Like just about every Latino of my generation, I was raised Catholic.
And just like many Americans under the age of 60, I am no longer religious.
Yes, you have no doubt heard that for the first time, less than half of American adults are members of a church, mosque or synagogue, and that the “number of people who identify as non-religious has grown steadily in recent decades.”
But wait, it gets worse (if you’re the god-fearin’ type), because it’s not just those vague “non-religious” people whose numbers are increasing. We’re also seeing more straight-up atheists, who were thought to constitute about 3% of the population but whose actual percentage “could be much larger, perhaps even 10 times larger than previously estimated.”
Yikes! That’s a lot of godless heathens running around.
Naturally, we have questions about what all this means. The most obvious inquiry is to ask why non-religious and atheistic Americans are more common than ever before.
Well, in a crazy bit of irony—and to the consternation of right-wing Christians—it is not Hollywood liberals or militant secularists or god-hating college professors who are making Americans less religious.
It is the religious people themselves.
The ultimate plot twist is that “the swirling mix of right-wing politics and Christianity pursued by the Republican Party” has so disgusted many Americans, especially younger people, that millions of us have developed an “allergic reaction to the religious right.”
For example, just one-third of millennials are members of a church, about half the rate of baby boomers. And “there’s mounting evidence that today’s younger generations may be leaving religion for good.”
This makes sense. Younger people see old Republicans shrieking about gay people, trans people, and immigrants, and they are not impressed—particularly because so many millennials are gay, trans, or immigrants, or have friends who are. Add in the GOP’s surreal self-righteousness, blatant hypocrisy, and racist fearmongering, and you can see why so few young people are saying, “Sounds good, see you in church.”
Keep in mind that the United States “is facing a wave of right-wing Christian nationalist legislation in 2021, as the religious right aims to thrust Christianity into everyday American life.” And because the Republican Party is unwilling or unable to rein in these hyper-religious attacks, “the allergic reaction will continue to be seen—and thus more and more Americans will turn away from religion.”
In essence, the GOP is turning people against God.
I bet you didn’t see that one coming.
So is this bad news? Well, it certainly is for Republicans. But for the rest of us, America losing its faith might be surprisingly beneficial.
I’m not just talking about the fact that religious conservatives are causing a lot of problems right now, as evidenced by the fact that they are more likely to believe in harmful conspiracy theories.
And it’s not just because “vaccine skepticism is more widespread among white evangelicals than almost any other major bloc of Americans,” and that “racism among white Christians is higher than among the non-religious.”
Sure, while it would be nice to have fewer conspiracy theories, less bigotry, and fewer anti-vaxxers, those aren’t the main reasons why we should embrace the decline of religion.
Instead, consider that “democratic societies that have experienced the greatest degrees of secularization are among the healthiest, wealthiest, and safest in the world, enjoying relatively low rates of violent crime and high degrees of well-being and happiness.” And in an analysis of more than 100 countries, “increased secularism preceded GDP growth.” Furthermore, studies show that “a rapid loss of religion does not result in societal ruin.”
How could this be? If you eliminate the fear of a punishing deity, won’t people just rob, rape, and kill with abandon?
In fact, “highly secular democracies do a much better job of ameliorating homelessness and poverty by employing decidedly secular solutions,” because they are not relying on the goodness of the local church to feed poor people. And these societies realize that “affordable housing and subsidized healthcare do a far better job of alleviating the suffering of the poor and the sick than faith-based charities,” which can only address symptoms and not root causes. Basically, establishing “rational social policies and wise economic strategies” works better than hoping God will open a window or that Jesus will take the wheel.
In addition, secular people are far more likely “to understand and respect the scientific method,” and are more supportive of sex education, reproductive rights, universal healthcare, gay rights, environmental protections, gun safety legislation and “treating drug abuse as a medical rather than criminal problem—all of which [can] serve to increase dignity, liberty, and well-being in America.”
Clearly, leaving religion behind should not be a scary concept for us. In fact, it could actually improve the country tremendously.
Still, what about those Americans who are terrified at the thought of atheists moving in next door, or television preachers closing their mega-churches, or politicians declining to loudly praise God in every speech? What can they do to alleviate their fear of religion’s decline?
Well, all I can offer are my thoughts and prayers.