There is No American Religion

Fresno Bee, July 18, 2021

New poll shows 23% of Fresno County residents don’t affiliate with an organized religion

American religiosity is declining and diversifying. A recent Census of American Religion from the Public Religion Research Institute confirms a trend scholars have noted for decades. There is really no such thing as a typically American experience of religion. And lots of people have rejected organized religion.

This is what religious liberty looks like. In this country, you can change religions, marry someone from a different faith, or simply stop going to church. You can also openly criticize religion without fear of prosecution for blasphemy or apostasy.

Other countries lack this kind of liberty. When the State Department issued its annual report on religious liberty in May, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, “Religious freedom, like every human right, is universal. All people, everywhere, are entitled to it no matter where they live, what they believe, or what they don’t believe.”

Blinken identified Iran, Burma, Russia, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, and China as nations that harass religious minorities and punish religious dissenters. He accused China of committing genocide against its Muslim Uyghur minority.

American religious liberty is a rare and precious thing. But it is also messy and complicated. It means that we lack religious unanimity. It means that quacks can start cults. It means that some people will turn their backs on religion. It means that we all need to work harder to understand each other and the value of our freedom.

This is not good news for Christian nationalists who want the U.S. to be a Christian nation. Of course, the idea is problematic. Christianity is a big tent with substantial diversity. This includes many Christians who reject the idea of Christian nationalism.

A widely shared statement from “Christians Against Christian Nationalism” says that Christian nationalism distorts “both the Christian faith and America’s constitutional democracy.” They argue that Christian nationalism is idolatrous. And the First Amendment prohibits the establishment of any religion as the national religion.

Christianity is the identification of 70% of Americans, according to the PRRI Census. But Christianity is complex. It includes Protestants and Catholics, the Orthodox and the Mormons. The census also broke religious affiliation down by racial and ethnic lines, distinguishing, for example, between Black Protestantism, Hispanic Catholicism, and White Evangelical Christianity. One wonders how much there is in common between a white Mormon living in Utah, a Black Baptist living in Georgia, and a Hispanic Catholic living in Fresno.

Furthermore, nearly one in four Americans (23%) is not affiliated with an identifiable religion. Fresno County is typical in this regard with the same percentage of non-affiliated people (23%) as the rest of America. The Central Valley is generally more religious than the rest of California. In San Luis Obispo County, 36% are unaffiliated, for example. California is generally more diverse and less religious than the Midwest or the South.

The unaffiliated are not necessarily atheists. Only 6% of Americans claim to be either atheist or agnostic. Unaffiliated people may be spiritual, but not religious. These folks believe in God or spirits, but are not members of any specific religious community.

One interesting data point is that there are as many atheists and agnostics as there are adherents of all non-Christian faiths combined. Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists each account for 1% of the population. Hindus came in at 0.5% (Sikhs were not accounted for separately).

This census confirms that this is a big country, where people are free to believe whatever they want. But religion cannot be ignored as a social force. There are regional differences. And religious differences track race, ethnicity, and political party affiliation.

This census implies that change will continue. Young Americans are more diverse than older generations. In the 18-29 age cohort, only 54% are Christian, 36% are unaffiliated, with non-Christians making up the rest.

This suggests an optimistic outlook for the future of religious liberty. Young people are exercising their liberty and creating a future that will contain more religious diversity than their grandparents encountered. Young people will need guidance as they re-weave the religious fabric of the nation. They need education about religious diversity and religious liberty. But the youth can also lead the way by showing the rest of us what freedom looks like.

Satanism and QAnon: Playing the Devil’s Advocate

Do our leaders worship Satan? How would we know? And what would that mean?

Fifteen percent of Americans believe Satan worshipers are in charge.  The Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) found this in a recent study about the QAnon conspiracy.  This belief is more prevalent among Republicans: 23% of Republicans claim that “the government, media, and financial worlds in the U.S. are controlled by a group of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who run a global sex trafficking operation.”

I find this hard to believe.  But then again, I find it difficult to believe in Satan at all.  I also think it would be absurd for anyone to worship Satan—both because there is no Satan—and because if he did exist, he would not be worthy of worship. 

The whole thing is a theological, ethical, and sociological mess. 

Perhaps those who say this are actually trolling the researchers.  Do 48 million Americans (that’s 15% of our population), really believe that Satan worshipers are running the country? 

This opens the question of what it means to really believe something.  A related question is about how we could know what anyone really believes.

Let’s begin with the absurdity of Satan.  The most obvious argument against Satan is the existence of a benevolent and all-powerful God.  Satan does appear in the Bible.  God empowers Satan to torment Job, for example.  But would a good God really do this?  Why would a good God create a devil who torments us?

Creative theology attempts to make sense of this and the general “problem of evil.”  One solution is to claim that evil is the absence of good and not the active power of some supernatural being.  Texts that personify evil in Satan must be reinterpreted as allegories or parables.

But lots of Americans appear to have a more literal belief.  The Gallup Poll reports that 61% of Americans believe in the devil.  A survey from the Pew Center found that 58% of Americans believe in Hell.  So maybe it is not surprising, that millions of Americans believe our leaders worship Satan.

Perhaps enlightened theology and secular critiques of religion could help cure QAnon belief.  But some non-religious people (11% according to PRRI) also claim that Satan-worshippers run the country.  A full-fledged atheist who does not think Satan exists could believe, I suppose, that others worship the non-existent devil.  This could be an ad hominem accusation, like making fun of someone by claiming they believe in fairies and leprechauns. 

This leads to questions about the sociology of belief and religious tolerance.  How can we presume to understand what strangers really believe?  Could anyone know that ruling elites worship Satan?  And what would that actually mean?

One rule of thumb is that it is wise to avoiding judging the beliefs of others.  Religious belief is complex, changeable, and internally diverse.  Religious people disagree among themselves.  Many believers are ignorant about or indifferent to the dogmas of their own religion.  We also fail to understand other people’s beliefs.

Satanists even disagree among themselves.  A group calling itself the Satanic Temple advocates empathy, reason, and secular values.  They reject the supernaturalism of another group called the Church of Satan.  The Satanic Temple appears to be Satanism without Satan.

This is probably not what QAnon believers have in mind.  But then again, how do we know what the QAnon-ers really believe about the supposed Satan-worship of ruling elites?  And how would a QAnon-er actually know what the ruling elites really believe?

These vexing questions should encourage us to be cautious and tolerant.  It is difficult for any of us to figure out what we actually believe.  It is presumptuous and rude to claim to know what someone else believes—or to condemn it as evil.  And in the U.S., the First Amendment guarantees our right to believe whatever we want.  Indeed, toleration in the United States appears to extend even to Satan worship.

QAnon will likely fade away as a fever dream of the Trump era.  But the tendency to vilify the beliefs of others will remain.  Part of the cure involves religious liberty and toleration.  Another remedy is to think critically: to play the devil’s advocate in posing critical questions about Satan, God, and what we think we know about religion.

Atheism and Diversity: How Big is the Non-Religious Rainbow?

The growth of non-religion will create a significant source of polarization.  Many Americans are leaving religion behind (as I discussed previously). This will exacerbate social conflict, as we sort ourselves into religious and non-religious camps.  

Consider, for example, polling data that shows that atheists are more likely to get a Covid-19 vaccine than evangelical Christians.  90% of atheists say they will get vaccinated, while only 54% of white evangelicals will do so.

This makes sense: atheists tend to trust science and medicine, while evangelicals do not. A similar result has been found with regard to climate change: atheists tend to be more engaged and alarmed about climate change than Christians who read the Bible literally.

But let’s be careful about overgeneralizing.  Atheism can be as fragmented as the rest of society. Religion also contains a multitude. 

And yet, the tendency to oversimplify is common. Theists sometimes simplistically dismiss atheism as the work of the devil.  Atheists also dismiss theism in simplistic terms.  But when it comes to religion and non-religion, complexity is the rule.  Oversimplification obscures much that is important and interesting. It also prevents us from finding common ground.

Consider a recent skirmish among atheists.  Richard Dawkins, a prominent atheist, posted a tweet appearing to disparage transgender people.  Some atheists were appalled.  The American Humanist Association publicly disavowed Dawkins and retroactively withdrew a “Humanist of the Year” award they gave him in 1996.  Other prominent atheists leapt to Dawkins’ defense including Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Steven Pinker.  This provoked further backlash among atheists, with some accusing contemporary atheism of being a bastion of white male privilege. 

This reminds us that atheism is not a monolith.  Like everyone else, atheists have intersectional identities.  Atheists can be Black or white, straight or gay, trans or cis, rich or poor.  The same is true, of course, for religious people.  Some religions embrace LGBTQ people.  Others do not.  Some religions embrace science, medicine, and Covid-19 vaccines.  Others do not.

Generalizations about religion and non-religion are only vague approximations.  Consider, for example, how atheism is colored by the religion that it rejects.  It makes sense to ask whether a nonbeliever is a Christian atheist, a Muslim atheist, a Sikh atheist, a Jewish atheist, and so on.  Some atheists want to avoid this complexity and state that they do not believe in any God or gods at all.  But the binary logic of God or no God oversimplifies. It also helps to know which God and which tradition.

One could reject Christian or Muslim dogma, for example, while remaining culturally attached to Christianity or Islam.  A culturally Christian atheist could enjoy the hymns and rituals of Christian holidays while also turning to the Bible for spiritual insight.  Or an atheist with Muslim roots could fast during Ramadan.  Things become even more complicated when religious identity is connected to ethnic identity—as in Judaism or in the diverse indigenous religions of the world.

Scholars have also pointed out that self-identification as an atheist depends on social privilege.  Member of racial and ethnic minorities are less likely to publicly identify as atheist.  This is not simply a matter of what people believe.  It is also connected to the social need to be more (or less) closely identify with a religious tradition. White men may find it easier to affirm atheism than Black women or members of native American tribes. 

These issues are intriguing and they will likely become more complicated and intense as non-religion grows.  As more people leave religion behind, the diversity of the non-religious will grow. 

Celebrating diversity among nonbelievers may in turn lead more people to leave religion behind, especially those who self-identify in nontraditional ways.  One worry about this possibility, however, is that it may leave religious congregations more homogeneous than they already are, further increasing polarization. 

Perhaps there will be some convergence among the non-religious.  The fact that 90% of atheists plan to get vaccinated points in that direction.  But despite convergence around science, increasing diversity will pose a challenge for the broad community of non-belief. 

We find ourselves in the middle of an unprecedented experiment in secularization.  Let’s keep our minds and hearts open. Let’s try to resist increased polarization and avoid oversimplifying the complex rainbow of human experience.

Waning Religion and Our Epicurean Moment

Epicurus

Religious membership in the U.S. has dropped below 50% for the first time, according to a recent Gallup Poll.  Some Americans continue to believe in the supernatural.  A 2020 survey indicates that half of Americans believe in ghost and demons.  But it is remarkable that today fewer than half of Americans belong to an organized religion. 

This new data confirms other surveys indicating secularization.  The Pew Center has documented the rapid growth of “the nones” (those who do not claim to belong to a specific religion) and the decline in church attendance. 

Some pundits worry this indicates a cultural malfunction.  Dennis Prager says, “When Judeo-Christian principles are abandoned, evil eventually ensues.”  Shloto Byrnes says that the West is suffering from a “Godless delusion,” arguing that “to be human has meant to be religious throughout history.”  And Shadi Hamid suggests that secularism fuels political extremism. 

These hyperbolic concerns are misguided and misleading.  Many societies have done quite well without Judeo-Christian values.  It is not true that human beings have always been religious in the contemporary sense, or that we need to be.  And rational humanism actually offers an antidote for extremism. 

The Covid-19 crisis provides a great example.  Prayer and miracles will not solve this crisis.  Scientific medicine provides vaccines, prevention protocols, and treatments for infection.  When people get sick these days, they go to the doctor instead of the shaman. 

Scientific naturalism is ubiquitous.  To predict the weather, we consult meteorologists instead of astrologists.  Earthquakes and volcanoes don’t appear to us as the work of mercurial deities who need appeasing.  Reason and humanism provide us with useful advice that improves health and happiness.

And despite what Byrnes says, humanism has a long history.  It made a strong appearance 2,500 years ago in the philosophy of Epicurus.  The Epicurean philosophy aimed to cure the anxiety caused by religious superstition.  Epicurus offered thoroughly naturalistic explanations of earthquakes, lightning, and the like.  The Epicureans taught that happiness was easily obtain by focusing on friendship and virtue in a world emptied of the supernatural. 

The Epicurean philosophy was popular in the ancient world.  But Stoic and Christian authors vilified Epicurean naturalism.  Epicurus’s name was falsely associated with licentiousness and shameless hedonism.  This caricature is unfair to a school that emphasized modesty, frugality, and friendship—and the deliberate avoidance of political extremism.

As a result of persecution, however, few of Epicurus’s original writings exist.  We do know that Epicurus defended an early version of atomism based in a naturalistic view of the world.  His views are remarkably modern. 

Epicurus taught that the cosmos was made up of atoms moving in the void.  He held out the possibility that in the infinite space and time of the universe, there were other worlds that resulted from the same natural processes that produced our world. 

Epicurus said that the soul was merely a combination of certain kinds of atoms.  When the body died, the soul dissipated.  There was no life after death.  If there were gods, they were not concerned about human life.  Religious myths and superstitions caused anxiety by making us worry about the whims of the gods and life after death.  In order to cure that anxiety, a better understanding of nature helps.

Epicureanism also provided an antidote to extremism.  Religious zealots sometimes end up trying to silence the advocates of reasonable naturalism.  They can also fall prey to outrageous conspiracy theories. But rather than engage these zealots in the streets, the Epicureans advised living unobtrusively.  Political tumult results in unhappiness.  The Epicureans tried to avoid that by retreating to private communities, where friendship, reason, and happiness could be cultivated. 

It seems that now is a good time for an Epicurean renewal.  Religion is waning. And while some zealots are succumbing to extremism, most of us are rediscovering the importance of science, reason, and restraint.

The Covid lockdown has also encouraged us to find happiness in simple things.  While extremism and violence has erupted in the streets, we are re-learning the wisdom of living simply and with social distance.  This is an Epicurean moment: a time to rediscover the wisdom of naturalism, a time to turn away from superstition, and a time to cultivate modesty, simplicity, and friendship.

Susan B. Anthony and The Revolution

President Trump pardoned Susan B. Anthony for the crime of voting, commemorating the 100-year anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. Historians have argued that Anthony would have rejected the pardon. She was more interested in voting rights, sex education, and social justice than in the pomp of a presidential pardon.

Anthony is closer in spirit to AOC than to the GOP. She demanded respect for women. She defended voting rights. She practiced civil disobedience. And she had unconventional views of religion.

Anthony was not simply the sweet little old lady we see posing politely in sepia-toned photos. She was a revolutionary and a radical.

Susan B. Anthony

The newspaper she published was called “The Revolution.” Its first issue, from 1868, stated that it would focus on equality for women as well as a revolution in society and in religion. With regard to religion, it advocated for “deeper thought.” It called for “science not superstition,” and “facts not fiction.”

Like Thoreau, she broke the law to make her case. When she was arrested for voting in 1872, Anthony claimed the law punishing her was unjust. She vowed to never pay the fine. She declared in court, “I shall earnestly and persistently continue to urge all women to the practical recognition of the old revolutionary maxim, that resistance to tyranny is obedience to God.”

The motto was a favorite of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. That revolutionary idea places God on the side of liberation. This theology motivated those who called for the abolition of slavery. In fact, Anthony began her career an abolitionist. Her calls for social justice and equality for women continued on the theological path of the anti-slavery movement.

Religious reform was central to the movement for women’s equality. As we reconsider flags and monuments today, it is worth recalling how early suffragettes symbolically rewrote the Declaration of Independence. At the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848, they proclaimed, “we hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal.” To support the idea that men and women were equal, a radical religious claim was introduced: “That woman is man’s equal, was intended to be so by the Creator.”

Anthony’s friend Elizabeth Cady Stanton went so far as to revise the Bible. The “Woman’s Bible” began by declaring that Christianity falsely teaches that “woman was made after man, of man, and for man, an inferior being, subject to man.”

As might be predicted, this effort at religious revolution provoked a backlash in the movement. And although Anthony did not participate in creating the Woman’s Bible, she defended Stanton’s effort. Anthony viewed the Bible merely as a historical document. She said “I think women have just as good a right to interpret and twist the Bible to their own advantage as men always have twisted and turned it to theirs.”

Anthony also connected the suffrage movement to broader movements for social justice. She advocated for labor rights, for fair pay, and for a living wage for women. She pointed out hypocrisy in the lofty moral language of the Founding Fathers, while the U.S. was “founded upon the blood and bones of half a million beings, bought and sold as chattels in the market.”

Despite her work as an abolitionist and her calls for social revolution, Anthony’s work has been criticized by those who think she was not radical enough. Anthony was not as progressive on racial issues as she might have been. She was friendly with Frederick Douglass — who publicly advocated for women’s suffrage. But Angela Davis complains that Anthony “pushed Douglass aside for the sake of recruiting Southern women into the movement for woman’s suffrage.”

This reminds us that no one is perfect. History will judge our failures. But we must do the best we can.

It helps to have the kind of courage, tenacity, and faith of someone like Susan B. Anthony. She understood that the world won’t change unless we demand that it change. She inspires us to think critically about the social and religious conventions of the day. And she reminds us to look beyond petty politics and consider whether God is on the side of oppression or liberation.