Archive for the ‘atheists’ Category

The “Trust Me With Blind Faith” Campaign Ends; Reality Starts Wednesday

November 4, 2008

This election will be remembered as the campaign that ignited a religious revival. Never have so many atheists, skeptics, agnostics, secularists, heretics, freethinkers and rationalists hit the sawdust trail to imbibe so much on blind faith, and to make it their religion. Eat your heart out, Billy Graham.

The Hyde Park messiah’s flock makes up a weird and unlikely congregation, ranging from the true believers on the left yearning for the Kool-Aid moment to mainstream white voters eager to shut their eyes, spin around twice, cross their hearts and hope to die, squeeze a rabbit’s hind foot, throw the ivories over a shoulder, and audaciously hope for the best.

By Wesley Pruden 
Editor Emeritus
The Times

The most disappointed may be the Kool-Aid fans, who expect to be out of Iraq by Friday noon. Or the most disappointed may be the voters seduced from the mainstream, including the recovering conservatives who have persuaded themselves that the senator from Nairobi (or Jakarta or Honolulu or Chicago) doesn’t really believe all that stuff he says about raising taxes, redistributing the wealth, apologizing to Europe and becoming good buddies with the radical Muslims eager to kill us and decapitate the culture and values of the West. They’re convinced that once in the White House the messiah will cut loose the friends, mentors and allies he has collected over his 46 years and govern like the closet Ronald Reagan they know he really is. Such is true faith in the supernatural.

Nobody will be more disappointed than those who follow Mr. Obama because he’s of a darker (barely) hue than the presidents on the paper money. The whites in the coalition of the credulous are counting on President Obama to put the politics of racial resentment behind us for good, to bring in the era of mellow feelings. He wants to give the world a Coke.

Blacks in the coalition expect to wake up Wednesday morning to find the sticky residue of slavery, segregation and discrimination to have been magically washed into the sea of forgetfulness. When it doesn’t quite happen, the disappointment will become despair; Barack Obama as winner will be more disappointing than Barack Obama as loser.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, stopped by a reporter last week in Evian, where he was taking the French waters, was asked whether an Obama victory would “close the chapter of black grievances linked to memories of slavery,” and the Rev paused for a long time, no doubt seeing a vision of the lucrative race-hustling industry slipping away, and finally replied: “No, that chapter won’t be closed.”

The Rev does not speak for Mr. Obama, but the record is clear that he accurately reflects the hopes, fears and expectations of millions of black voters who tell the pollsters they’re faithful to the messiah of Hyde Park. Their anger will be total when white voters who fully expect an Obama presidency to “close the chapter on black grievances” tell the still-aggrieved blacks to “sit down and shut up, what else could you want?” (This is how the elites think of the rest of us.)

Bitterness will be the portion of everyone, with the election results making a toxic sour mash of the politics of resentment. Mr. Obama can write about this in his third memoir, entitled “The Audacity of Hype.”

Jewish voters, who polls show are breaking for Mr. Obama with only slightly less enthusiasm than black voters, are likely to take the hardest fall.

Jonathan Rosenblum, an Israeli author and columnist, asks in the Jerusalem Post, “Who says Jews are smart?” Arab-Americans, he notes, support Barack Obama in overwhelming numbers, and so do American Jews.

“One of these two groups,” he says, “either does not care much about the Arab-Israeli conflict and/or is stupid. My money is on the Jews.”

This is harsh, but the Israelis are entitled to their frustration. Some American Jews even argue that Israel’s survival depends on retreating to its 1967 borders, lost to the Arabs when Israel didn’t have the grace to lose a war imposed on them. (They couldn’t have found anyone to surrender to, anyway.)

Now, Israel faces the nuclear threat in Iran. Mr. Obama thinks he can tame Mahmoud Ahmadinejad by making him a buddy, and would sanction Iran only if a couple of other buddies, China and Russia, join him. He’s counting on these buddies to renounce who they are, just as millions of American voters expect him once in office to renounce who he is.

His old buddies in Hyde Park – the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, William Ayers, Louis Farrakhan, Rashid Khalidi and others – are sure he’s one of them. But not to worry. Laissez les bons temps rouler! (We must be ready with our French.) Let the good times roll.

Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Times.

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Religion Not Dead In America

March 10, 2008

By Stephen Prothero
USA Today

Numbers lie, but they also tell tales, untrustworthy and otherwise. So the key question stirring around the much discussed U.S. Religious Landscape Survey released in late February by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life is what tale does it tell about the religious state of the union.

For some, the story of this survey, based on interviews in multiple languages with more than 35,000 U.S. adults, is the strength of American religion.

Not too long ago, I wrote that American atheism was going the way of the freak show. As books by Christopher Hitchens and other “new atheists” climbed the best-seller lists, I caught a lot of flak for that prophecy. But atheists make up only 1.6% of respondents to this survey. And 82% of respondents report that religion is either somewhat or very important in their lives.

Others find in this new data a nation of religious shoppers: 44% of the Americans surveyed have traded in their original religious home for another. Apparently, the grass is also greener at the church, synagogue or mosque next door.

Still others, noting that only 51% of Americans describe themselves as Protestants, see Protestantism teetering on the verge of becoming a minority.

Catholicism is at least by some readers of the tea leaves in trouble, too, now that ex-Catholics constitute 10% of the population.

Diminished safeguards

The tale I take away from this study is that shifts in the political and moral winds are transforming American religion. Many believe that the Founders separated church and state in order to save the federal government from the interference of overzealous ministers. Not so. The purpose of the First Amendment‘s establishment clause — which prohibits the federal government from passing laws that favor any one religion (atheism included) — was to safeguard religion against the encroachment of politics. And this new survey suggests that those safeguards are, well, going the way of the freak show.

The key subplot here is the rise of “nones,” a category growing faster than any other religious group. Of all adults in the USA, 16% say they are religiously unaffiliated, while 7% were raised that way. Moreover, 25% of younger Americans (ages 18-29) report no religious affiliation at all.

It is important to emphasize that this march of the “nones” is by no means beating the drums for the old secularization thesis, which posited that as societies embraced modernization they would shun God. This is because many “nones” are quite religious. In fact, many Americans refuse to affiliate with any religious organization not because they do not believe in God but because they believe in God so fervently that they cannot imagine any human institution capturing the mysteries of the divine. In this study, only about a quarter of all “nones” call themselves atheists or agnostics. In other surveys, about half the unaffiliated typically affirm the Christian God.

What does the rise of the “nones,” particularly in Western states and northern New England, demonstrate? Not the sickness of religion in general but the health of a new kind of religion — a more personal and less institutional form often parading under the banner of “spiritual but not religious,” an option that, among my Boston University students at least, seems as popular as the smoothie stand in the student union.

Two related factors seem to be at play in the rise of the “nones”: a decline in the stigma of being a religious free agent, and an increase in the stigma of being a church member. According to Darren Sherkat, a professor of sociology at Southern Illinois University who has written widely on religious demographics, Americans have long “overconsumed religion because of social constraints.” It used to be that you were considered a bad citizen, a bad marriage prospect and a bad employee if you didn’t show a little faith in faith. And plainly it is still imperative for presidential candidates to pledge their allegiance to God as well as flag. But in recent years, the moral failings of Ted Haggard, John Geoghan and other men of the cloth have been broadcast from National Public Radio to YouTube. As the almighty have fallen, atheists have felt empowered to stand up and ask whether religion really is any sort of guarantor of moral behavior. What is so moral about affiliating with gay-bashing gay evangelists or pedophilic priests?

As Sherkat explains, more parents are deciding to raise their kids without any religion. And more of those children are staying unaffiliated as adults. All this is happening because the status gap between “nones” and believers has never been narrower.

Plainly, the Republican Party gained ground over the past quarter-century by attaching itself to family, morality and God, even as the Democratic Party lost ground by focusing on such matters as rights and reason. In the process, the Republicans became the party of God and the Democrats the party of secularism — not a good strategy for the Democratic Party in a country where 96% of voters believe in God. So Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are both taking pains to pitch their party as a party of prayer and piety.

Even so, for much of the past generation, “Christian” and “conservative” have seemed to be interchangeable terms. It should not be surprising if at least some on the left who once upon a time might have described themselves as “Christians” have decided to jettison that affiliation for political reasons. Such reasons, it should be emphasized, are basically the same ones why so many Europeans have divorced themselves from their country’s established churches: because the marriage of a given church with a particular political regime is never eternal, and when it ends it leaves a lot of angry children in its wake.

Customized religion

Another story buried in the data of this new survey is the power of evangelical Protestantism, and particularly non-denominational churches. Of those surveyed, 44% called themselves “born again” or “evangelical” Christians, and among religious options non-denominational Protestantism is one of the fastest growing.

This story of the revenge of the evangelicals might seem at odds with the tale of the rise of the “nones,” but the impulse underlying them is the same. The USA is rapidly becoming a culture of customization. People want to write their own marriage vows and have tailor-made funerals. They gravitate toward religious options that are more personal and less institutional. In this respect, the “unaffiliated” and the “non-denominational” Protestant are cut from the same cloth.

The story behind the numbers of this latest survey is not that religion is in trouble. It is that religion is morphing into something new. Faith is becoming more political. But it is becoming more personal at the same time.

Stephen Prothero is the Chair of the Department of Religion at Boston University. He’s also the author of Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know — And Doesn’t.