March 12, 2009

Something to celebrate?

   There has been a fair amount of squawk in the atheist/humanist blogosphere over the recently announced results of the latest American Religious Identification Survey, ARIS 2008.The survey appears to show a significant increase in the number of atheists and agnostics in America, accompanied by a matching drop in numbers of Catholics and Protestants. There has been much hooting and hurrahing, and raising of hands in celebration, as if this were some kind of victory, in some kind of contest.
   Leaving aside the question of whether or not this is an appropriate thing to celebrate, I'm not sure the celebrants are feting the right thing. I don't know that they are correctly interpreting these results. Are there really more non-religious people in the USA now then there were in 2001, the last time this study was undertaken? Or is something else going on?
   The most important point to remember is that this is a study of religious self-identification. What do you call yourself? The secular community has always recognised that the non-religious have long been under represented in surveys. Most non-religious people are not activist atheists; they are just people for whom religion has no place in their lives. They never think about it. But if they were raised in a Catholic, or Baptist, or Jewish household, that's the little tick they make on the survey. It is an answer stemming from culture, rather than religious belief in many cases.
   Over the past eight years, we've seen a dramatic upsurge in the visibility of atheism and secularism in our every day lives. There are a couple of different reasons for this.
   First, we've seen several best-selling books on atheism from authors such as Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Richard Dawkins. Additionally, the advent of the popularity of blogging has many people expressing themselves in ways they never have before - and many more able to easily find information on atheism/agnosticism than ever.
   Second, there have been several high profile court cases dealing with seperation of church and state issues. Along with focus on the previous administration's rather liberal (heh) interpretation of the constitution, these have brought secularism under a microscope in America in a way it never has been before.
   The offshoot of all this is that more Americans than ever before are thinking about what it means to be agnostic, or to be an atheist. More Americans than ever before are considering whether or not the USA truly is a nation founded on Christian ideals, as the religious right would have you believe, or whether it was, in fact, envisioned and created as a secular nation.
   More Americans are looking at that questionaire, and stopping, and thinking, "what am I?" There aren't really more atheists in America than there were eight years ago. There are just more people willing to be honest when answering that survey than there were before.
   And maybe there is cause to celebrate that.


émilie b said...

That makes sense. As a new generation slowly takes the place of the old, the taboo of shedding one's religious upbringing disappears.

I can't speak for anyone else, let alone a society, but I know I, for one, am slowly undertaking that journey of spiritual reflexion... with no preferred religion attached, as of yet.

vjack said...

Good analysis. I suspect you are correct. Either way, I see it as good news.

Rebecca Anne said...

Saying publicly that one does not believe in God is akin to walking into a kdg. classroom and saying to all the little kiddoes "There is no Santa" doesn't go over so well. For a very long time I kept my thoughts about religion to me, myself and I. Proclaiming anything against the church can be like sticking your face in a hornets nest.
To be honest, because I was raised Christian when I didn't feel like getting 'into it' or alienating myself, I'd just say Christian to keep eyes off me.
So, I think you're right. Today, in the now, people like me are much more likely to fess up the truth of our beliefs (?) unlike before.

Teeisme57 said...

I think people are slowly getting fed up with the rules of the Catholic church. My niece recently had her daughter baptized. She chose her brother-in-law and his fiancee as godparents. First, the godmother was rejected because she had not made her confirmation, then 4 days before the christening, the godfather was also rejected because he had been married before and did not get an annulment from the church. He pays a hefty price to send all three of his children to catholic school, the one where the baptism was going to take place. Needless, to say it was a huge insult to many people involved.
Most people in this area send their kids to CCD classes because it's a babysitting service. Few children attend after they are old enough to stay home alone after school, therefore, they don't make all their sacrements. It all adds up to more people having their eyes open. Making sacrements is not what makes a person "good". Infact, as more people grow away from their religions, I see more people getting involved in worthy causes that make a differences in our society. I hope the trend continues!

émilie b said...

I sort of understand the church there. I know the godmother/godfather's appointed role is to become the child's religious guide into Catholic faith, so the people chosen to be those guides are supposed to be good, yes, but also able to provide that spiritual guiding. The church probably believed these people should complete their religious path before guiding someone else's.

Of course, nowadays, a godfather/godmother is too often seen as someone who adds a gift under the Christmas tree, and who may/may not become legal guardian if the child becomes an orphan. (But the law doesn't make anything of it, unless it's on the parents' wills.)

We didn't have our children baptized. Many people are still doing it and it is a nice tradition, but in our case, without true faith, it would have felt a little hypocrite for my heart. I figure they can enter a religion when they are old enough for spiritual reflexion and they find a match for them.
...that also conveniently avoided the question of choosing a godmother/godfather for our first born (who was the first grandchild of both family, and we each have a brother and a sister... oh, the logistics... phew!).

Phat Baby Photographer said...

I'd be interested in understanding what it means to be an atheist and would have found it interesting if the survey probed into that. The additional bit of information would either validate or invalidate your hypothesis (sorry that's the engineer speaking in me).