Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Atheism on the upswing in America

These days, as Republicans deliberately push a faith-based agenda and even Democrats fall all over themselves to proclaim their belief in God, is atheism really on the upswing? That's what this columnist at The Washington Post claims:
Some years back Washington Post Magazine ran a then-rare story on a strange and scarce species. A kind of person most Americans are so bigoted against that they refuse to vote for them, marry them, or even allow them into the Boy Scouts. These unusual creatures are American atheists, which the old joke said could all fit into a Manhattan phone booth. That was then, this is now.

As the survey results come in, as the irreligious best-sellers sell, and as the scientific analysis gets published, it is increasingly clear that Western atheism has evolved into a forward-looking movement that has the wind at its back, is behind the success of the best run societies yet seen in human history, and is challenging religion as the better basis of morality. Even in the U.S., a religious anomaly in the Western world, atheists are making major gains while Christianity withers, already having lost the mainstream culture to secularism. The least religious regions of the nation are enjoying superior societal conditions.

Religious conservatives commonly contend that only a transcendent supernatural intelligent designer can provide the absolute and perfect morality and the wisdom necessary to run successful societies – it’s become the de facto position of the GOP. Many religious liberals and atheists agree that both theism and atheism are sufficiently moral and practical to generate similarly successful cultures. This series will show that both views are errant. The science-based evidence leaves no doubt that, although very human in its flaws, democratic atheism is proving superior to faith-based mythical doctrines in practical societal and moral terms.

So Christianity is withering in the United States? I haven't seen much sign of that. Oh, I'd like to believe it,... and that's just why I need to maintain my skepticism.

OK, atheism gets a lot more notice these days. Or does it? Maybe it's just that I frequent atheist and skeptic websites online. In my personal life, I encounter a lot more evangelical Christians than I ever did when I was young. But atheists? Not so much.

Of course, when I grew up, I never knew any other atheists. But I didn't encounter the religious fanatics that I do today, either. Everyone seemed to believe in God, at least nominally, but they pretty well kept it to one hour a week.

After all, the famous Time magazine cover "Is God Dead?" was published in 1966. It's hard to imagine that today, don't you think? God seems to be healthier than ever, at least in America.

Of course, as there was a backlash against that magazine cover, maybe there's been a backlash against all this in-your-face religion, too. And it's true that Europe has become secular surprisingly quickly. But religion has only tightened its grip on America - or at least on American politics.

Note that I'm not sure I like the phrase "democratic atheism," either. Governments should be secular, but not officially atheist. When it comes to religion, governments shouldn't be officially anything.

The Soviet Union was officially atheist, but it wasn't any less faith-based for that. In fact, it was officially atheist simply because religion competed with faith-based communism. It was not democratic, true, but that wouldn't have made it less totalitarian, necessarily. After all, modern democracies are not just "majority rules," but also "minority rights."

My point is that, even as an atheist, I want a secular democracy, not a government pushing atheism. I suspect that this author does, too, but he doesn't make that clear.

Apparently, this column is the first in a series. Well, I acknowledge his point that secular democracies are outperforming on pretty much every metric of a civilized life. Not only are the least religious nations outperforming the most religious, but even in America, the Bible Belt badly lags more secular parts of the country.

And this isn't just in ways you might expect, like education and science, but also in such things as divorce, teen-age pregnancies, and child abuse. As a practical matter, using clear metrics of quality of life, the most religious parts of our country do the worst, not the best.

And yes, polls show that non-belief is growing. But a lot of nonbelievers shy away from that "atheist" label, even in polls. And when it comes to our youth, I've heard that abandoning religion has been more of a backlash from right-wing politics and not so much a turn to rational, evidence-based thinking. I hope that's not true, but what if it is?

That's one of the reasons I like to emphasize the importance of evidence-based thinking over faith-based thinking. There are, after all, liberal churches. And there's plenty of loony pseudoscience on the left, too, not just on the right.

But if you understand the value of evidence-based thinking, you'll probably understand why those things are also wrong. Faith-based thinking is widespread, because it's very easy to believe what we want to believe. Even when you get the right answer, faith-based thinking is the wrong method.

More than atheism per se, that's what we need more Americans to understand and accept. If atheism develops naturally from evidence-based thinking, then we'll be less likely to see errors in other areas. And if not, then we're not going to be gaining much, I suspect.

Well, we'll see. It might be that the hysteria on the Christian right has been from the fear that they're losing. After all, we've seen the exact same thing from the hysteria of white racists - often the very same people - now that we're seeing white births becoming a minority in America. And their surprising hatred of all things European certainly seems to be an interesting clue.

Maybe it really is the last gasp of faith-based thinking in our country. Yeah, and maybe pigs will fly. Heh, heh. OK, I'd like to see it, but I'm going to need more evidence.

Meanwhile, I'm trying to do my part. I'm an atheist because I'm an evidence-based thinker. I don't accept dogma, for good reason. I try to be properly skeptical of things I really want to believe. And I value reason, while recognizing that reason alone is not enough.

Reason requires evidence. Together, although there's no guarantee that you'll be right, you'll have far and away the best chance of that. And when you rely on evidence, you'll always be willing to change your mind when the evidence indicates that you've been wrong.

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