January 16, 2013

'Rise of the Nones' Likely to End Sooner or Later

Present-day archaeological site of the Salem V...
Present-day archaeological site of the Salem Village parsonage (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
In a recent post, Hemant Mehta (Friendly Atheist) examined some Gallup data being interpreted by some as showing that the "rise of the nones" about which we've been hearing so much has finally started to level-off. The poll data show only a slight increase in our numbers between 2011 and 2012. It is tempting to interpret this as evidence that our growth spurt may be over. As Hemant correctly notes, such a suggestion would be premature. After all, one data point does not make a trend. Having said that, I do not expect growth among those with no religious affiliation to continue at the same rate until religion is extinct.

As I have pointed out before, the demise of religion in the U.S. has been predicted and then declared many times. Each time, a resurgence (i.e., a "religious awakening") has followed. The influence of religion has ebbed and flowed for some time, and it seems naive to suggest that this pattern will not persist.

I am sure those talking about the death of "god" in the mid-1960s would have laughed at anyone suggesting that something like the religious right would flourish like it did under Reagan and Bush I. They would have found it unbelievable that we would end up with a Christian extremist president such as Bush II, a man who once claimed that his god told him to start a war without provocation.

In school, I remember learning about the many times in U.S. history when religious idiocy drove people to do horrible things. And yet, I admit that the Salem witch trials seemed awfully abstract. That was ancient history, and people have grown up. At least, that is how I thought until I witnessed small-town Christian fundamentalists persecuting members of a peaceful cult associated with Eastern religious teachings. And even with that experience, I was unprepared for the crusade against heavy metal music in the 1980s. And once again, I was caught off guard by the "Satanic panic" concerning reports of Satanic ritual abuse that would damage countless lives as it infected the therapeutic community.

To be sure, there are valid reasons for optimism that the role of faith is in decline. Who hasn't been tempted to suggest that the Internet marks the beginning of the end for religion? And yet, I think we need to temper our optimism with a bit of realism and recognize that religion is almost certainly going to outlive us all. As long as we continue to suffer from our many human weaknesses, faith will rule the darkness.  We must remain vigilant.

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