The Dawn of Enlightenment and the Dusk of Superstition
There was some encouraging news last week. A series of polls was conducted in several nations. The polls intended to measure religious faith and atheism. The findings were published last Friday.
The bottom line is — religion is on the decline. Or, as I prefer to think of it — enlightenment is on the rise.
That’s positive news to those of us fatigued by the insufferable influences of religion on politics and society. How refreshing to learn that increasing numbers of people everywhere are rebuffing the archaic superstition of some giant “sky daddy,” rejecting the whimsy of a paternal heavenly dictator who sees and knows all.
If the poll numbers are to be believed, the shifts in faith (and lack thereof) are stunning. Globally, belief in religion declined 9 percent since a similar poll was taken back in 2005. That’s just eight years ago. This number is based on 50,000 people who were polled in 57 different countries.
In the United States, the number of religious followers declined by 13 percent. But that number pales in comparison to Ireland, where religiosity declined by a whopping 22 percent. To be fair, the weakening of Irish faith may have a lot to do with recent scandals that have plagued the Catholic Church, which remains the dominant faith in Ireland.
Whatever the reasons, more and more people are starting to think for themselves. And, they are concluding in increasingly greater numbers that what they learned while growing up is – if not outright baloney – certainly something now worth questioning and re-evaluating.
That said, we still have a long way to go. Poll numbers suggest about 7 percent of people worldwide call themselves atheists – which is nearly double the number from eight years ago. The number of self-professed atheists is smaller in the United States — currently at 5 percent. But that figure still represents about 16 million Americans. This number is also steadily increasing. It’s higher than the numbers who identify themselves as Jews or Muslims.
Nevertheless, right after it appeared, the news story was buried and quickly forgotten. Where it was actually reported took on an almost melancholy tone, most clearly illustrated in the preconception of language. Note that poll results were interpreted as a “decline” in religion, rather than “increase” in enlightenment. Religion’s drop in acceptance is regarded as a loss of faith rather than a gain of greater understanding. The news was essentially treated as a bad thing, rather than a good thing.
No doubt, this is still largely a Christian culture and a nation bound strongly to religious faith — so perhaps this is a bad thing for believers. But it’s also a good thing for the rest of us. The poll results are an encouraging sign for those who steadfastly refuse to let our lives be guided by what the late writer and polemic Christopher Hitchens so eloquently described as a sort of “celestial version of North Korea.” We demand something better and truer for ourselves.
The side effects of enlightenment can be startling and do manifest themselves in odd ways. Consider this year’s two leading presidential candidates, who are perhaps the greatest beneficiaries of religion’s decline. No doubt, someone with President Barack Obama’s religious background would have been utterly unelectable just a decade earlier. Moreover, presumptive 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney and his devout Mormonism would have caused trepidation with a sizable percentage of the electorate just a few elections ago. But matters of faith aren’t what they used to be. My interpretation is that many people in this country just don’t think religion matters very much.
I don’t expect these views will be win agreement with the devout. Perhaps there are alternative ways to interpret the data. Perhaps the data itself is biased by flawed methodology.
Then again, maybe it isn’t. Maybe it’s utterly revealing and indicative of even greater enlightenment that’s to come. Indeed, I suspect that a great many “people of faith” are trapped living a lie. For whatever reasons — family, tradition, social acceptance, business associations, whatever — many people are BOUND TO BELIEVE as though their thoughts are tethered to a ball and chain. That’s not faith. It’s perverse intellectual bondage. And that pretty much sums up religion.
Think about it. How many people would risk alienating parents, children, family, friends, co-workers, and their standing within their communities by bolting their churches, synagogues, and mosques? Very few. Alas, it’s so much easier to go along with the crowd.
I thereby conclude that the actual number of religious believers is considerably lower than the poll numbers show. I also conclude that the number of atheists (I prefer the term “anti-theists — which I’ll explain in a future essay) is much higher than the number reported. I base this opinion on that fact it’s still much more acceptable in our society to be a believer rather than an atheist.
Think of the poll results this way. Virtually no one would lie to a pollster about being an atheist, since doing so remains socially unacceptable to many. In some places — even entire regions — it’s still impossible to be an atheist while remaining a good standing member of the community. And so, most people do what is natural — they chose the path of least resistance.
But as our numbers grow, and as the dawn of enlightenment rises, more will join us and ultimately free themselves of superstition.
Alas, in this I have great faith.