I had the pleasure and discomfort of attending parts of the Reason Rally on Saturday, a march on Washington by atheists, agnostics, and heathens. It was cold, rainy, and frequently quite boring. I mostly went to see Bad Religion, but I enjoyed Eddie Izzard’s routine and Cristina Rad, who responds to theists this way: “You can keep your personal relationship with Jesus Christ. I have a personal relationship with reality.”
But I also found myself disappointed by how much it sounded like a meeting of milquetoast liberalism, and wondering, again, why atheism needs to be a social movement.
It’s popular to quote the study showing that atheists are distrusted about as much as rapists. But this study doesn’t quite pass the smell test: the average atheist is a well-educated white male with plenty of status and more than our fair share of trust. Asking about atheists without context produces ungrounded evaluations. My students and colleagues don’t treat me like they’d treat a rapist, even though they know I’m an atheist. They treat me like a college professor.
Of course, I had a harder time as an atheist teen, and indeed we see a steady stream of outrageous news about the mistreatment of young atheists as a part of the overall attention to bullying. I suspect, however, that such young atheists face intersecting oppressions as women or homosexuals, or are partly being punished for otherwise transgressing gender norms. First and foremost an atheist teen will tend to be seen as effeminate or tomboyish: as too thoughtful for a man, as too argumentative for a woman. So I’m not convinced that atheist teens as a group have it worse than gay and lesbian teens, even though those groups rate higher than atheists on “trust.” A gay teen atheist might disagree, but in a social setting where all difference is violently bullied, how can we be sure what’s cued the mistrust?
So why cast atheists as victims? Why the mobilization about “coming out of the religious closet”? Recent work by Robert Putnam and David Campbell suggests an answer:
[R]eligion’s influence on U.S. politics has hit a high-water mark, especially on the right. Yet at the same time, its role in Americans’ personal lives is ebbing. As religion and politics have become entangled, many Americans, especially younger ones, have pulled away from religion. And that correlation turns out to be causal, not coincidental.
By using religion to justify their politics, theologically conservative Republicans have conveyed the message to young liberals that they must reject religion in order to reject that politics. Putnam and Campbell show that a lot of the growth in atheism has been traced directly to the growth of politically partisan religion, which is partly why the cause is taken up by the young with such force in the Millennial generation:
The best evidence indicates that this dramatic generational shift is primarily in reaction to the religious right. Politically moderate and progressive Americans have a general allergy to the mingling of religion and party politics. And millennials are even more sensitive to it, partly because many of them are liberal (especially on the touchstone issue of gay rights) and partly because they have only known a world in which religion and the right are intertwined. To them, “religion” means “Republican,” “intolerant,” and “homophobic.” Since those traits do not represent their views, they do not see themselves — or wish to be seen by their peers — as religious.
That’s why a lot of the talk at the Rally yesterday sounded like banal moderate liberalism: increasingly for this generation, that’s what it means to be an atheist. Once upon a time, God was being used on both sides of these arguments. But today, it’s hard for progressive theists to be heard and understood as both progressive and theists, and young people have decided that if they must choose between those two identities, they’d rather be progressive. If you’re in favor of gay marriage, and you look around the world and see that all the objections to gay marriage come from religion, you conclude that you have to chuck God. The same thing for environmentalism, feminism, and the Occupy movement: God has too often appeared publicly on the wrong sides of these debates, and it’s hurting the brand.
I know a lot of wonderful, caring theistic activists who are smart, committed, and reasonable. But as we’ve grown older these theists have either grown more disillusioned with their faith or more disillusioned with their youthful activism. Clearly there was once a way to make those things compatible, and just as clearly something has changed in the larger culture that’s pointing out an inconsistency in the psychic lives of individual citizens.
Theists are increasingly recognizing that the humanists were right: you can be Good without God; and worse, you can be Bad with God. When your co-religionists are Success-Theology, Federalist-Society, Dominionist-Ideology Social Conservatives, you’ve got to acknowledge that faith isn’t sufficient for like-mindedness. But once you decide that faith is irrelevant to the things you thought you cared about, neither necessary nor sufficient for commitment to a political cause or civic engagement with fellow citizens on matters of fundamental concern, where do you go from there? If you’re older, you make it work and ignore the inconsistencies. If you’re a young person, you don’t think you ought to have to stomach that kind of inconsistency. So you don’t:
Consider the growth in the number of people whom sociologists call “nones,” those who report no religious affiliation. Historically, this category made up a constant 5-7 percent of the American population, even during the 1960s, when religious attendance dropped. In the early 1990s, however, just as the God gap widened in politics, the percentage of nones began to shoot up. By the mid-1990s, nones made up 12 percent of the population. By 2011, they were 19 percent. In demographic terms, this shift was huge. To put the figures in context, in the two decades between the early 1970s and the early 1990s, the heyday of evangelicalism, the fraction of the population that was evangelical grew by only about five percentage points. The percentage of nones grew twice as much in the last two decades and is still climbing. Moreover, the rise is heavily concentrated among people under 30, the so-called millennial generation. To be sure, the young are always less religiously observant than their elders; people tend to become more religious when they get married, have children, and put down roots in a community (demographers call this the life-cycle effect). Yet 20-somethings in 2012 are much more likely to reject all religious affiliation than their parents and grandparents were when they were young — 33 percent today, compared with 12 percent in the 1970s.
One-third of all young people have rejected religion because it has been co-opted by the Republican Party. I’m not particularly excited about that, as it doesn’t seem to lead to the world I want, where religion doesn’t play an important role in politics. I don’t care enough about atheism to want people to join me at it, but I care enough about public reason to wish we could have more of the discussions that matter without bad biblical exegesis, Christianist dog whistles, and silly claims about the incommensurability of secular and religious reasons.
One-third of all young people have rejected religion because it has been co-opted by the Republican Party. I’m not particularly worried about that, but theists probably should be. So, theists: what are you going to do about it?