Are Americans becoming less religious? New Pew study says yes and Dawkins is optimistic

Given the course of Campaign 2012, the idea that Americans are trending toward less religion probably sounds ludicrous. But maybe not.

In response to an audience question last night, Richard Dawkins said he’s “optimistic” about the future of religion. (If you’re a religious type, he doesn’t mean that in the way it probably sounds.) He noted that the US is still exceptionally religious when compared with other nations along criteria such as education levels and scientific accomplishments, and he further allowed that we’re not nearly as far along the path toward a truly secular society as he might have expected several decades ago. Still, he says “I’m optimistic in the long term” – pointedly emphasizing long term.

Dawkins, a prominent scientist and intellectual who has authored a number of influential books, including The Selfish GeneThe Extended Phenotype and The God Delusion, was speaking at the University of Colorado’s Macky Auditorium as part of a US tour promoting his latest book, The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True. This book is intended for younger audiences – in essence, it’s designed to help children understand how science works and to develop the faculties necessary to parse reality from superstition and the various kinds of “magic” that lead them into the sorts of folly afflicting American politics and policy development today. Illustrated by Dave McKeanThe Magic of Reality makes a compelling visual impression, as well, not only highlighting the essential concepts in ways that make them easier to grasp, but at the same time stylistically conjuring a pensive, dramatic sense of the natural world that I imagine will last young readers the rest of their lives.

One hopes Dr. Dawkins is justified in his optimism, and one might also hope that we don’t have to wait too long for the long term to arrive. He made the point judiciously, of course, but while the US ranks far ahead of the rest of the world in many measures of intellectual achievement, we’re also the undisputed leaders of the developed world when it comes to batshit religious crazy. I’ve addressed the “Christian nation” question here a couple of times in the past, and it’s perhaps reminding everyone of some numbers.

  • Polls show the percentage of Americans identifying themselves as Christian ranging as high as 85% or beyond.
  • The president is a Christian…
  • …as is the VP.
  • The Speaker of the House is Catholic…
  • …and the Senate Majority Leader is Mormon.
  • Well over 90% of our Congressional representatives are Christian, with a majority of the remainder being Jewish.
  • The Supreme Court features seven Christians and two Jews.
  • All of our major presidential candidates in both major parties.
  • Almost all of our past presidents; depending on how you count Unitarians, you have to go all the way back to Lincoln (ironically enough, the founder of the GOP) to even find one to debate over;
  • Hell, even sports franchises are starting to build their operations around the evangelical litmus test.
  • It seems unlikely that a similar review of the legislatures and courthouses in the 50 states would reveal too much variation from this overpowering Judeo-Christian norm.

You have to be willfully stupid – and polls suggest that in many places the voting majority is just that – to think that ours is a Christian system of government. However, numbers are numbers, and I don’t think it controversial to say that we are a Christian culture. For better or worse. Mostly worse.

Of course, my colleague Otherwise believes that we’re one of the least religious places on earth. At some point he and I need to sit down and discuss our criteria. Perhaps he’s looking at the Muslim world, or perhaps he’s looking at cultures dominated by Catholicism. Fair enough. Or maybe he’s thinking more about the gap between what people report when polled and how they live when the pollster drives away. He grew up in the South like I did, so he’s probably well familiar with a certain breed of Christian – let’s call it the devout son of a bitch. Never misses church, publicly quite upstanding and pious, but at his core he’s just a mean redneck. He’ll say he believes in Jesus, but you’d never know it to watch him.

It’s like the famous singer and comedian, Jim Stafford, once said: Baptists are like cats – you know they’re raising hell, you just can’t catch them at it.

A new study from the Pew Forum on Religious and Public Life suggests that perhaps Dawkins (and Otherwise) are right.

The number of Americans who do not identify with any religion continues to grow at a rapid pace. One-fifth of the U.S. public – and a third of adults under 30 – are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling.

In the last five years alone, the unaffiliated have increased from just over 15% to just under 20% of all U.S. adults. Their ranks now include more than 13 million self-described atheists and agnostics (nearly 6% of the U.S. public), as well as nearly 33 million people who say they have no particular religious affiliation (14%).

Note: “religiously unaffiliated” doesn’t mean “atheist” by a long shot.

This large and growing group of Americans is less religious than the public at large on many conventional measures, including frequency of attendance at religious services and the degree of importance they attach to religion in their lives.

However, a new survey by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, conducted jointly with the PBS television program Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, finds that many of the country’s 46 million unaffiliated adults are religious or spiritual in some way. Two-thirds of them say they believe in God (68%). More than half say they often feel a deep connection with nature and the earth (58%), while more than a third classify themselves as “spiritual” but not “religious” (37%), and one-in-five (21%) say they pray every day. In addition, most religiously unaffiliated Americans think that churches and other religious institutions benefit society by strengthening community bonds and aiding the poor.

With few exceptions, though, the unaffiliated say they are not looking for a religion that would be right for them. Overwhelmingly, they think that religious organizations are too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules and too involved in politics.

While I don’t care what people believe per se – I’m very 1st Amendmentish in that respect – I care a great deal what people do, and these days ignorant, dingbat theocracy-leaning religious conservatism exerts way too great an influence on the laws that govern our lives. For that reason, the new Pew study, which indicates, at a minimum, a shift away from organized fundamentalism, brings welcome news. Perhaps the single most encouraging bit is the “a third of adults under 30″ part – I suppose that’s the “long term” hope that Dawkins is hanging his hat on.

Time will tell. Common sense says that at some point either the pendulum has to swing back the other way a bit, away from reactionary religiosity and neo-medieval conservatism, or the culture will simply explode. Perhaps we tip over into the kinds of full-blown theocracy that more and more Republicans are openly advocating, or we erupt into open and potentially violent conflict to prevent it.

The Pew report suggests that with each passing year America’s clear thinkers regain a little more territory. Let’s hope they, and Dawkins, are right.

Image Credit: Touch Reviews

Shaila meets the gorillas

I made my way toward town under a bright, star-filled sky. It was 4:30a.m. Locals still meandered their way home from the bars, but I had my hiking boots on in preparation for a new day. I was off to see the gorillas.

An estimated 800 Mountain Gorillas currently live in the hills around the Rwanda, Uganda and Congo borders. The Rwandan government allows visitors to see these rare creatures, but only after allocating a limited number of permits each day. While tourism helps boost the country’s economy, the national parks remain protective. Just 20 years ago, this species faced near extinction, with fewer than 300 reported members of its kind.

Rwanda recently raised its trekking prices to $750 for foreigners. Many would consider this a hefty sum, and this poor traveling grad school student was no exception. Continue reading

Tournament of Rock IV: the Aerosmith pod

Tournament of Rock IV: Monsters of Corporate Rock!How it works.

The second pod was, perhaps predictably, a runaway, with #14 seed Van Hagar trompling the field with better than 60% of the vote. We’ll see them in the Sweet 16.

On to group three, which features another hard rock monster act gone about as mainstream as it is possible to go. The contestants are:

  • #2 Seed Aerosmith (post-rehab incarnation, 1986-present)
  • Chicago (post-Terry Kath era – 1978-forward)
  • Fleetwood Mac (the Buckingham/Nicks incarnation – 1975-forward)
  • Pat Benatar
  • Greg Kihn

Aerosmith

After the release of Done with Mirrors, Tyler and Perry completed rehabilitation programs. In 1986, the pair appeared on Run-D.M.C.’s cover of “Walk This Way,” along with appearing in the video. “Walk This Way” became a hit, reaching number four and receiving saturation airplay on MTV. “Walk This Way” set the stage for the band’s full-scale comeback effort, the Bruce Fairbairn-produced Permanent Vacation (1987). Tyler and Perry collaborated with professional hard rock songwriters like Holly Knight and Desmond Child, resulting in the hits “Dude (Looks Like a Lady),” “Rag Doll,” and “Angel.” Permanent Vacation peaked at number 11 and sold over three million copies.

fikshun: For awhile, they were manufacturing the same painful ballad for years, weren’t they? Steven Tyler has been a caricature of himself for so long that I kinda started thinking of him as a Kardashian – someone who was famous for being famous and nothing else.

Me: EmbAerosmith is #5 on my all-time Oh How the Mighty Have Fallen list. With a bullet. I don’t know which is sadder, given the band’s awesome early career: Steven Tyler pimping on American Idol or the rest of the band blustering about how they’re not gonna take it anymore. Oh, wait – there’s money? Never mind.

Chicago

By 1981, with the release of the 15th album, the poor-selling Greatest Hits, Vol. 2, the band parted ways with Columbia Records and began looking for a new approach. They found it in writer/producer David Foster, who returned to an emphasis on the band’s talent for power ballads as sung by [Peter] Cetera. They also brought in one of Foster’s favorite session musicians, Bill Champlin as a full-fledged bandmember. … With these additions, the band signed with Full Moon Records, an imprint of Warner Bros., and released Chicago 16 in the spring of 1982, prefaced by the single “Hard to Say I’m Sorry,” which topped the charts, leading to a major comeback. The album returned Chicago to million-selling, Top Ten status. Chicago 17, released in the spring of 1984, was even more successful — in fact, the biggest-selling album of the band’s career, with platinum certifications for six million copies as of 1997. It spawned two Top Five hits, “Hard Habit to Break” and “You’re the Inspiration.”

Bonesparkle: I like how that last sentence there uses “spawned.” Because if ever hell spawned a simpering, no-testicles corporate wuss monster it was Peter Cetera.

Fleetwood Mac

By the mid-’70s, Fleetwood Mac had relocated to California, where they added the soft rock duo of Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks to their lineup. Obsessed with the meticulously arranged pop of the Beach Boys and the Beatles, Buckingham helped the band become one of the most popular groups of the late ’70s. Combining soft rock with the confessional introspection of singer/songwriters, Fleetwood Mac created a slick but emotional sound that helped 1977’s Rumours become one of the biggest-selling albums of all time.

Me: I ain’t gonna lie – I loved Fleetwood Mac and Rumours. But little by little the folks who had actual talent (John, Mick, Christine and John) allowed themselves to become the house band for Stevie’s self-indulgent, formulaic faux-gypsy show.

fikshun: Corporations don’t run long and go over budget on releasing products. In that sense, FM is successful despite themselves. Next to Kiss though, I’m hard-pressed to think of a band of musicians who better shrank into their personae: “Animal” on drums, “Steve Dallas from Bloom County” on bass, “sensitive songwriter guy” on guitar, “enigmatic witch girl” on vocals, and … damn it, Christine McVie, you’re not playing along.

Pat Benatar

Pat Benatar’s polished mainstream pop/rock made her one of the more popular female vocalists of the early ’80s. Although she came on like an arena rocker with her power chords, tough sexuality, and powerful vocals, her music was straight pop/rock underneath all the bluster.

Me: I saw Benatar live just as she was topping the charts for the first time. I’ve seen cardboard cutouts with more presence. In fact, my seats that night weren’t great, so it could well have been a cardboard cutout on stage with somebody playing a tape of her songs and I couldn’t really have told the difference. She does get some props for the way the “Love Is a Battlefield” video struck an important blow for feminism, I guess. I mean, when a greasy douchebag is being, well, a greasy douchebag, the best way to handle the situation is dance at him all mad sexy like.

fikshun: Regularly manufactured high-quality “you done me wrong” rockers for years … until Seven the Hard Way, when they decided using sex to sell records was wrong. Way to go – make your millions by selling oil and then suddenly brand yourself a green company.

Greg Kihn

In 1981, [Kihn] earned his first bona fide hit with the Top 20 single, “The Breakup Song (They Don’t Write ‘Em),” from the Rockihnroll album. He continued in a more commercial vein through the ’80s with a series of pun-titled albums: Kihntinued (1982), Kihnspiracy (1983), Kihntageous (1984), and Citizen Kihn (1985). He scored his biggest hit with 1983’s “Jeopardy” (number two) from the Kihnspiracy album.

fikshun: Utter corporate rock fail. If you don’t believe me, go to Amazon and try to buy “The Breakup Song” or “Jeopardy.” Last I checked, you couldn’t get his original recording mp3s from Amazon, could only find some of his mp3s on iTunes, and hard-copy, out of print CDs were retailing for north of $100. What corporation loses so much value that no one thinks it’s worth the effort to buy up the old IP and repackage it?

Me: “The Breakup Song” is still one of my favorite ’80s hits. Kihn was having fun and, seriously, he gets extra credit for inspiring Weird Al’s “I Lost on Jeopardy,” don’t you think?

Click to vote.

Image Credit: The Married Gamers