Religious Switching is a Sign of Freedom

Fresno Bee, September 17, 2022

The religious composition of the United States has changed significantly in the past 50 years. A new report from the Pew Research Center predicts that the Christian population will continue to shrink during the next half century. This is what happens in a world of religious liberty.

In 1972, 90% of Americans were Christian. Today only 64% of Americans identify as Christian. If the rate of change remains steady during the next 50 years, Pew predicts that the Christian population will be 46% in 2070.

Those who have left Christianity have mostly turned away from organized religion. Social scientists call this group “the nones.” When asked about their religious affiliation they say “none.” During the past 50 years, the nones increased from 5% in 1972 to around 30% today. If trends remain the same, five decades from now 41% of the population will be nones.

There are also non-Christian religious affiliations: Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, and others. Those folks add up to about 6% of the population today. This combined group of non-Christians may increase to 13% during the next 50 years, if rates remain constant.

The result will likely be a country in which Christianity is no longer the dominant religion. Some may view this as a tragedy, especially those who maintain that America ought to be a “Christian nation.” But proponents of secular social and political systems will suggest that this is just the way that liberty works. If people are given the freedom to choose their own path through life, then we ought to see a profusion of lifestyles, affiliations and identities.

The Pew Center does not offer an explanation as to why all of this change began to occur after the 1970s. But such an explanation might include the fact that liberal interpretations of the First Amendment in the middle of the 20th century fanned the flames of liberty. School prayer was prohibited along with devotional Bible readings in the 1960s. The civil rights movement and changed immigration laws opened doors and eyes. A bigger, freer world emerged.

This does not mean that American secularism is opposed to religion, as some religious folks claim. The First Amendment framework is not antireligious. It protects the free expression of religion while preventing the state from creating an establishment of religion. This framework is good for religious people because it allows them to pursue their own faith in their own way.

But as liberty grows, a world of possibilities unfolds. This includes the likelihood that people will leave old traditions behind in order to make meaning for themselves in new and different ways. Lovers of liberty should celebrate our shifting religious demography. Religious switching is a sign of our freedom.

One of the great defenders of liberty, the philosopher John Stuart Mill, spoke of the importance of “experiments in living.” We need to be free to explore and experiment because no human being has a monopoly on truth. To believe something, we must experience it for ourselves. And if the old traditions no longer make sense, we should be free to create new ones.

Experimentation helps us discover new and better ideas. This process is also good for faith traditions. Competition in the realm of ideas encourages people to think more carefully about what they really believe and why they believe it.

Some people don’t like the marketplace of ideas. If your faith once had a monopoly, you may not welcome challenges to your dominance. You may resent new ideas and the liberty that allows them to be born.

Intolerance is “natural to mankind,” as Mill pointed out. Genuine religious freedom has rarely been practiced in human history. Bigotry and persecution are more common. Socrates and Jesus were both killed for opposing traditional dogma. The Protestants of Europe were persecuted by the old regime. Some fled to America, where they wrote religious tolerance into law.

In a world of liberty, nothing stays the same for long. We are creative and curious beings. Free people explore and innovate. Old traditions get left behind. Or they grow and adapt to the needs of the present. But the future belongs to the vitality of the experimental mind.

Read more at: https://www.fresnobee.com/opinion/readers-opinion/article265910211.html#storylink=cpy

Mother’s Love: The Heart of Ethics

Fresno Bee, May 8, 2022

Motherly love is different from other kinds of love. Brotherly love is connected to the Golden Rule. It tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves. Maternal love is stronger and more intimate. It focuses on the unique personality of those we love.

Fraternal love is about reciprocity. It asks us to respect each other’s rights. But maternal love is deeper and more intimate. It is not always reciprocated. It is not about equality. Rather, it is concerned with the concrete needs of the one who is loved.

The language of brotherhood is common in ethics and politics. The French Revolution celebrated liberty, equality and fraternity. The UN Declaration of Human Rights says, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” Martin Luther King Jr. said, “We must either learn to live together as brothers or we are all going to perish together as fools.”

The language used here is gendered. Perhaps we should also say that there should be a spirit of sisterhood. Some go so far as to talk about “pregnant persons” instead of mothers.

But on Mother’s Day, we celebrate the spirit of motherly love. Motherly love is oriented toward the well-being of each particular child. Rather than treating all children the same, maternal love focuses on the uniqueness of each child.

Motherly love is emotionally stronger than brotherly love. It is also less egalitarian. Brothers are supposed to treat one another fairly and equally. But mothers love their children in a way that is biased and partial.

Mothers have special relationships with their own children that they simply do not have with other children. Of course, that special relationship works both ways. Most of us are biased when it comes to our own mothers. Toddlers seek their mother’s arms for comfort. And adult children give special care to their mothers.

I wrote about motherly love in a blog post last year on Mother’s Day. A friend suggested that this seems a bit sexist and old-fashioned. To say that motherly love is partial and biased may imply that mothers are ethically flawed.

But this only makes sense if we believe ethics is only about impartiality and equality. Motherly love is as important as brotherly love. Brotherly love gives us equality and respect. But motherly love gives us comfort, care and belonging. Each kind of love is needed.

The impartiality of fraternal love responds to inequality and intolerance. But a mother’s personal love helps us thrive in a world that is cold and indifferent. It is sexist to say that maternal love is inferior. The remedy is to understand that motherly love is important and that brotherly love is not the whole of ethics.

The Golden Rule of fraternal love remains a guide for morality. But what if we also said that we should learn to love other people as mothers love their children? That seems to be the heart of an ethic of compassion, to learn to care for others as our mothers cared for us.

And what about fatherly love? Well, our culture imagines a father’s love as that of a strict and dispassionate disciplinarian. Paternal love is the equality and impartiality of brotherly love taken to a higher level. The image of “God the Father” often portrays Him as loving us despite our failures, while reminding us that we need to straighten up and fly right.

But mothers don’t love us despite our failures. They love us because of our flaws, since it is our flaws that make us unique and special. Motherly love is focused on the personality of the one loved, while fatherly and brotherly love emphasizes the abstract personhood behind the personality.

We have to be careful in thinking this through. This gendered language includes stereotypes that can be hurtful and divisive. The truth is that men can love like mothers. And women can be dispassionate and impartial. We all have the capacity for each kind of love.

On Mother’s Day we celebrate motherly love. Let’s reflect on what our mothers taught us about love—and thank them for those lessons.

Read more at: https://www.fresnobee.com/opinion/readers-opinion/article261144842.html#storylink=cpy

Is the US a Christian Nation?

Fresno Bee, January 23, 2022

In our secular society, Christianity has become an interest group vying for influence in the marketplace of ideas. It is no longer taken for granted that this is a Christian country.

Consider a recent case before the U.S. Supreme Court, involving a Christian group that wanted to raise its flag outside city hall in Boston. The court is considering whether this would be an endorsement of Christianity by the city, or whether the flag is merely the private expression of Christian citizens.

Christian Flag SCOTUS Blog

If the Christian group wins the case, its victory will mean only that the group has the right to express its religious beliefs in a public forum. They must take turns along with advocates of LGBT rights, BLM protesters, and other groups who want to fly their flags. No one is arguing here that the state ought to reserve a privileged place for Christian symbols and beliefs.

American secularism is grounded in the First Amendment to the Constitution. The First Amendment’s “establishment clause” prevents government entities from endorsing any faith. Its “free expression clause” permits individual citizens to express their own religious (or non-religious) beliefs.

Clarity about this is important, given the shifting religious identification of American citizens and the threat of religious violence. Our system allows people with diverse religious and non-religious beliefs to peacefully coexist. And it prevents the government from oppressing religious minorities.

Some people continue to maintain that America is a Christian nation. A recent report on NPR quoted a minister at a “patriot church” in Tennessee, who said, “You know why there’s churches everywhere and not mosques? Because we’re a Christian nation.”

But the First Amendment and our shifting demography point in another direction. In a report published at the end of 2021, the Pew Research Center indicates that the Christian population has continued to decline. Only 63% of Americans identify as Christian. Non-Christian religions (Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, etc.) account for another 6% of the population. And even among the faithful, religious belief is often lukewarm. Fewer than half of Americans report that they pray daily. Only about 40% say that religion is very important in their lives.

The fastest growing group in our country is the “nones,” those who answer “none of the above” when asked about their religious affiliation. The “nones” have nearly doubled since 2007, when Pew began tracking the data. Nearly one in three Americans (29%) are “nones.” This includes some atheists (4%) and agnostics (5%). But many of the non-religious simply do not identify with traditional religious categories.

It is true that at one point in our history, Christianity was the dominant faith. But even that claim needs qualification. Many of the founders had unorthodox views. George Washington attended church infrequently. When he did go, he refused to take communion. Thomas Jefferson admired Jesus, but was skeptical of the Bible’s miracles. John Adams claimed that the Christian view of the trinity was absurd. And America is the home of alternative Christian faiths such as Mormonism, Adventism, and Christian Science.

Critics will also argue, as Frederick Douglass did, that a nation founded on slavery could hardly be called “Christian.” Douglass argued against “the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land.” He said, “I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity.”

Elizabeth Cady Stanton said something similar. She thought that Christianity contributed to the oppression of women. She worked with a team of feminists at the end of the 19th century to rewrite the Bible. The result was “The Woman’s Bible,” which thoroughly revised the Bible’s patriarchal and misogynistic texts.

And so it goes. We disagree about what Christianity means. A growing number of us no longer identify as Christian. And Christian groups must vie time on the flagpole along with other interest groups.

This is the reality of our secular system, operating under the First Amendment. Under our Constitution, religious liberty is valued while the government is prevented from endorsing any specific religion. In this country we are free to argue about the meaning of the Bible. We are also free to gather round the flagpole and argue about history and the role of religion in our public life.

Americans Disagree About the Afterlife

That’s why we need religious liberty…

Fresno Bee, November 28, 2021

Most Americans believe there is life after death. A recent survey from the Pew Center reports more than 80% of Americans believe in some form of afterlife. Sixty-one percent believe in traditional accounts of heaven or hell. Others believe in some alternative, such as reincarnation. Only 17% do not believe in an afterlife.

The headline for this report focuses on political differences. Republicans are more likely to believe in a traditional idea of heaven and hell than Democrats. Our polarization seems to extend beyond this world.

One disagreement concerns who gets into heaven. A third of Americans believe that the path to heaven is through “one true faith” (a belief that is more common among Republicans). But many Americans are open-minded about this. A majority of us think that believers of “many religions” can gain eternal life.

Of course, opinion polls are not theology. These questions run deep and the answers are shrouded in mystery. These are things to ponder in the glow of firelight on cold and foggy winter nights. Even the theologians disagree. Some claim the “narrow gate” to heaven is reserved for believers. Others believe in “universal salvation,” which is the idea that everyone goes to heaven.

And what part of you will survive? Some say your body will be resurrected. Others think the soul lives on. Others suggest that even though you die, it is the memory of you that lives on in the mind of God.

Debates about the afterlife are ancient. Socrates said death was either a dreamless sleep or a journey to another world where good is rewarded and evil is punished. In either case, a good person has nothing to fear in death. If death is a dreamless sleep, then we won’t suffer from being dead. And if the religious stories about the afterlife are true, good people will be rewarded.

Plato believed in reincarnation. He suggested that the virtues we develop in this life help us choose our next life wisely. Plato’s elaborate scheme of transmigrating souls was rejected by materialistic philosophers such as Epicurus. Epicurus taught that death really is the end. He suggested that we should stop worrying about the afterlife and focus on happiness in this life.

Christianity rejected Epicurean philosophy by insisting on the importance of resurrection and the idea of divine judgment. One worry is that without the promise of heaven and the threat of hell, we may lack the motivation to be good. There is also the need for consolation in the face of suffering and evil.

Some good people suffer and die miserable deaths. And some evil people get away with murder. The universe does not seem fair if good folks go unrewarded and evil people don’t get punished. Immortality and divine judgment appear to resolve this discrepancy.

As we ponder these issues, it might help to know that Americans have often disagreed about them. One famous disagreement is that between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson most likely did not believe in personal immortality. Jefferson was a materialist and a deist who was sympathetic to Epicurean philosophy. He seemed to believe that personality was situated in the brain and that the soul disappeared at death. Jefferson also suggested in a letter to Adams that Plato’s account of immortality was “nonsense” produced by Plato’s “foggy mind.”

But Adams believed otherwise. His belief in the immortality of the soul was central to his religious faith. In a letter to Jefferson, Adams said, “If I did not believe in a future state I should believe in no God.” In another letter, Adams said, “A future state will set all right. Without the supposition of a future state, I can make nothing of this universe, but a chaos.”

And so it goes. Adams believed that the afterlife gives meaning to this life. Jefferson thought such ideas were nonsensical.

This leads us, in conclusion, to the need for religious liberty and freedom of thought. Great minds disagree about immortality. And so do we. These questions are not answerable in this life. This means that we should be free to disagree. At some point, we will each confront this mystery directly. In the meantime, let’s leave each alone to ponder the imponderable.

An Atheist at the Parliament of the World’s Religions

I participated in the (October 2021) meeting of the Parliament of the World’s Religions on a panel focused on compassion as a religious and non-religious value. I represented the non-religious point of view in conversation with Dr. Peter Admirand (Dublin City University, and my co-author on Seeking Common Ground), Dr. Veena Howard (a scholar of South Asian religions and my colleague at Fresno State), and Dr. Laura Novak Winer (a rabbi and a professor at Hebrew Union College ).

Earlier that morning, the Dalai Lama had addressed the Parliament. He said, “all religions have something to teach us.” And, “the essence of all religious teaching is compassion.”

Dalai Lama at Parliament of World’s Religions 2021

This important claim asks us to think critically about the long history of religious violence and intolerance. It may be the case that compassion is taught in every religion. But religious people can fail to be compassionate.

The same point is true, of course, for non-religious people. Secular regimes can lack compassion. And atheists can be cold-hearted.

But there is a place for compassion in atheism. Atheists emphasize the fact of human mortality. We all suffer and die. There is no sense in adding to the cruelty of the world. Rather, we should avoid violence and spread good will.

Atheists should acknowledge that human brains and bodies have evolved to include a substantial place for compassion and communal feeling. We are social animals thrown onto a small planet in the middle of the vastness. We should find way to laugh and sing and mourn together (an idea I’ve explored in my book Compassion).

These shared experiences are a focus of religious life. One need not accept the metaphysical pronouncements of religious traditions in order to understand that compassion is good for us and that love and community help us live well.

Unfortunately, the philosophical tradition has often looked askance at compassion. Kantian morality is focused on universal duty detached from emotion. Such an approach may dismiss compassion as a soft, emotional value.

Kant also dismissed the extravagant claims of superstitious religion. In defending his idea of a “pure religion” of reason (in Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason), Kant espoused a religion “cleansed of the nonsense of superstition and the madness of enthusiasm.”

Humanistic ethics has evolved to include much more than Kantian universality. We know that compassion is an important part of ethics. And we should understand that people find meaning in religion without simply dismissing it as superstition and nonsense.

This is one reason it is important for atheists, humanists, and philosophers to participate in inter-religious and interfaith dialogue. It is not easy to dismiss another person’s faith when you know them as a real person. Interfaith and inter-religious conversations are promoting solidarity in a world that still includes much religious intolerance. Atheists and humanists need to participate in these conversations because there is often intolerance and misunderstanding across the religious/nonreligious divide.

There are challenges, of course. Atheists sometimes seem to enjoy picking fights with religious believers. Religious people sometimes sling mud in the direction of atheism. I think we should all be more tolerant, hospitable, and compassionate.

This does not mean that we ignore the fundamental disagreements between religious and nonreligious people. But it is possible to be compassionate in our disagreements. Each of us is trying to make sense of life. Some find answers in religion, in all of its complex variety. Others turn away from religion entirely. So long as there is no violence, oppression, and hostility, we can co-exist. And if we take the time to listen to one another, we might find common ground in the shared human struggle to learn, love, and live.

If you are interested in these issues, please join me as I discuss our new book, Seeking Common Ground: A Theist/Atheist Dialogue with Peter Admirand, at a book launch and panel discussion on November 4, 11:30AM Pacific Time. The panel will be in Dublin, Ireland. I’ll join by Zoom. For Zoom details, contact Peter Admirand: peter.admirand@dcu.ie.