This week in “How Can I Use the Pew Research Center’s Latest Religious Landscape Survey Data to Make A Sweeping and Unfounded Generalization?” we have the wonderfully click-baity “Religion Is Disappearing” by Michael Shermer for Politico.
Shermer celebrates the Pew data that shows that the category of the “nones” has risen from 16% in 2007 to 23% in 2015. This is, as Shermer notes, the “fastest growing religious cohort in America.” But a fast-growing percentage of one group over a period of a mere 8 years does not equal the eventual disappearance of religion on the whole. Indeed, the first third of Shermer’s piece documents how religion has become much more public in this country over the past few decades. As have many who have written about the latest Pew data, Shermer uses the numbers conveniently (amusingly, evangelicals did the same thing).
This [23%] translates into 56 million religiously unaffiliated adults of all ages, more than mainline Protestants or Catholics and second only to evangelical Protestants. This translates into 19 million more people who have no religion just since 2007, an encouraging trend for those who have grown weary of America’s slide toward theocracy.
That this group has grown rapidly is note-worthy, to be sure, but it is not at all clear that Americans have suddenly lost their religion. The creation of the category “nones” no doubt has influenced the growth in survey responses of this kind as has the pushback against “institutionalized religion,” seen significantly in the Spiritual But Not Religious group. Moreover, over 70% of the country still identifies as Christian. We have a long way to go for Shermer’s dream to be realized. And, while the unaffiliated group is growing in the U.S. and France, the trend is reversed in the rest of the world, as Pew has also pointed out.
Shermer praises the Enlightenment for the trend that he is seeing (and conveniently plugs his new book which makes the same claim: The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity Toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom). Shermer is glad to see this change because all religions are bad. Well, he doesn’t put it exactly like that. Instead, he says
The rules made up and enshrined by the various religions over the millennia did not have as their goal the expansion of the moral sphere to include more and more people.
Shermer takes Judaism to task because the Israelites fought other people groups like the Moabites, Edomites, and Midianites in the Bible and they weren’t concerned with “mak[ing] life better” for them. These stories, which are of questionable historical veracity, Shermer takes as evidence that “religion is tribal and xenophobic by nature.” The only reason Jews and Christians aren’t trying to kill everybody else right now is because they “went through the Enlightenment and came out the other side less violent and more tolerant.” Islam, according to Shermer, was largely able to escape the reach of the Enlightenment, much to his chagrin.
The Enlightenment secular values that we hold dear today – equal treatment under the law, equal opportunity for all, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, civil rights and civil liberties for everyone, the equality of women and minorities, and especially the separation of church and state and the freedom to practice any religion or no religion at all – were inculcated into the minds of Jews and Christians and others in the West, but not so much in Muslim countries, particularly when it comes to those who would prefer a return to a 7th century theocracy.
Shermer’s swipe at ISIS has the effect of charging all Muslims of not being enlightened enough, which I suppose is unavoidable when his list of “Enlightenment secular values” looks remarkably like secular 20th and 21st century America.
Shermer’s greatest failure, though, is his inability to see that he is exemplifying exactly what he is criticizing.
In other words, faith forms an identity of those like us, in sharp distinction from those not us, variously characterized as heathens or unbelievers.
Shermer is right that religion often employs an “us vs. them” tactic, but this is not reserved for religions. He too is attempting to force the world into his own classificatory system. On the one hand, there are those who believe, accept, and push the “Enlightenment secular values” that he has chosen to champion. These are the “believers,” the “faithful.” The heathen, on the other hand, are those pesky religious folks who cling to their God and their guns and eschew these values that are so obviously desirable.
While it is apparently possible for the white, middle-class skeptic Shermer to say that religion is disappearing because of his limited view of the world, the data simply does not bear that out (as he would know if he took the time to familiarize himself with the rest of Pew’s work). By 2050 there will be as many Muslims in the world as Christians, Hindus will still be the majority in India and will grow worldwide, and 40% of worldwide Christians will live in sub-Saharan Africa. All this while “atheists, agnostics and other people who do not affiliate with any religion . . . will make up a declining share of the world’s total population.” Those pesky dark-skinned people ruin everything, don’t they Shermer?