By James A. Haught | June-July 2013
When I came of age in the 1950s, deep in Appalachia’s Bible Belt, narrow-minded sanctimony prevailed.
It was a crime for stores to open on the Sabbath.
You could be jailed for looking at something akin to a Playboy magazine or a sexy R-rated movie. Even writing about sex was illegal. My town’s righteous mayor sent police to raid bookstores selling “Peyton Place.”
It was a felony to be gay. Homosexuals were sent to prison under biblical-sounding “sodomy” laws. (One I recall killed himself to escape that fate.)
It was unthinkable for an unwed couple to live together — and a single girl who had a baby was disgraced, along with her family.
Blacks were banished from white jobs, neighborhoods and schools. They couldn’t enter white-only hotels, restaurants, theaters or swimming pools. The whole culture branded them inferior.
Jews were excluded from various Christian-only clubs.
A desperate girl who terminated a pregnancy faced prison, along with any doctor who helped her.
It was a crime to buy a cocktail or a lottery ticket. Bootleggers and “numbers” runners were nailed by cops.
Mandatory prayer was imposed on school children each day.
Women weren’t allowed into most jobs. They couldn’t serve on juries. Divorce was hush-hush.
Birth control was illegal in some states, and under-the-counter in mine.
WASPs (white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants) were the only people who mattered — and only staunch churchgoers were deemed respectable.
Evolution drew scant mention in school biology classes, lest it trigger a community uproar.
Looking back, 1950s life now seems unreal, surreal. It’s difficult to remember. America couldn’t possibly have been so priggish and cruel, you think. But it was.
Today, America has been transformed to an astounding degree. Most of those Puritanical taboos and prejudices gradually fled into the shadows. Now, unwed couples live together freely, and many single females bear babies. Sexual magazines and movies are so unfettered they’re practically boring. Gambling ceased being a “sin” and is run by state governments. Women flooded occupations and now earn most college degrees. Prejudice became illegal. Sunday is a whopper shopper day. Gay sex no longer is a crime. School prayer has been banned. Etc.
Why did society evolve? You might say it was because secular humanist values slowly triumphed. Humanists won victory after victory, turning the culture upside down. Bit by bit, religion lost its grip.
Landmark Supreme Court rulings let couples practice birth control in the privacy of their bedrooms — and let black children attend school with whites — and stopped prosecution of writers and photographers who portrayed sex — and allowed women and girls to end pregnancies. The historic civil rights movement toppled this nation’s racial apartheid. Congress finally made equality a national policy. The American Civil Liberties Union prevents fundamentalist politicians from imposing worship through government.
In the 2012 national election, voters in three states approved same-sex marriage — and two states authorized recreational pot-puffing — and several open gays were elected to Congress — and America’s first black president won reaffirmation. A Business Week column called the ballot returns a “liberal landslide.”
Of course, all this progress doesn’t mean that Utopia has arrived. Die-hard evangelicals still try to stigmatize gays, impose prayer in public events, block teaching of evolution, recriminalize abortion, ban sex from television, etc. Battles of the culture war keep occurring.
Humanism means striving to improve people’s lives — and secular means to do so without supernatural religion. Throughout history, secular humanist skeptics have been key figures in struggles for human rights and social justice. Voltaire fought intolerant cruelties of his day. During generations since, unorthodox thinkers crusaded for personal liberties and individual freedoms, while conservatives — especially religious conservatives — resisted each step.
Western society constantly evolves, generally in the direction of more democratic rights. Amid the cacophony of debating groups, freethinking humanists mostly wear the “reformer” label. A few liberal churchgoers also are in the progressive camp, but most churches have defended old moral taboos and narrow prejudices.
Now the good news is that religion is dying in America, as it did in Europe, Canada, Australia, Japan and other advanced democracies. The ratio of secular Americans keeps rising, to 50 million adults and beyond. People who don’t attend church are the surest backers of liberal political and social beliefs — the reform urges. Their steady increase portends more progress ahead.
Looking back over my long life, I see a historic parade of victories for secular humanism. They have made America fairer, kinder, more humane, more honest, more decent. And it will be a blessing if humanists continue winning, onward into the future.
Reprinted with permission from the author.
By James A. Haught
Prometheus Books (30 May 2002)
Stephen Fry on God
Dr. Andrew Murphy – Religion in American Politics
Animated map shows how religion spread around the world
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