I think one of the reasons why so many religious people fear political secularism is because they fear that once you prevent religion from mingling with government, or public institutions like schools, it marks the beginning of the end for religion. And you know what? To a certain degree they're right.
Look at the spectacular secularization of the Western world over the past century or so. Much of Western Europe, Japan, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand are culturally post-religious. That is to say, religious belief and practice plays a very insignificant role in people's everyday lives that in many cases is near invisible.
When I was chatting with Aron Ra the other week, we were talking about how much more motivated atheists seem to be in the South and how northern atheists seem to mostly be apatheists. One of the reasons why is because here in secular New York, we've essentially achieved what secularists are trying to achieve in the South. Religion doesn't matter here. You're very unlikely to get fired from your job over being an atheist, or lose all your friends and have your family disown you. In the South, that is unfortunately all too common. If in 10-15 years attitudes in the South become as friendly towards atheists as it is here in the North, atheists might become apatheists there too.
But religious belief may have to pay the price for this. The more atheists are tolerated, the more there seems to be more atheists. This is due to atheists "coming out of the closet" because of the friendlier environment, but also the friendlier environment might make it easier for theists to deconvert. Once the social pressures and taboos are gone that keep you conforming to the faith, it seems that this has the possibility of opening the floodgates of disbelief.
So then, if you're a person who is alarmed at the rise in non-religiosity and wants to prevent it, then I suppose from a purely strategic tactic, it's in your best interest to foster an environment as hostile to atheists and secularists as much as possible. This is what many religious fundamentalists are trying to do, but in doing so, they also damage the image of religion by making it look more irrational and intolerant, and that might also backfire and lead to more atheists. So tolerance might be the best tactic, and that only seems to grow the numbers of atheists.
But still, many of the fundies march on with their war on secularism and their vain hopes that the West is going to return to traditional Judeo-Christian values full force.
Most atheists and secularists cheered this past week when the new PEW Religious Landscape survey made news showing the increasing secularism and the decreasing levels of religiosity in the US. Between 2007 and 2014, the percentage of Christians in the US decreased from 78.4% to 70.6%. The percentage of "nones" or the religiously unaffiliated, increased from 16.1% to 22.8%. And the number of atheists and agnostics increased from 4% to 7.1% according to the survey.
Nearly every Christian denomination decreased in numbers and the unaffiliated now outnumber the number of Catholics (22.8% compared to 20.8%) making them the second largest identifiable religious affiliation after Protestants, who now are less than half of the population 46.5%.
If you're a secularist like me this news is fucking awesome. It means we're winning, religion is losing, and the tide has clearly turned in our favor. It's felt that way for a while now. I live in a very secular part of the country so my gauge is a bit skewed, but it is very rare for me to meet people who believe in god and who are openly religious about it. It seems as if more and more, religion just isn't visible.
This recent trend towards secularization began in the early nineties, however, it has sped up tremendously in the past 10 years. But now the question sociologists and political scientists will be asking is: why? Why is the US, which for a long time bucked the trend towards secularization in the Western world, starting to rapidly secularize now? I have a feeling that the answer is very complicated. Luckily we have Phil Zuckerman, a professor of sociology at Pitzer College to help make things a little easier. He specializes in secular studies and has written about the subject in great detail. Zuckerman has listed several possible explanations why the US is secularizing today. Here's his explanations of the increased secularism. In no particular order:
Yesterday I went to a discussion group here in New York about secularism and politics led by well known YouTuber Aron Ra, and later I got to go to dinner with him and a few other people. As a self-described antitheist, he's mostly known for being an ardent defender and educator of evolution and critic of the nonsense and deception of religion and creationism. Last March, Aron, along with Matt Dillahunty of the Atheist Experience, and Seth Andrews of the Thinking Atheist podcast did a three city tour of Australia aptly named the Unholy Trinity Tour. Here's Aron's presentation on biblical absurdity:
A lot of interesting topics were discussed at the meeting, including my own pet peeve of libertarian atheists who care more about small government and low taxes, and will often vote republican because of those issues, even though those republicans want to tear down the wall between church and state. I was glad to see Aron is no fan of libertarianism. Another thing we discussed is why the meeting wasn't full for such a small venue. I said it was most likely because New York is such a liberal, secular city, and atheists here don't have to deal with religious fundamentalists like many people in the South do. This makes atheists in New York more like apatheists, who simply don't give a shit about religion and secular issues. Without a common religious threat and with such a hospitable environment to live in, we're just not as motivated as atheists in the Bible belt. But in a weird way, that's a good thing. We've achieved here in New York what atheists in South and the Middle East are trying to achieve: a secular society where you won't get fired for being an atheist, or have your family disown you, and where no one really gives a shit about religion. But that shouldn't mean we get complacent. There are plenty of battles out there to be fought, and our fellow atheists and secularists around the world need our help.
A continuation of Randal Rauser's post about things that keep atheists and Christian theists up at night. See here for my response to the things he thinks keep atheists up at night.
1. If God exists, why isn’t His existence as obvious as the physical world?
He doesn't exist. That's why the physical world shows no trace of objective evidence god exists. But if he does, and sends people to hell for not believing in him, and makes his existence extremely ambiguous, god is a monster. Even if not, why would god make his existence ambiguous if he created us to know him? That makes no sense. So there must be another reason why he created us. Here you can pull any ol' idea out of your ass.
2. Why is there so much pain and suffering?
Because the universe doesn't care about our existence. Things happen by chance and natural processes, all of which are indifferent to our pain, suffering, and existence.
3. Why isn’t there better historical evidence for Jesus and his resurrection?
Because Jesus didn't actually get resurrected, and may not have even existed. The historical record is compatible with this.
4. How can God know the future and there still be free will?
I don't think god knowing the future in and of itself precludes free will. I think free will in and of itself isn't logically supported, and certainly isn't supported by any scientific evidence. Another way to look at this question is if in universe X you are an atheist and go to hell, and if in universe Y you are a Christian and go to heaven, if god chooses to materialize universe X over Y, knowing that this would guarantee you an eternity of suffering, why would he do that, as opposed to just preventing you from existing in the first place?
5. Why are there so many morally questionable things in the Bible about God (Canaanite genocide, etc.)?
Easy. The Bible was written by primitive people who invented god in their own racist, sexist, homophobic, and bloodthirsty image.
6. Why are there so many contradictory religions to my own?
Because all religions are man-made. That's the best explanation of it.
7. The existential hiddenness of God
Best explained by god not existing.
8. The driving out/slaughter of the Canaanites
Mostly likely a made-up narrative to give the early Israelites a tale that can distinguish themselves from the Canaanites, who they branched off of, since there is no evidence to show those conquests actually happened.
9. The immortality of the soul
Doesn't exist. No evidence for it. Based on fantasy and ignorance.
10. The remote possibility that Calvinism might be true.
I've had a few Christians argue with me that Calvinism is the best interpretation of the Bible. Many Calvinists own up to the fact that Yahweh is sort of a prick, and is not omni-benevolent, but he's the boss and that's that. I don't take any serious positions on this. It's all fairy tales to me under the label "religion."
In every case the atheistic answer is the much simpler and more plausible answer.
Here's a list of what Randal Rauser thinks keeps atheists up at night from his blog. Let me provide brief answers.
1. Nobody to thank for all my “blessings” and nobody to blame for the converse.
This is not a problem for the atheist and I've never heard a single one tell me this keeps them up at night. No one is blessed or cursed under atheism. Our fortunes and failings are due to chance, by way of our genetics, our families, our environment, and innumerable other contingent factors. We accept that based on the evidence. We're thankful to the things that have actually mattered in our lives, which in most cases are other human beings.
2. Implications of nihilism.
If you view nihilism as there simply being no objective meaning or purpose to life, then the atheist is fine with that. It's only someone who feels that life is required to have objective meaning or purpose that is bothered by the idea of not having it. That's one of the reasons why religions try to make you emotionally dependent on them. They try to make you feel as if you need these things and then they try to offer you them. I explain this in my religion/heroin analogy. Atheism doesn't imply that there cannot be any meaning at all. Meaning and purpose in life are subjective, and many of us atheists find this a lot more comforting.
3. Failure to rebut moral relativism.
Some atheists are fine with the idea of moral relativism, but those who are not have plenty of moral philosophies to choose from that address the issue. But the question is, what kind of moral relativism are we talking about? Is it cultural relativism? Situational relativism? Even most theists acknowledge situational relativism. Also the Euthyphro dilemma addresses the claim that god gives us objective morality quite well.
4. Classical theism makes the strongest case for (what I would label) objective morality.
If you define objective morality (which Randal didn't do on his post) in such a way that it can only be served by theism, then perhaps. The claim that only theism can make a strong case for objective morality is again challenged by the Euthyphro dilemma: Is something good because god commands it, or does god command it because it's good? The first part makes morality arbitrary, and the latter makes god irrelevant to what's good. The standard response is that god is the good – god is the ontological foundation of goodness because he is intrinsically loving, compassionate and fair, etc. But then we can ask, is god good because he has these properties or are these properties good because god has them? In order to avoid compromising god's sovereignty and admitting that these properties are good independently of god, the theist who wants to hold to the moral argument must say that these traits are good because god has them. But how is love, compassion, fairness or any other positive attribute good only because god has them? They would be good irrespective of god's existence, as would be evident by their effects. The theist would bear the burden of proof to demonstrate that they wouldn't be good without god, which I haven't yet seen anyone successfully achieve. Thus it's clear to me at least that objective moral values - if they exist at all - exist independently of god.
5. Relationship with God is transformative in the life of a believer in ways that the atheist will never experience. One example is the hope believers have in the face of death.
Plenty of false gods and false beliefs transform people in ways a Christian will "never experience." The way belief in god effects you is not an indicator that the god you believe in is real. Hope for an afterlife is just false conciliation, and most atheists reject this belief for exactly that reason (and because there's no good evidence for it). Atheists live in the here and now. We live for this life, not some fairy tale existence promised to come. Belief in an afterlife often devalues this life.
What's one of the most pressing moral issues of our time? I'll give you a hint, it has little to do with religion.
It's rising income inequality.
To get a sense of the problem, let's take a look at some data.
According to a recent Pew finding, income inequality is at its "highest level on record." Basically, over the last 30 years the wealthy keep getting more wealthy, and the middle and lower income classes have either remained flat or have gotten poorer. This is what's increasing the wealth gap.
Since 1983 the wealth of lower income Americans has gotten lower, for middle income Americans it's remained flat, and upper income Americans have doubled their wealth
What economic policies did we begin using 35 years ago? Oh right, reaganomics, also known as supply-side economics, or more colloquially, trickle-down economics. It's the theory that the wealthy are the job creators, and if we only made them more wealthy, they'd have more money to spend and invest, and that will help create jobs and their wealth will "trickle down" into the lower income brackets. Sounds nice on paper, the only problem is that it doesn't work.
I gave $10 recently to assist the relief efforts after the devastating earthquake recently. Large numbers of small donations make a big impact. The way I think of it is like this: if I can waste ten dollars on some watered down drink at some pretentious bar that I got absolutely no pleasure out of, I can spend ten dollars to help those suffering right now from a disaster. Fuck yeah I can. It's the least I can do.
Sometimes it feels as if the society is so polarized that we're unable to set aside our differences and just be people. While I know that a large number of people are not politically, ideologically, and religiously motivated, when we become deeply committed and passionate about a cause, it can make us look at everyone opposed to it as an enemy, unfit for benefiting from the tiniest amount of our money and hard work. This has the ill effects of furthering a divisive society, and turning us into cold-hearted sociopaths.
Nobody passionate about a political, ideological, or religious goal wants to help those who are against them. We don't want our time, energy, and money supporting those who are likely to use it to support goals antithetical to ours. So where do we draw the line? Can a careful balance be found that allows for both the solidarity that a humane society requires, while paying careful attention to where our money and energy goes to, so as to minimize helping those who oppose our views as much as possible?
Welcome to Atheism and the City. This blog is about exploring atheism through contemporary urban living. I live in New York City, the secular metropolis, and I have an avid interest in all things religion, science, philosophy, politics, and economics. I am an atheist, a humanist, a philosopher and a thinker, and the purpose of Atheism and the City is to write about my thoughts and experiences on the subjects and topics that I have a passion for. Feel free to respond to any post whether or not you agree.