World Reformation To Atheism: Tough Challenges Lie Ahead

Donald A. Collins | 21 April 2015
Church and State

(Credit: Dan Etherington / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0)

Turns out that in his April 14, 2015 Washington Post article, “These are the world’s least religious countries” by Rick Noack some of you, including me may have been startled (and/or delighted or horrified) by his opening paragraphs:

The world’s most populous country is also the globe’s least religious. According to a new study, 90 percent of all Chinese consider themselves to be atheists or not to be religious.

The survey of 65 countries, conducted by Gallup International and the WI Network of Market Research, is based on 63,898 interviews. China tops the list of the world’s least religious nations by far; it’s followed by countries in Europe — about three fourth of all Swedish and Czech also said that they were either atheists or not religious.

I was less delighted with the next paragraph as it implies that atheists are more materialistic than those who believe in God.

“Although China’s society has deep religious traditions, decades of Communist rule have installed a widespread atheistic materialism that still surprises many visitors.”

As Gerald Posner’s book, “God’s Bankers” relates in detail the materialism of the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church seems almost manic! But its leadership under Pius XII and others acted more frightened by “Godless Communism” than Hitler’s National Socialism.

Strenuous efforts are afoot by some groups in the USA and elsewhere to redefine the public perception of atheism, which is a pejorative word to over half of us, maybe not quite like being a racist, but definitely something to be shunned and certainly for most Americans not to be elected to public office.

Jessica Mendoza, a staff writer for the Christian Science Monitor’s April 19th article entitled, “Is America beginning to accept atheists?” offers us a more positive view when she notes that “Religiously unaffiliated populations in the US, may herald the start of a shift in how America perceives those who don’t believe in God.”

She reports that

As the debate around religious freedom heats up across the country, one group has become increasingly central to the conversation: Atheists.

Earlier this month, lawmakers in Madison, Wis. voted to give atheists the same protections for employment, housing, and public accommodations as other groups — making the city the first in the nation to include atheists in its list of protected classes.

The decision, coupled with growing media attention and the rising number of atheists and religiously unaffiliated across the United States, may be a sign of shifting perceptions around those who reject religious beliefs.

Among the least accepted groups in the United States today, atheists have long faced discrimination in politics, military service, and schools, as well as hostility in everyday life.

Eight states have laws that technically prohibit atheists from holding office: Arkansas, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas. A 1961 Supreme Court ruling prevents these laws from being actively enforced, yet there are no openly atheist members of Congress, The Washington Post reported.

In 2013, news magazine The Week published a piece about the US military’s religious requirement for recruits, which classified as a potential risk indicator a “lack or loss of spiritual faith.” While advocates of the policy said it aimed to strengthen emotional well-being among troops, where suicide rates were on the rise, others saw it as discriminatory and unconstitutional, according to the report.

“This country was founded on a very critical principle — the Founding Framers looked at the horrors that occurred throughout history by mixing religion and war, and they said, ‘We’re going to separate church and state,’” Mikey Weinstein, a former Air Force officer and founder and president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, told The Week. “And that means they cannot test for religion in the military.”

Similar debates have played out in other parts of American life: at schools, during child custody battles, in advertising. For the most part, atheists and advocates of secularism have had to fight against a prevailing public perception in which they are seen in a negative light.

“Like a light switch, it’s, ‘You’re immoral, you’re gonna raise evil children, you’re a bad parent,’” Todd Stiefel, a former Catholic who now leads a nationwide campaign called Openly Secular, told CBS News. “They’re questioning your whole existence. It’s painful. It’s discrimination.”

About half of Americans surveyed in a Pew Research Center study said they would be less likely to vote for an atheist candidate for president, versus less than 40 percent who said the same about an adulterous one.

Another report found that nearly half of all Americans would be unhappy if a family member married someone who does not believe in God, while 53 percent said it is necessary to believe in God to be moral.

Overall, 40 percent of Americans viewed atheists negatively, rating them 33 or below on a scale of 1 to 100.

One study in 2011 found that a central motivation driving animosity against atheists is mistrust: “Participants found a description of an untrustworthy person to be more representative of atheists than of Christians, Muslims, gay men, feminists, or Jewish people,” the researchers wrote. “Only people with a proven track record of untrustworthy conduct — rapists — were distrusted to a comparable degree as atheists.”

“We challenge the whole concept that you can’t be good without God,” David Silverman, president of American Atheists, explained to Slate. “We challenge the idea that religion is important in the first place, and that really makes them uncomfortable.”

Things may be starting to change for atheists, however, as the new law in Madison shows.

In March, an avowed atheist spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) for the first time in history, and she urged Republicans to reach out to young people who identify as secular.

“Embrace me,” Jamila Bey, an African American journalist and board member of the group American Atheists, said at the 41st annual CPAC. “Let me vote for GOP candidates.”

Part of the reason for the shift is a decline in religious affiliation in the United States: About 20 percent of the US general public considered themselves religiously unaffiliated in 2012, up from about 15 percent in 2007, according to Pew. About 7 percent of the public said they did not believe in “God or universal spirit.”

It also helps that the rising number of children “growing up godless” has not resulted in moral mayhem. As Phil Zuckerman, professor of sociology and secular studies at Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif., wrote in an op-ed for the LA Times:

Far from being dysfunctional, nihilistic and rudderless without the security and rectitude of religion, secular households provide a sound and solid foundation for children… nonreligious family life is replete with its own sustaining moral values and enriching ethical precepts. Chief among those: rational problem solving, personal autonomy, independence of thought, avoidance of corporal punishment, a spirit of ‘questioning everything’ and, far above all, empathy.

It’s about changing hearts and changing minds,” Openly Secular’s Mr. Stiefel told CBS. “It’s about people realizing that we are somebody you don’t need to fear. We’re somebody you don’t need to distrust.

Even the heavy hand of religious holidays can be altered as WAPO’s Noack notes, “Sweden’s top spot among the world’s least religious nations is astonishing, as well. The Scandinavian country has increasingly become more secular in recent years and observers have noticed a disconnect between the popularity of religious traditions such as Christmas or Easter and true religious commitment.

“Only eight percent of all Swedes regularly attend religious services, according to the Swedish government. Its Web site provides further explanations why the nation is much less religious than its neighbors.”

In short, the numbers of humans who are not infected with religious fantasies would appear to be approaching ONE QUARTER TO ONE THIRD of Earth’s present numbers of about 7 ½ billion. Not being a math whiz, perhaps one of my readers will confirm my guesstimate.

Noack continues:

With its high numbers of atheist citizens, China and Hong Kong appear to be outliers in Asia. Western Europe and Oceania are the only regions where about 50 percent of the population or more either consider themselves to be atheists or not religious, as well.

In Western Europe, the U.K. and the Netherlands top the ranking, followed by Germany, Switzerland, Spain and Austria. In France, about half of the population is not religious or atheist — despite the fact that it is generally considered to be the birthplace of Western secularism.

With 65 percent, Israel has surprisingly many citizens who consider themselves not religious or to be atheists. According to Israeli newspaper Haaretz, atheism is deeply entrenched in the country’s society. Many Jews furthermore practice some religious acts, but consider themselves as secular.

My hope in over-religious USA is that younger Americans will be less religious than their elders — and this, according to this study, seems to be true.

The study also sheds light at other differences in religious habits that are unrelated to national borders. The survey’s authors found that people younger than 34 tend to be more religious than older respondents. This is particularly surprising from a U.S. perspective where an increasing number of younger citizens do not identify with any religion at all — contrary to older Americans.

Education seems to be a factor in weaning worshipers from religion:

The researchers also examined other variables apart from age. “Those without what is considered an education are the most religious but religious people are a majority in all educational levels,” they concluded.

According to their analysis, education plays a smaller role in determining the religiousness of an individual than income. “Among those with a medium high and high income less than 50 percent say they are religious, against 70 percent of those with low, medium low and medium income.”

This observation reflects an earlier study by the Pew Research Center which found that a country’s level of religiosity tracks closely with a nation’s GDP per capita. In other words: Richer countries also tend to be less religious than poorer nations. The only outliers of this observation were China and the United States.

My estimate of the number of non believers above seems about right. “This list of the world’s least religious nations does not indicate a decline of belief. Worldwide, six out of 10 people say that they are religious. Most believers can be found in Africa and the Middle East where eight out of 10 people would consider themselves to be religious, followed by Eastern Europe, America and Asia.”

The article cites a most disturbing opinion that sect numbers aren’t going to decline which seems currently justified by the news from the Middle East.

“With the trend of an increasingly religious youth globally, we can assume that the number of people who consider themselves religious will only continue to increase,” Jean-Marc Leger, president of Win/Gallup International, was quoted as saying by the British Guardian newspaper.

Among the 65 countries surveyed by Gallup International, Thailand led the list of the most religious nations with 94 percent of the population considering itself to be religious. Armenia, Bangladesh, Georgia and Morocco followed Thailand in the ranking.

And underlining the Gallup estimate is the final statement in the article: “Muslims to outnumber Christians in this century”.

So my initial optimism upon reading about China may well be unfounded and there obviously is still a lot of work to do to break the likely upward trend toward being more religious not less.

From a practical standpoint, the sheer rise in human numbers from 7 1/2 billion now to 11 or 12 billion by 2100 suggests less and less good news about the decline in the power of sects. This burgeoning growth in human numbers has already manifested itself in unsustainable conditions for too many of us and will create more discord, tribal hatreds and human tragedies in the years ahead.

Perhaps most disheartening to consider is the fact that this growth will surely lessen the ability of even the most enlightened secular governments to integrate the huge value of accumulated human knowledge into molding the behavior of the flood of new babies, born into circumstances which may make the promised and surely ephemeral services of these aberrant faiths seem desirable to the kind of groups which now so horrify us daily.

In short if all of today’s powerful misguided religious sects were gone, we know that the errors that human flesh is heir to would not be erased, but at least we would not be groping for 72 after death virgins and seeking to find St. Peter at those heavenly pearly gates.

“Egad”, the favorite swear word of comic strip character Major Hoople of “Our Boarding House” and “Out Our Way” of those famous 1930’s cartoons might well apply to my being so backward in NOT knowing the extent of those huge numbers of non believers who exist NOW. Instead of calling their non believer status the beginning of a “Reformation” away from the power exercised by large religious sects to create so many problems perhaps they represent just a situation, which likely could go either way in the future.

In short, the bucolic, lazier pace of times humorously portrayed in Major Amos Hoople’s American boarding house will be long gone.

“Our Boarding House was a long-running, American single-panel cartoon and comic strip created by Gene Ahern in 1921 and syndicated by Newspaper Enterprise Association. Set in a boarding house run by the sensible Mrs. Hoople, it drew humor from the interactions of her grandiose, tall-tale-telling husband, the self-styled Major Hoople, with the rooming-house denizens and his various friends and cronies.”

This classic strip created in 1921 and syndicated until 1984, when the US population grew from 106 million to 235 million (but likely unless we wake up perhaps reaching a billion by 2100) will be long forgotten ancient history in a country lost in a welter of multiculturalism so that too many of our citizens won’t know who is who or what is what, but too many will be convinced they do know! Just as they do now?? Not funny!

Former US Navy officer, banker and venture capitalist, Donald A. Collins, a free lance writer living in Washington, DC., has spent over 40 years working for women’s reproductive health as a board member and/or officer of numerous family planning organizations including Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Guttmacher Institute, Family Health International and Ipas. Yale under graduate, NYU MBA. He is the author of From the Dissident Left: A Collection of Essays 2004-2013.

From the Dissident Left: A Collection of Essays 2004-2013

By Donald A. Collins
Publisher: Church and State Press (July 30, 2014)
Kindle Store

Back in 1991, the NGO Don Collins founded in 1976, International Services Assistance Fund (ISAF), co-produced a TV quality 22-minute film called “Whose Choice?” which Ted Turner arranged to broadcast on September 21, 1992 in prime time on his then independent Turner Broadcast System (TBS). Other outlets such as PBS and several of its affiliates Collins and his colleagues contacted then refused to run it because of its forthright treatment of the abortion issue, arguing for all women’s right to choose not to have a baby. ISAF has made a new edition of that DVD. The purpose for reissuing this 3rd version of “Whose Choice?” was simply to show the historical urgency that attended those times, still blocked and attacked over 40 years after the Roe v Wade decision in 1973. This video is available for public viewing for the first time.

Atheists: Inside the World of Non-Believers (2015)

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