Presented this week by the American Humanist Association.
Presented this week by the American Humanist Association.
As Americans gather to celebrate Christmas, fewer and fewer actually believe they are celebrating the birth of a divine being who subsequently died and then rose from the dead. But if you look around during the holiday season, that doesn't seem to matter much.
Atheism continues to grow in America. That’s the clear message from a Harris poll released last week, which shows that God-belief is declining sharply. While 74 percent still say they believe in God, that figure is down from 82 percent in three previous polls in 2009, 2007, and 2005. The remaining 26 percent said they did not believe in God (12 percent) or were not sure (14 percent).
Almost all the numbers in the poll indicate that America is gravitating away from supernatural beliefs. Belief in miracles is down (76 percent in 2009, 72 percent in 2013), as is belief that Jesus was God or the son of God (73/68), or in the resurrection (70/65), survival of a soul after death (71/64), and several other supernatural religious concepts.
Belief in only a few supernatural phenomena actually saw increases when compared to previous polling. Belief in astrology was at 29 percent this year, up from 26 percent in 2009, and belief in reincarnation was at 24 percent, up from 20 percent.
The polling also confirmed previous data showing that secularity is most prevalent among younger generations. God-belief is lowest in those under age 36 (at just 64 percent) and climbs with each older age category.
An interview with author and activist Sikivu Hutchinson
A generation ago a typical humanist group might have been little more than a few older, white men meeting in the basement of a Unitarian church, arguing points of philosophy that have little relevance in the real world. That has changed, as atheist and humanist groups have sprung up in a much wider range of settings, from schools to pubs to workplaces, and as young people, women, people of color, gays and lesbians, and others have helped the notion of personal secularity gain traction in the wider population.
But still, despite this expansion, many would like to see the secular movement experience faster and broader growth in African-American and Latino communities. Dr. Sikivu Hutchinson, a Los Angeles author and secular activist, is one of those working to expand the movement in communities of color. With the authority of churches in those communities very strong, she argues that the secular movement is unlikely to challenge that authority unless it firmly addresses issues of social and economic justice. This message resonates with many—especially among those humanists who see such traditionally liberal issues as being central to humanist ethics—but not with everyone. Some would prefer that the movement focus exclusively on church-state separation and other so-called "culture war" issues, for example, while some atheists even describe themselves as conservative. Below, I chat with Hutchinson about her views on this ongoing discussion.
DN: I attended a recent talk that you gave, and I believe one of the key points you made was that women of color in America have historically gravitated toward religion because it was one of the few institutions that validated their humanity. Could you explain what you mean by that?
SH: In my book, Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars, I argue that the literature on secularism and gender does not capture the experiences of women of color negotiating racism, sexism, and poverty in historically religious communities. The relative dearth of secular humanist and freethought traditions amongst women of color cannot be separated from the broader context of white supremacy, gender politics, and racial segregation. The writers Nella Larsen and Zora Neale Hurston are generally acknowledged as pioneering twentieth century black women freethinkers. Yet, what few women’s histories of freethought there are celebrate the political influence of prominent nineteenth century white women non-believers, many of whom were suffragists and abolitionists. None contextualize these women’s influence vis-à-vis the race and gender politics that shaped both the feminist and freethought movements. For example, I have yet to see an appraisal that seriously addresses the racism, nativism and xenophobia of forerunning 19th century freethinker Elizabeth Cady Stanton (who used white supremacist imperialist rhetoric touting the intellectual superiority of white women to oppose the 15th amendment granting black men the vote) or the “curious” absence of women of color from freethought movements.
If you believe Rick Saccone, the Pennsylvania lawmaker sponsoring a bill to erect “In God We Trust” signs in public schools, he doesn’t want to use the apparatus of government to proselytize his religious views: “This isn’t about evangelizing,” Saccone told reporters last week, insisting that the proposed signs aren’t an effort to endorse God-belief or invalidate nonbelievers.
If that’s so, one could reasonably question what purpose such signs would serve. A posted message affirming not just a belief in a God (whose existence, of course, can't be proved), but a collective trust in that God, would seem to serve few purposes other than to validate theism. But alas, this query was answered by none other than Fox News, which clarified the Republican legislator’s motivation, reporting as follows: “Saccone said the motto would fit well with the state’s local history curriculum.”
So there you have it—we need “In God We Trust” signs in public schools not because Saccone, a devout Christian, has any interest in promoting belief in God, but because he is earnestly concerned about history curricula. Interestingly, however, Saccone's strategy of promoting knowledge of history through religious messaging is not shared by actual educational experts, who instead suggest that history education is best furthered by peculiar practices like reading history books, watching informative documentaries, and reviewing other substantive materials. In fact, neither the American Historical Association nor the Society for History Education endorse “In God We Trust” signs as a means of instilling a comprehensive knowledge of history. But what would they know?
Saccone's fondness for religiously flavored history lessons is a recurring pattern, as we see from other efforts that he has led. For example, last year he was prime sponsor of a resolution to declare a “Year of the Bible,” a measure that alluded to history while expressly calling the Bible "the word of God" and urging "faith in God and holy scripture." He was also prime sponsor of another resolution to declare a day of fasting and prayer, again with historical references and express theistic language.
Saccone wryly suggests that such measures are “noncontroversial,” which is remarkable given the firestorm of protest that they have ignited (including, in the case of the Year of the Bible, a lawsuit), and he also insists that these proposals have nothing to do with promoting theism or discriminating against those millions of Americans who happen to hold non-theistic views.
Unfair prejudice is most shocking not when it comes from expected sources - a KKK leader, for example, or a skinhead - but when it comes from a respected mainstream spokesperson who supposedly reflects enlightened contemporary values. Thus, brace yourself for Oprah Winfrey, as she disparages millions of atheists by telling her audience that, in her opinioin, atheists are incapable of awe.
In the interview she is chatting with endurance swimmer Diana Nyad, who recently swam from Cuba to the Florida at age 64. Nyad unhesitatingly identifies as an atheist when asked about her beliefs, then adds that she sees no contradiction between her atheism and her ability to experience awe, or in her words to "weep with the beauty of this universe and be moved by all of humanity."
Oprah, however, apparently found this description unsettling, for it seems that in her view atheists must be cold, emotionless rationalists. "Well I don't call you an atheist then," Oprah responded to Nyad's disclosure. "I think if you believe in the awe and the wonder and the mystery, then that is what God is."
What is most alarming about Oprah's revelation is that she doesn't even realize its invidiousness. Atheists, to her, don't feel that deep, emotional connection to the universe. She has drawn a circle that includes people of all faiths, but excludes atheists, thereby confirming negative attitudes toward nonbelievers.
To those among Oprah's legion of loyal viewers who may have held anti-atheist prejudices, this now validates their bias. That's right, those atheists just aren't like the rest of us, they can now say, nodding their heads. While we religious people of the world are appreciating the wonder and awe of life, those atheists are just one big buzzkill!
Probably because my writing and activities frequently involve taking stands on issues of public policy, from time to time I am asked whether I would consider running for political office. Such inquiries provide me with an opportunity to get a good laugh, because I usually respond with something like this:
"I'm not so sure I have the ideal resume for elected office. I currently serve as president of a group that advocates for atheists (the Secular Coalition for America). Before that, I served two terms as president of another atheist-humanist advocacy group (the American Humanist Association). Moreover, I've also written a book called Nonbeliever Nation. And to top it all off, I'm lead counsel in a lawsuit that challenges the ‘under God' wording of the Pledge of Allegiance!"
My questioner usually gets my point quickly, and is already laughing before I cap off this statement with a question of my own: “Does that look like the resume of a viable candidate for election?”
After we both enjoy this little chuckle, we’ll move the conversation toward more realistic topics.
As I relayed this story to one young person recently, however, I received a different response. She smiled slightly, but then her face immediately became serious again and she asked another question: “Why should any of those things disqualify you from running for office?”
I could see that her question was sincere, that she wanted an answer. Forced to consider it, I realized that I had never taken the analysis beyond the joking stage. Indeed, why should a person be seen as unfit for elected office merely because he or she has advocated visibly on behalf of the secular demographic?
Objectively speaking, it’s not as if atheists are an embarrassing segment of society, some strange cult with bizarre beliefs and rituals. Over ninety percent of the National Academy of Sciences holds atheist or agnostic views – is this a source of shame? Social problems do not correlate to secular individuals or societies, and in fact they often correlate negatively (with lower rates among secular populations) – so why should advocacy on behalf of seculars disqualify anyone from office?
It's noteworthy that most atheist activism has little to do with trying to dispel other religious beliefs, but instead merely seeks to push back against anti-atheist prejudice and to oppose the intrusion of religion into government. It's hard to see why this would be political poison. Advocacy on behalf of racial minorities, women, or gays and lesbians would never disqualify a candidacy, but for some reason we seem to see it as toxic in the context of secular advocacy.
In yet another sign of how the American secular demographic is emerging – in terms of both raw numbers and organizational commitment – the first-ever rally featuring nonbelievers of color is scheduled for later this month in New York. The Blackout Secular Rally takes place on the afternoon of Saturday, July 27, at Flushing Meadow Park in Queens.
The event was inspired by last year’s Reason Rally in Washington, says Mandisa Thomas, president of Black Nonbelievers, a co-sponsor of the celebration along with Black Atheists of America. The Reason Rally drew over 20,000 nonbelievers from all over the country to the National Mall on a rainy March day, showing a solidarity that had never before been demonstrated by America’s atheists and humanists.
“We thought it would be a great idea to have a similar event," Thomas told me in a recent interview, adding that the Blackout will be a chance to showcase both the growing numbers of secular minorities as well as pro-secular speakers and performers who may not be well known outside the African-American community.
The notion of “coming out” as atheist, agnostic, or humanist has been an important part of the modern secular movement, and it is getting traction in minority communities as well, Thomas says: “There are now more atheists of color making themselves more visible.”
The Blackout is also an opportunity for seculars of color to network and find support, she said, which is especially important for minorities who are faced with heavily religious communities. The idea, she explained, is to "help people understand there is nothing wrong with questioning religion, being open about atheism."
Like everyone else, minorities are increasingly aware of knowledge and scientific advances that raise questions about religious truth claims and validate skepticism, Thomas said, and other factors, such as religious scandals, have also caused many to question traditional faith. As such, her group wants those doubters to know they aren’t alone. “It is important for us to be more visible in order to create better communication and help our communities,” she said.
Continue reading at Psychology Today.
Though it didn’t make many headlines, a legislative showdown on Capitol Hill last week can be seen as the latest development in the so-called culture wars. On the surface it would appear that this particular battle was won by religious conservatives, but a closer look shows otherwise.
The legislation in question would have allowed nonreligious chaplains in the military, a proposal that sponsor Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO) said was designed to serve the large segment of America’s military (almost 25%) that is nonreligious. Currently, chaplains must be appointed by religious organizations such as the Catholic Church, but Polis said this unnecessarily excludes those who are "secular humanists and ethical culturists or atheists" and that nonreligious chaplains are needed to support the "brave (nonreligious) men and women who serve in the military."
Some have suggested that secular military personnel in need of chaplain services should opt instead for secular counseling services, but Polis pointed out that the chaplaincy option has definite advantages. “When someone (in the military) sees a psychologist, psychiatrist, or counselor, it has a certain stigma that can be attached to it that doesn’t exists when you’re seeing a chaplain,” he said. “It doesn’t enjoy the same confidentiality that a chaplain visit does.”
The Polis bill was defeated, 150-274, with every House Republican voting against it. This may seem like a defeat for seculars, but such a view would be shortsighted. The fact that a bill specifically recognizing and benefiting atheists-humanists was put forward at all, and then garnered the support of 150 members of Congress, is itself significant, something that would have been highly unlikely just a few years ago, and it demonstrates the progress that the secular movement has made.
Continue reading at Psychology Today.
Think back to your school days, when your class would recite the Pledge of Allegiance. If you looked around the classroom during the exercise (and of course most of us did from time to time, even though we were supposed to be focused on the flag), would you see a room filled with fine young patriots, standing upright with hands squarely over hearts, reciting the words with great seriousness and solemnity, pondering the meaning of each phrase?
If your school was like mine, it probably fell a bit short of such a patriotic ideal. Slouched, half-awake students, mumbling the words and giving little thought to their meaning, were as common as the upright patriots. In the lower grades, terms like “allegiance” and “indivisible” were often mispronounced and misunderstood. By high school the exercise had lost much of its mystique, not because kids are unpatriotic, but mainly because the pledge was seen as rote recitation that was required by authority figures.
Perhaps recalling such lackluster attitudes from their school days, some people seem to think governmental religious references are meaningless, not worth disputing. Every now and then, for example, when I'm discussing a church-state issue, someone will throw out a question that has nothing to do with legalities, but instead raises a more practical angle: Why are you fighting over this? Does it really matter? The issue might be "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, a crèche on a public park, or "In God We Trust" as the national motto: “What’s the big deal?”
There are many reasons why church-state separation is a big deal (indeed, the fact that a valid constitutional claim is being raised should, in itself, qualify the matter as a legitimate “big deal”), but there is a psychological component to such issues that sometimes gets overlooked amid all the legal analysis. This component, which I call “crisis-induced devotion” (or “CID”), illustrates why governmental religiosity, while sometimes appearing benign and unimportant, is always at least potentially dangerous.
CID shows us that what appears mundane, given the right stimulus, can quickly become extremely intense. CID occurs, for example, when a person who is not particularly religious or patriotic suddenly becomes fervent about their religion or patriotism due to some external crisis that triggers intense devotion.
Continue reading at Psychology Today.
Inevitably after major disasters, particularly those involving the senseless loss of life such as last week's Boston Marathon bombing, an interfaith service of some type will take shape, where various religious groups will come together to mourn and heal. This happened in Boston last week, with a high-profile service that included religious leaders from various faith communities: Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Greek Orthodox, and several Protestant traditions.
In a modern pluralistic society such as ours, it not only seems natural, but arguably even healthy, that various religious groups could come together in a time of crisis. Indeed, considering that these groups have historically justified bloodshed against one another based on their theological differences, their coming together for an interfaith service, recognizing the importance of our common humanity, can only be seen as a positive development.
Nevertheless, to humanists and other nonbelievers, such interfaith services are often problematic. Though the "interfaith" concept is perhaps commendable, the specifics of how interfaith services are often conducted and presented are not. That is, most interfaith services are quite exclusive, not at all inclusive, yet they are perceived by the media and the public as representing virtually all citizens. Interfaith services are generally accepted as a forum where "everyone" comes together, but in fact they usually represent an exclusive club.
Exacerbating the misunderstanding is the fact that interfaith services often become a platform not just for various religious leaders, but for politicians. The Boston service, for example, included speeches by both President Obama and Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, adding a decidedly civic element to a religious service.
The inclusion of governmental leaders in an interfaith religious ceremony such as this adds to the misperception that the event is a reflection of the entire community. Even the word "interfaith" misleadingly conveys a sense of community unanimity, and the addition of key secular leaders to the event - leaders who, unlike the religious leaders, are indeed supposed to represent all citizens - magnifies that falsehood.
The entire exercise leaves nonbelievers with a mix of emotions and opinions. Some complain about their exclusion, saying that any interfaith ceremony should include humanist celebrants or atheist representatives. But others, uncomfortable with the word "faith" and wanting no part in an interfaith service, complain not of their exclusion, but only of the participation of government officials.
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