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 among a fantasy list of ignoble states I’d love to see brought 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 “t he 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 he cites data to 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 that 45 million U.S. adults (about 15 percent) are what the devout might consider “unchurched.” Some suggest it’s much higher. Robert Putnam in his book “Bowling Alone” stated that 40 percent of young Americans answer “none” to 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, it was viewed about as credible as Santa Claus.)
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 birth control information and devices, sex education, unwed couples renting a room or co-habitating and so on. Can you imagine what the overwhelming response would have been in the 50’s to legalizing gay marriage, the choice of abortion, despite church outrage. 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 something he observed in his address on “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, common sense and science for a change.