Friday, October 05, 2007

The rise of a post-Christian America.

This blog has long been arguing that the Religious Right has destroyed the credibility of religion. Now it is no secret that I no more believe in a supernatural being than I believe in the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus or “good government”. There are just some things that really stretch credibility.

I have said that there has been a marked shift in American attitudes toward religion that has come about in the last four to eight years. The Christian Right has so tied themselves to Bush’s apron strings that when the apron got tarnished so did they. But then the Bush years wouldn’t have been possible without them. They aren’t exactly innocent victims of the Bush magic. They were willing accomplices.

I have noticed a much larger percentage of young people who self identify as non-believers. And I have also seen other non-believers becoming far more militant and vocal in their disgust at what the Religious Right has done to the United States. I have previously mentioned a couple of opinion polls that seemed to verify the shift in views and I said that the best seller status of numerous books debunking a deity was indicative of this new found skepticism among Americans.

And now one of the major religious polling organizations, The Barna Group, has confirmed that Christianity is in crisis in George Bush’s America. It has lost its credibility especially among the young. Fundamentalism wanted a culture war and religion appears to be one of the casualties.

The Barna Group says:
that 16- to 29-year-olds exhibit a greater degree of criticism toward Christianity than did previous generations when they were at the same stage of life. In fact, in just a decade, many of the Barna measures of the Christian image have shifted substantially downward, fueled in part by a growing sense of disengagement and disillusionment among young people. For instance, a decade ago the vast majority of Americans outside the Christian faith, including young people, felt favorably toward Christianity’s role in society. Currently, however, just 16% of non-Christians in their late teens and twenties said they have a "good impression" of Christianity.

If religion in general was badly hit in this survey it was evangelicalism that suffered the most. According to their most recent study only 3% of “non-believers” in this age group “express favorable views of evangelicals”. In comparison a few years ago 25% of them had favorable views. The generation that has entered adulthood in the last five years is not only more negative about religion but especially negative about evangelicalism.

Among young non-believers, 87% said they found Christianity judgmental while 85% said it was hypocritical and 75% said it was too political. Of course this was among non-believers. The bad news for the gospel is that young Christians were almost as negative about their own faith.

Even among young Christians, many of the negative images generated significant traction. Half of young churchgoers said they perceive Christianity to be judgmental, hypocritical, and too political. One-third said it was old-fashioned and out of touch with reality.

And one major reason for this negativity is the moralistic campaigns that have scapegoated gay people. The survey says “a new image” has “steadily growing in prominence over the last decade. Today, the most common perception is that present-day Christianity is ‘anti-homosexual.’” This view was held by 91% of the non-believers and by “80% of young churchgoers” And this will send Fred Phelps and James Dobson up the wall: “As the research probed this perception, non-Christians and Christians explained that beyond their recognition that Christians oppose homosexuality, they believe that Christians show excessive contempt and unloving attitudes towards gays and lesbians.”
Young people today, even Christians, frequently told the survey that Christianity today is no longer what it was supposed to be. They say it changed and changed for the worse. And one result of this is a large increase in the numbers of people who are not Christians. Simply put, each new generation has a larger share of people who are not Christians (that is, atheists, agnostics, people associated with another faith, or those who have essentially no faith orientation). The new book refers to this group as "outsiders" because they are describing what Christianity looks like from an outsider’s perspective. Among adults over the age of 40, only about one-quarter qualify as outsiders, while among the 16 to 29 segment, two-fifths are outsiders. This represents a significant migration away from the dominant role that Christianity has had in America.
And remember that the people who did the survey are evangelical Christians. They warn their fellow believers “this is not a passing fad wherein young people will become ‘more Christian’ as they grow up.” They say a “fundamental recalibration is occurring within the spiritual allegiance of America’s upcoming generations.” Hey, I’ve been saying that for a couple of years now.

It is one thing to know what is happening and entirely another to know what it means. And what is means is often more important than what is happening. I can only offer a thesis at this point. This information may well be an indication that the United States is about to enter the post-Christian phrase of intellectual development that has already dominated every Western nation except the United States.

No other developed nation in the world is so besotted with religion as is the United States. Even the English-speaking West is has not been Christian, in any meaningful sense of the word, for decades. And what Christians they do have tend not to be Biblical literalists or advocates of some form of theocracy.

One reason that is often posited for why other former Christian nations abandoned their faith in practice is that they had a stronger church/state alliance. In the United States religion was not tied to politics, until recently, and thus religion didn’t suffer a dip in its reputation when the state mechanism failed . If this argument is true, and it is a rather old one, then we end up back at the point where the Republicans and the Evangelicals appear to have been involved in a mutual suicide pack. The Christians discredited the Republican Party and the Republican Party discredited the Christians.

If the number of self-identified non-believers continues to increase as it has this is a problem for Christianity. The reality is that religion in America relied heavily on group pressure and social norms. People rarely embraced religion because they were intellectually convinced it was rational. They embraced religion because they were pushed into it or merely following the crowd. Most religionists embraced theism merely because everyone else did.

If fewer and fewer people embrace religion that gives others permission to reject it as well. The fervent religious nature of Hispanics is well known, but what is not so well known is that many of them dramatically change their religious inclinations upon arrival in the United States. The New York Times reported, “that increasing percentages of Hispanics are abandoning church, suggesting to researchers that along with assimilation comes a measure of secularization.”

One sociologist said that when immigrants come to the U.S. they “have the freedom to create [their] own identity.” And about one in ten of them now say they are without faith. Yet two-thirds of the new non-believers say they previously were religious. And even those who still cling to a faith have abandoned church to a much larger extent than before. In the U.S. the pressure to be religious was less than in their home countries in Central or South America.

The same process is happening with the young in America. As more and more announce their disbelief it gives others permission to do so as well. With the social pressure broken disbelief is bound to continue. And as people react to the disgusting displays of theocratic power-lust by fanatical fundamentalists the reaction against religion will continue. The reality is that the Moral Majoritarians did themselves in.

Certainly the atrocities of 9/11 showed people that religious fanaticism can be deadly. General speaking American religion has been relatively peaceful. Major incidents of religiously motivated bloodshed have been rare in America. We had the Salem witch trials, the Mountain Meadows Massacre and the Jonestown suicide cult. (What happened at Waco was more the fanaticism of government and the inept control of Janet Reno than it was religion to blame.) Europeans however, live with hundreds of years of religiously motivated killing.

Americans were used to having a more benign religion. So when religiously-motivated extremists killed 3,000 people on 9/11 it was rather shocking to many Americans. That atrocity gave them permission to reconsider the role of religion in the modern world. And along the way American fundamentalists have encouraged that thought process, although inadvertently. Their ability to come across like the mad mullahs of Islam has only caused more people to see Christianity as potentially as lethal as Islam -- historically it was just as lethal, if not more so. The idea that religion is inherently benign died for many Americans on 9/11.

Another good thing to consider is that 9/11, and continuing problems with Islamic terrorists, is doing for Islam what theocrats have done for Christianity. The number of former Muslims willing to denounce Islam has grown. And support for fundamentalist views of Islam has started to wane even in Islamic nations. The Pew Global Attitudes survey says:
Concerns over Islamic extremism... are shared to a considerable degree by the publics in several predominantly Muslim nations surveyed. Nearly three-quarters of Moroccans and roughly half of those in Pakistan, Turkey and Indonesia see Islamic extremism as a threat to their countries. At the same time, most Muslim publics are expressing less support for terrorism than in the past. Confidence in Osama bin Laden has declined markedly in some countries and fewer believe suicide bombings that target civilians are justified in the defense of Islam. The polling also finds that in most majority-Muslim countries surveyed, support for suicide bombings and other acts of violence in defense of Islam has declined significantly. In Turkey, Morocco and Indonesia, 15% or fewer now say such actions are justifiable. In Pakistan, only one-in-four now take that view (25%), a sharp drop from 41% in March 2004. In Lebanon, 39% now regard acts of terrorism as often or sometimes justified, again a sharp drop from the 73% who shared that view in 2002. A notable exception to this trend is Jordan, where a majority (57%) now says suicide bombings and other violent actions are justifiable in defense of Islam.
Woman in particular have been the victims of Islamic extremism and thus it is no coincidence that women are among the most vocal critics of Islam today. I could name Marina Mahathir, Homa Darabi, Wafa Sultan and Ayaan Hirsi Ali as prominent examples. The rise of blogs within Islamic nations has given many people there the ability to question Islam in forums that protect their anonymity. Something which previously had to be done in the West when Christianity was questioned and for similar reasons.

Organizations have been formed to help Muslims reject their religion. Founded by Ehsan Jami, the Committee for Ex-Muslims exists in numerous countries. Founder Jami, “rejected Islam after the attack on the twin towers in 2001.” Jami is a Dutch citizen born to an Islamic family. In Germany the Committee is run by Mina Ahadi, an Iranian and has 400 members. And in England Maryam Namazie is leading the local chapter.

The reality is that the rise of religiously-motivated intolerance and terrorism is forcing rational people, the world over, to reconsider what religious beliefs they do hold. And while fundamentalist forces are still influential it is my opinion that they are losing their grip on their own followers. Their own extremism is creating a world-wide countermovement. The trends will be most prominent in the United States but we will see more and more individuals within Islamic nations and cultures embracing secular, rational values and rejecting the faith of their childhood.

Note: There are some videos from an Islamic secularist conference at TV Liberty. All the videos can be watched here.

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