An idea whose time came and went

The history of the West is a succession of epochs, and I suppose we should define that word:  (1) an event or a time marked by an event that begins a new period or development, (2) an extended period of time usually characterized by a distinctive development or by a memorable series of events.  This comes in handy when the authors of history textbooks are coming up with chapter titles — The Renaissance,  The Enlightenment, The Colonial Era, The Industrial Revolution, and so on (World Wars, Atomic Age, Space Race, Civil Rights Era, etc.).  The West has turned a corner, rooting itself in science and evidence — a secular age.

Since 1990, the religiously unaffiliated, better known as the “nones” in an ironic pun, have steadily gained in number.  Gallup has been polling Americans about their religious affiliation since 1937; throughout the 20th century, the answers were, for the most part, consistent showing that a majority, roughly 70%, said they belonged to a church, a synagogue, a mosque, or other house of worship.  But in the 21st century, religious affiliation began to drop as if from a cliff.  Since 2015, twenty-five million people have departed their organized religions (8% of the entire US population); in 2015, 55% of Americans (a narrow majority) were members of a religion, but by 2020, that number dropped to only 47%.

Previous studies had demonstrated conclusively that what began in Europe after World War II was spreading throughout western democracies.  The relentless retreat of religion first jumped the Atlantic and took hold in Canada before crossing the Pacific to Japan, Australia, and New Zealand.  It seemed America was the exception, but that has changed.  Younger Americans are less likely to describe the United States as a “Christian nation,” according to Daniel Cox, research director at The Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), a nonprofit, nonpartisan research and education organization that conducts public opinion polls on a variety of different topics, specializing in the quantitative and qualitative study of political issues as they relate to religious values.  He added, “It is no longer the case among young people that being religious is necessarily a positive attribute."

This shift away from religion is happening across the traditional dividing lines, affecting all genders, races, education levels, and political ideologies.  That said, however, it has pronounced tribalistic political implications.  White, evangelical Christians are the base of the Republican party which has been co-opted by Trumpism with its attendant conspiracy theories, tenuous grasp of reality, and flagrant disregard for democratic values or even common sense and decency.  While, at the same time, younger, ethnically diverse “nones” form the base of the Democratic party.  The decline in religious belief corresponds to a decreasing base of those with conservative political leanings, while liberals and progressives are ascendent.  The real-world implications should be obvious.

What accounts for this rapid social transformation?  The Internet which lays at our fingertips a world-wide array of ideas and practices and cultures that undercut old-timey regional beliefs?  A redefinition of "family” that severs traditional homogenized participation in local congregations from which cultural identity was drawn?  A growing cynicism surrounding authority of all types?  Fundamentalist hostility toward abortion and LGBTQ people which has offended the majority of tolerant-minded Americans?  Rampant clergy sexual abuse of children and demonstrated evidence of institutional coverup revealing a truly breathtaking hypocrisy that has rendered religious claims to moral authority laughable?  Or is it just that In the scientific 21st century, it’s less necessary to look to invisible gods, devils, angels, and demons to explain everything from earthquakes to eclipses?  Virgin births, resurrections, miracles, messiahs, prophecies, faith-healings, visions, incarnations, incantations, divine visitations, and other supernatural claims just seem so quaint; magical thinking like this is ludicrous — it’s an affront to intelligent, educated people.  Ridiculous beliefs, by definition, deserve ridicule.

There was a human being in the first century who was called “Divine,” "Son of God,” “God,” and "God from God,” whose titles were “Lord,” “Redeemer,” “Liberator,” and “Saviour [sic... UK spelling] of the World” … most Christians probably think that those titles were originally created and uniquely applied to Christ. But before Jesus ever existed, all those terms belonged to Caesar Augustus.
(John Dominic Crossan, God and Empire)

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