It's Easter weekend, so now seems like as good of a time as any to discuss the radically decreasing popularity of religion among America's young people. This won't ruffle any feathers, will it?
Earlier this morning, I was reading an article on The Daily Beast headlined "Are Atheists the New Mormons?" It's an annoyingly provocative title, but, heck, I almost called this piece "Happy Good Friday: God Doesn't Exist," so who am I to judge. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone, as they say.
The Daily Beast headline did its job. I went on to read the piece, but I didn't get any less irritated, especially after reading the article summary:
Atheists are holding their annual convention in Salt Lake City, but things have been surprisingly cordial. Maybe these uniquely American religions have more in common than they think.
I guess I'm an atheist. Or I would be if I identified as anything, except — like a lot of my peers — I don't. Religion just isn't a driving force in our lives, which is why I immediately bristled at the idea of Atheism being categorized by the Daily Beast or by anyone (because they're not the first) as a religion at all. It is the opposite of a religion. The only thing that unites us is the belief (if you can even call it that) that there is no god. This is also why (for me), the idea of an atheist convention is so stupid. It's like holding a rally for people who don't believe in vampires. We have nothing to prove.
But maybe I'm wrong. America, at its core, is still a religiously conservative country that continues to foster a distrust for non-religious people. A woman in New Jersey is suing over the DMV's refusal to allow her a personalized license plate that reads "8THEIST" and as the Daily Beast's Michael Schulson points out, "Atheists...are among the least trusted groups in America. Just 54 percent of Americans, in a 2012 Gallup poll, said that they'd vote for an atheist presidential candidate."
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Surely, there are some benefits to gathering in groups like The American Atheists (who are hosting the convention) are doing. There's power in numbers, but, in the years to come, it will be interesting to see how necessary these types of organizations become. A recent Pew Research Religion and Public Life poll showed that my generation (for reference, I was born in the late 80s) are the least likely to identify as religious in, well, ever:
The growth in the number of religiously unaffiliated Americans – sometimes called the rise of the "nones" – is largely driven by generational replacement, the gradual supplanting of older generations by newer ones. A third of adults under 30 have no religious affiliation (32%), compared with just one-in-ten who are 65 and older (9%). And young adults today are much more likely to be unaffiliated than previous generations were at a similar stage in their lives.
This doesn't mean that 1/3 of us are atheists. Plenty of us identify as agnostic or spiritual — we just reject the idea of organized religion. But why? What's different for us than it was for our parents or our grandparents?
I recently took to social media to ask what formed my non-religious peers' spiritual beliefs or, more appropriately, lack there of. The reoccurring answers: greed, hypocrisy, intolerance and, as one person put it, the "restriction of independent thinking."
"I don't like the economic superstructure inherent in organized religion. The amount of money required to run the vast church flows upward from the ignorant poor to line the pockets of rich opportunists," offered a childhood friend.
Another woman said this about her Quaker upbringing: "At heart, there are some really great ideas about spirituality and treatment of other people, but as soon as you put it in a group setting you start seeing weird power struggles and a refusal to look internally and address issues within ourselves and within the group as a whole."
Just so you don't think this is all coming from a bunch of blasphemous northerners, a friend from Florida had this to say:
I grew up as a Jehovah's Witness and was part of the church until I was 21. My motivation for leaving was that my religion always made me feel I was never good enough. The fact that I knew I was gay made this more intense. Religions dictate their own moral code and enforce it among their congregations. Non compliance is met with shame and the threat of expulsion, and even eventual judgement by God and eternal damnation. They use fear to control and prevent free thinking and intellectual discovery.
Of course, it would be an unfair generalization to say that all churches are homophobic, money-hungry organizations that forbid intellectualism. That's simply not true. I've met plenty of religious people who are tolerant and generous, but unfortunately, that's often (though not always) in spite of the doctrine they follow and not because of it. There are gay friendly churches, but they're decidedly against the grain — and for those of us who grew up knowing that condemning gay people is about as sensical as condemning someone for having brown hair, that can be a tough pill to swallow.
The bucking of religion by America's young people could be as much about cultural context as it is about religion itself. Globalization has opened us up to more information and modern tragedies have made the concept of God having a plan both laughable and insanely cruel. The turning of the tide seems to have started with our parents (who witnessed the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King and were the first generation to have the atrocities of war broadcasted directly into their living rooms through television). It's only gotten worse from there.
My generation's formative years saw the Oklahoma City Bombing, the Columbine massacre and the falling of the Twin Towers — all highly reported events that claimed the lives of innocent people en masse. We watched our schools install metal detectors and participated in mass shooting drills where we had to hide under our desks in silence. We've realized that we're living in a financial system that fails to serve so many of us and — unlike in past centuries — we're able to talk about it globally.
Whether it be in schools, at airports or during your own personal telephone calls, the presence of authority has recently become deafening. It makes sense that younger people are reacting against it, whether it's through the Occupy protests, the rising popularity of Marxism or the rejection of religion.
In 2009, I happened to catch a Larry King Live interview with Steve Harvey where Harvey asks, "If you don't believe in God, where is your moral barometer? If you're an atheist, you're basing your goodness and morality on what?" The sentiment has always stuck with me — not because I think that Steve Harvey is some great theastic thinker, but because the idea that non religious people lack a moral compass is one that I've heard many times since. It's echoed in the general distrust of atheists and, as an idea, it's remarkably stupid.
While some people might only behave morally because a rule book tells them that they'll go to hell if they don't, some of us (many religious people included) choose to refrain from stealing, murdering and cheating because we have empathy and don't like making other people's lives more difficult. (And if you really think that religious people have never acted amorally, I beg you to pick up a history book and look up the causes of practically every atrocity ever committed. You might be surprised to learn that most have them arose from religion, not lack of it.)
Religion and a moral compass have very little to do with each other. I have encountered selfish atheists, selfish Jewish people, selfish Muslims and selfish Christians alike. On the more positive side of the coin, I've encountered wonderful people from any given creed.
The fact of the matter is that we don't need religion the way we used to because these days, it's not the only source of community. We have (for better or worse) social media, we have neighborhood centers, we even have church-like services for non-religious people.
This isn't meant to be a diatribe against religion. As long as you don't use your beliefs to oppress or hurt people, all the more (higher) power to you. (And to the Christian and Jewish people among you, my childhood self would like to offer the sincerest of thank yous for your excellent summer camps.) What I'm talking about is a struggle that more and more people are currently facing: why are we defined by what we don't believe in? American culture loves to categorize people — to the point that even non-believers are expected to identify with atheism as a "religion."
Too bad religious is the last thing we care to be.