Secular dreams confront religious realities

These are heady days for secularists.

Increases in the number of Americans claiming no religious affiliation along with the success of books promoting a militant anti-religious agenda such as Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” give some hope of a secular great awakening.

But getting rid of religion will not be as easy as it seems. It has been tried before.

In his new book, “The Plot to Kill God,” sociologist Paul Froese of Baylor University shows not how not even all the power of the state, including imprisonment and murder and an aggressive atheism campaign, could extinguish the religious identity of its citizens.

Instead of trying to get rid of religion, Froese argues, Soviet leaders would have been more effective in minimizing its influence by co-opting faith for the state’s purposes. Elsewhere in the world, leaders in China, Cuba and many post-Soviet republics have found it much more practical to exert control over religious groups that do not threaten the state than attempt to eradicate religion altogether.

[Look at trends in religious affiliation in the ARDA’s QuickStats]

Limits of atheism

Looking to the future of religion in the United States, there are several signs that an activist atheist campaign can only achieve so much.

In projecting demographic trends to 2050, Eric Kaufmann, who directs the Masters Programme in Nationalism and Ethnic Conflict at Birkbeck, University of London, says the present rate of 14 percent to 16 percent of the population who are unaffiliated should flatten out at about 17 percent from 2030 to 2040.

He bases the estimate in large part on immigration patterns and higher fertility rates among groups such as Hispanic Catholics and members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He predicts “seculars” with low fertility rates will become an older demographic.

Secular leaders have made inroads, says sociologist Barry Kosmin of Trinity College. He observes in the United States the European phenomenon of a growth in anti-clericalism. Militant secularists such as Christopher Hitchens and Dawkins are no longer considered outsiders in public debates.

“I think, now, non-religion is in the mix. It’s not a different species,” he says.

He also, expects, however, like many groups that begin with fast growth, the numbers of non-religious will plateau, or flatten out.

In a nation such as the United States, where religious freedom contributes to a dynamic religious marketplace, the best approach for secularists may be to allow religion to lose influence through apathy, some research indicates.

Anti-religious activists such as the group of public intellectuals known as “new atheists” may undermine their effort the more they formally organize as a movement, Froese says.

“The problem is one of the things that makes American religion vibrant … is the sense (believers fear) they’re being embattled by a secular enemy,” he says. “It’s very useful as a kind of rallying cry.”

[Examine religious regulation across nations using the ARDA’s National Profiles]

Religious resilience

Consider what happened in the Soviet Union.

Through sheer force and intimidation, the Soviets drastically reduced religious practice. Still, Froese writes, the most generous estimates of atheistic belief show that less than one-fifth of Soviet citizens were atheists at the height of Communism, and this number dramatically drops to less than 4 percent of the population following the fall of the Soviet Union.

The Soviets not only ignored the religious identity and desires of its citizens developed over centuries, but in their own dogmatic crusade for atheism paradoxically helped keep religious ideas and beliefs alive, he says.

“A fierce and unrelenting faith in the evil of religion led Soviet leaders to commit vast resources and exert violent efforts to destroy religion, even as these efforts proved counterproductive. Paradoxically, the fervor with which Soviets attacked religion may have indirectly conveyed the importance of religion,” Froese writes.

Groups of non-believers in the United States who seek to develop their own life-cycle rituals and holidays to compete with religion may also learn from the failures of similar attempts by Soviet officials.

Research indicates secular rituals cannot meet the deep human need and desire to find a source of ultimate meaning, or provide assurances of eternal salvation and the presence of a personal, caring God that are at the core of many faiths.

As the Soviets found out, Froese reports, you cannot kill God.

Self-inflicted wounds

With the right push in the wrong direction, however, governments can both enlist religion to support the state and drastically limit the influence of faith in public life, scholars say.

In much of Western Europe, state support of religion has tended to bring with it a decline in religious practice among populations neither threatened to defend their faith nor motivated to recruit new members. In Russia and some Central Asian republics, authoritarian leaders have embraced Russian Orthodoxy or Islam in pursuit of political legitimacy, while clamping down on minority religious groups that would promote a more vital and less malleable religious marketplace.

Even in America, Presidents George Bush and Barack Obama have been skillful in enlisting religious support for political goals, blurring the distinction between the sacred and the secular.

Part of the move to no religious affiliation is from individuals who are not necessarily non-believers but are disaffected with the institutions of faith, Kosmin says. The abysmal lack of morality religious institutions demonstrated in responding to the sexual abuse of children is one cause. Internal sparring over power and sex is another turn off.

How many atheists does it take to change U.S. culture to make religion less relevant? Maybe none.

Rather than awakening a complacent giant, non-believers may find it best serves their ends to let religious institutions be their own worst enemies.

— David Briggs

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