Thursday, December 9, 2010

Temper Atheist Optimism? Not This Blogger.

My blogging colleague vjack over at Atheist Revolution is challenging us to be a little less giddy about the rising optimism of Atheists. He writes:
"Religion has been declared dead in America many times before, and it has reemerged each time. ... I do not expect to see the end of Christian privilege in my life time, nor do I expect to live to see religion truly fade into the obscurity it deserves."
He makes a good case that religion will prove its resilience once again by fighting off the rising tide of atheism.

I have to disagree. I'm still retaining my optimism. I think we are at a true tipping point, where a series of changes in society are aligning in unprecedented ways that will cause the rapid demise of Christianity as we know it in America. Like the other "tipping points" in Malcolm Gladwell's book, the result will be cascading change, an accelerating societal upheaval that will move far faster than anyone expects.

What are those changes? What new social forces will converge to make this happen?

The Internet. Never before have young people been exposed to so many ideas from so many sources. In past generations, parents largely controlled their children's access to knowledge, either directly or indirectly by controlling what was taught in schools. Kids had very little access to ideas that were outside of their ethnic group and religion. Radio, TV, newspapers, and libraries were all controlled by the dominant culture: Christians (and mostly white ones).

Today, everyone has access to all sides of every question, and the kids are absorbing it all with vigor. Want to know about Islam? Just google it. Atheism? Google it. Sex? Bertrand Russell? Priest molestation? Pat Robertson's weirdness? It's all there for anyone and everyone. Our kids' spiritual education is no longer our exclusive domain, and the kids are doing what kids do best: absorbing knowledge.

Television and movies. Kids who grew up in the last twenty years were immersed in messages of tolerance and diversity. From Sesame Street to Disney, the message we've sent our kids was clear: be tolerant and accepting of other races, religions and philosophies. And I'd say today's young adults have taken this message to heart. Sure, they're not perfect, but I'd say they are far better than my generation.

Celebrities. When I was growing up, all movie stars were either white Christians, pretended to be, or else they played niche roles. Jews and Hispanics even took "normal" Christian names to hide their ethnic heritage. No actor would have dared to claim identity as an atheist. (John Lennon's atheism was quite scandalous.)

By contrast today you have Madonna, who uses religion as a sort of smorgasbord, picking and choosing what she likes. Catholic, Buddhist, Jewish ... you can never quite figure out what Madonna is from one day to the next. And she's hardly unique; it seems like every celebrity is into something different. Stars go to India to study Buddhism, and they visit the Dali Lama for spiritual guidance, and the next thing you know they've become Scientologists. But best of all, there are megastars like Elton John, Marlon Brando, Bruce Lee (martial arts), and Lance Armstrong (the cyclist) who are outright atheists.

The Atheist "Out" Campaign. This is huge. Atheists used to be an invisible minority. They were either tolerated as eccentrics (such as a college professor like Bertrand Russell), or reviled as borderline criminals. The Atheist Out campaign has made it respectable to be an atheist. And this is greatly amplified by the "Good without God" and other billboards that the Secular Alliance is running.

In other words, today's youth are no longer subjected to a monoculture of Christianity. Where once they had little choice except "go with the flow," today they have real information and real choices. They can learn about anything they want, and if they choose something besides mainstream Christianity, they're not ostracized or ridiculed.

The result is that Christianity has lost its grip on America. It is largely running on the momentum of the older generations. As those people get older and die and the younger generation fills their shoes, the trend will accelerate even more.

So no, I don't believe religion will recover from its recent setbacks in America. I don't believe it will show the resilience it has in the past. There won't be a recovery, just a long, accelerating slide into the minority. And I believe it will happen in my lifetime.

Of course, thanks to science (not religion!), I plan to live to at least 100 years of age. That gives me four or five more decades to prove my point!


  1. Craig,

    Even if Christianity has lost its grip on America (and I don't think it has by a long chalk) beware of wounded beasts, they can be especially dangerous.

  2. Craig, I was wondering this myself a few days ago and I was considering contacting you to ask your opinion. Thanks for writing this article.

  3. You make some excellent points. I hope it happens. I could use some optimism.

  4. I certainly do hope you are right. This is one of those times where I would really love to be wrong about all of it!

  5. I certainly hope you're right. I also think that the internet is a new, powerful factor. However, I'm not sure exactly how it is in the US, but here in Mexico, even when there are a lot of young people with internet access, most of them just use it to watch at stuff that is publicized on the TV... which renders the internet almost useless for them. And sadly, the TV programming here is incredibly religious... there are complete series about catholic saints and that kind of stuff.
    I don't like to be negative, but right now my country seems to be doomed.


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