sam Harris, who wrote a best-seller by this title. And most recently, there is the highly regarded reporter James A. Haught, author of many wonderful books on the hazards of religion (e.g., Holy Horrors, one of my favorites), doing just that - saying in effect that the end is nigh. In Fading Faith: The Rise of the Secular Age, Haught anticipates this consummation devoutedly to be wished. But, is Haught's hopeful vision any more likely to come to pass than the prognostications of the brilliant Ingersoll and the genius Durant?
Well, things look pretty good in Europe, Canada, Australia, Japan and other advanced democracies, where religious affiliation is down to five to ten percent of the populations. Don't you just love it when the pope laments as follows: Europe has developed a culture that, in a manner unknown before now to humanity, excludes God from the public conscience. Go Europe.
Alas, American is another story. We have no fewer than 350,000 churches. Religion takes in $100 billion annually - and it's almost all exempt from taxation. There are rich mega-churches, Rapture books are best-sellers, evolution is controversial and under attack from fundamentalists, televangelists are flourishing in the media and Billy Graham has still not been indicted for fraud. Pentecostals are babbling and evangelicals have taken over the Republican Party.
Where does Haught get off suggesting religion is on the decline?
Well, for starters there are data he offers that suggest we are, albeit slowly, following in Europe's footsteps. Secularism is on the rise, especially among younger age cohorts. Numerous polls document a rise in Nones, respondents who choose none when asked for a religious preference. It seems 45 million U.S. adults (about 15 percent) are what the devout might consider unchurched. Some suggest it's much higher. Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone stated that 40 percent of young Americans answer none in faith surveys.
Also, membership in mainline churches has collapsed. No less than 20 million Americans have quit Catholicism - one-tenth of U.S. adults are ex-Catholics, myself included. (Of course, like everyone else, I started out as an atheist. My parents declared that I was a little Catholic and tried over the course of my first ten years to make me believe it. By eleven, I was convinced they had me confused with someone else.)
There has also been a decline in the power of religions to constrain personal liberties and choices. When I was young, church-sponsored laws and customs and community rituals were far more pervasive than today. Think of Sunday blue laws, censorship of magazines and movies, restaurant and other restrictions on liquor, the limits on access to birth control information and devices, the absence of sex education, the inability of unwed couples to rent a room or buy a home. Recall the role of religion in criminalizing abortion and the damage to the wall separating church and state with the addition of under God to the Pledge of Allegiance. As Haught writes in Fading Faith:
Gradually, decade by decade, religion is moving from the advanced First World to the less-developed Third World. Faith retains enormous power in Muslim lands. Pentecostalism is booming in Africa and South America. Yet the West steadily turns more secular. Arguably, it's one of the biggest news stories during our lives - although most of us are too busy to notice. Durant may have been correct when he wrote that it is the basic event of modern times.
Maybe Ingersoll was right, too, but it's simply taken an extra century to become evident. That would be consistent with his observation in Some Mistakes of Moses:
It is hard for many people to give up the religion in which they were born; to admit that their fathers were utterly mistaken, and that the sacred records of their country are but collections of myths and fables.
To paraphrase the late great comic Lenny Bruce, I think it's about time we gave up religion and tried reason, science and common sense for a change.
POSTSCRIPT: I sent this essay to the TPJ columnist we all know and love, namely, the Science Junkie. I asked for comments. I thought you would enjoy his take on the issues as much as I did.
THE SCIENCE JUNKIE: Very well said. It is very refreshing to read something plausibly hopeful about this declining nation.
One thing I have been worrying about is an imminent takeover by the coalition of right-wing crazies, in which the religious right will play a prominent, perhaps dominant, role. Appalling as it seems, there is a very real possibility that the lunatics will be voted into power in the next election, after which we may well look back on the Bush administration as a bastion of rationality.
There are other hopeful signs besides polls: Just take a look at popular culture through the lens of TV for a few days. All that crassness, violence, exhibitionism, consumerism, and mindless self-indulgence does not bode well for aspiring theocrats. So I say, Bring it on, popular culture! If this is what huge numbers of Americans like to do with their precious spare time, it's hard to see how the religious fanatics are going to get them to take Jesus seriously. Maybe that's where religion really stands: a relatively small group of hard-core zealots propped up by a great majority of hypocritical hedonists who pay lip service to the Lord without having the slightest idea what they're doing just because . . . well, just because that's what they think everyone else expects them to do. Or something like that.
So I find it hard to believe that the frivolous morons who populate TV's vast wasteland can be serious about religion, or anything else for that matter. And that may be a lesser-of-evils blessing, because religion tends to be dangerous in direct proportion to how seriously people take it. Thanks, now I feel better.
Donald B. Ardell is the Well Infidel. He favors evidence over faith, reason over revelation and meaning and purpose over spirituality. His enthusiasm for reason, exuberance and liberty are reflected in his books (14), newsletter (564 editions of a weekly report) and lectures across North America and a dozen other countries. Write Don at firstname.lastname@example.org