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Bravo! Secularism Growing in the U.S.

Editorial
by Paul Kurtz


The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 22, Number 3.


There has been a significant increase in secularism in the United States in the last decade. This may very well be in response to the high level of religious belief and practice that pervades American life today. In this regard, the United States is an anomaly, at least contrasted with other developed democracies of the world. Among them, the United States has the highest level of religiosity, as expressed in religious identification. American religiosity more resembles a third world undeveloped country in Africa, Asia, and Latin America than an advanced democratic society. (Please see the article by Gregory Paul in this issue.) I am referring here to the incidence of belief in God, heaven and hell, angels and immortality, prayer, miracles, and occult phenomena. By any measure, beliefs and practices in France, Britain, Belgium, Austria, Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands, Japan, and other countries are far more secular than in the United States.

Undoubtedly there are two contending streams of culture in the United States, for, along with conservative morality, religion, and spirituality, there is a liberal secular and scientific culture. The secular stream defends free inquiry, naturalism, democracy, and humanistic values.

It is puzzling that religious belief is so high in the United States, for we are the most advanced scientific-technological power in the world, and we are an open democratic country, a truly universal society, with virtually every ethnic, religious, and racial minority in the world represented. This no doubt is due to the great number of immigrants who have come to these shores seeking freedom and opportunity.

There are various explanations for the inordinately high level of superstitious belief in the United States. Rodger Doyle in this issue attributes this to our earliest Puritan heritage, surely a factor. But there are many other possible explanations. We have never had an established church at the national level—despite strenuous efforts by the Religious Right to declare Christianity or Judeo-Christianity or even monotheism as the "official" religion of the land. As a consequence we have not had a strong anticlerical tradition, as in Europe. The positive aspect is tolerance. We prefer to respect all religions, no matter how wacky or dangerous.

Another explanation for the prevalence of religions is economic: American religious bodies have taken a free market approach. Diverse religious creeds are promoted to consumers, each seeking a new market niche. In his recent book The Encyclopedia of Cults, Sects, and New Religions (2nd ed., Prometheus Books, 2001), James R. Lewis describes over 1,200 such sects, from the Branch Davidians to the Nudist Christian Church of the Blessed Virgin Jesus; no doubt there are many more. On virtually every city street corner one finds churches, mosques, synagogues, temples, and storefront sanctuaries catering to diverse tastes. By contrast, in most other countries there are often at best one, two, or three major religions. In this sense, American religion is unique in being sold supermarket style.

There are no doubt other explanations for the current growth of religion. One is political: the Religious Right has worked hard to elect or appoint conservative or born-again devotees to public office to favor faith-based programs. Also it has used the media-buying radio and television stations and publishing houses-to promulgate its messages. But by and large, until very recently the mass media has not submitted religious claims—as outrageous as some of them are-to critical scrutiny. Popular religious-spiritualist-paranormal films and television programs sell all sorts of quack ideas—from heavenly angels to miraculous healings, reincarnation, and communion with the dead to other spiritual claptrap-with very little, if any, critical dissent (a notable exception being Harvey Weinstein's Miramax Films).
Yet one bright ray of light penetrates the spiritual mush that has engulfed us: there has been a rather dramatic growth of a secular opposition in the United States. Evidence for this recent development is the survey published by the Graduate Center of the City University
of New York American Religious Identification Survey, 2001, by Barry A. Kosmin, Egon Mayer, and Ariela Keysar. This study finds a significant increase in the number of adult Americans who profess no religion. Today there are 29.4 million American adults who have no religious identification—an increase since 1990 from 8.16 percent to 14.17 percent. Moreover, the number of people who reside in a household whose members do not belong to a religious organization has likewise increased, from 46 percent in 1990 to 54 percent today.

It must be granted that a preponderance of the public (if often only nominally) still self-identifies as Christian-77 percent in 2001, in comparison with 86.7 percent in 1990. Yet here, too, this is a 9 percent decline. Today those with no religion are the third-largest minority, after Roman Catholics (50.9 million) and Baptists (33.8 million).

In their introduction to their significant survey, the authors observe:

. . . often lost amidst the mesmerizing tapestry of faith groups that comprise the American population is also a vast and growing population of those without faith. They adhere to no creed nor choose to affiliate with any religious community.
. . . The pattern emerging from the present study is completely consistent with similar secularizing trends in other Western democratic societies (p. 5).

Another interesting recent Gallup poll (2001) concerns rather dramatic changes over the past two decades in beliefs about the Bible. Of significance to readers of Free Inquiry magazine is the fact that 20 percent of the American public now consider the Bible to be a book of fables and legends, in comparison with 11 percent in 1981 (a year after Free Inquiry was founded). Moreover, belief that the Bible is "the actual word of God" declined from 65 percent in 1963 and 37 percent in 1981 to 27 percent in 2001, a rather strong trend, more in line with European belief.

Gallup Poll 2001

In 1980 we issued A Secular Humanist Declaration, calling for free inquiry into the claims of the Bible. We surely are not taking credit for these newer trends, but we do believe that we have had a modest impact on the shift in American public opinion. Since that time the Jesus Seminar and many major books and articles have focused considerable attention on biblical criticism, demonstrating the fragmentary character of the historical record supporting Old and New Testament claims. This has led to an increase in skepticism.

Given the intense conflicts between contending fundamentalist dogmatic claims in the world today, many people have grown exasperated with policies formulated "in the name of God." They have asked for concrete secular, political, and ethical alternatives to resolve these conflicts. Here secularism has an important role to play. For it can show that it is possible to lead the good life, be a good citizen, and display exemplary moral conduct without benefit of religion or clergy. Indeed, contemporary secular European societies enjoy high standards of living and education, and they suffer less violence, addictive behavior, repression, or tyranny than religious societies. We hope the secular trends now emerging in the United States will continue to grow. This is the vision and the call of secular humanism—to demonstrate to everyone the positive reach of humanist values as an alternative to God-intoxicated theologies and the importance of keeping alive reason rather than faith.

It is difficult in a quarterly publication such as Free Inquiry to comment on every issue that emerges in the passing parade of news events, but some brief comments are in order as they relate to the main theme of this magazine, that one can be moral without belief in God, and indeed that fanatic religion is often wicked and harmful. The recent child sex-abuse and pederasty scandals concerning priests and bishops in the Roman Catholic Church are hardly evidence for the superior morality of supernatural religion that we hear about.

Again, the opposition to voluntary euthanasia in Oregon by Attorney General Ashcroft, supported by Protestant fundamentalists and Roman Catholic conservatives, suggests an insensitivity and lack of compassion for terminally ill patients desperately wishing to die. Thus, in spite of the approval of the electorate in Oregon, its enlightened and humane new assisted-suicide law had not been implemented, and is in the courts. The movement for euthanasia is a long-standing interest of secular humanists. We are pleased to see that a new law was finally enacted in the Netherlands after two decades of practice, in which the Dutch have allowed or assisted terminally ill patients wishing to die to do so. Similar campaigns are underway in France, Belgium, Britain, Austria, and other countries, which are considering new legislation to legalize, or at least decriminalize, assisted suicide and euthanasia. A key case was recently tested in the English courts, resulting in a decision that allowed beneficent euthanasia to occur. Similarly, the opposition to cloning in the United States on "moral grounds" is supported by a curious metaphysical and theological notion: the proposition that a cell that divides is a person, and that therefore is off limits to scientific research—even though possibly enormous positive therapeutic benefit may result. Allowing a doctrine of faith to decide a key scientific issue again demonstrates the egregious error of permitting religion, on alleged moral grounds, to censor science.

It is clear that those of us who believe in a secular society need constantly to argue against the intrusion of religion in all areas of life, and to ask for some form of secular liberation for science, morality, politics, and human behavior.


Paul Kurtz is editor-in-chief of Free Inquiry and professor emeritus of philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo.


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