The United States is by an impressive margin the most religious of the developed nations. This should not be a source of national pride. I think, optimistically, that Americans have more common sense and fortitude than our purported piety implies, and that eventually we will slough off superstition and embrace more rational worldviews. The just-released results of the American Religious Identification Survey suggest that my optimism is not misguided: since 1990, Christian belief in this country has declined by 11%, and the percentage of Americans identified as non-religious has doubled.
I note that the Boston Globe reported on Catholicism’s decline (“Number of N.E. Catholics tumbles,” 3/9/09), but did no reporting on the growth of Atheism. The ARIS report indicates that 16% of Massachusetts residents profess “no religion,” meaning that about one million non-believers work, raise families, vote, and volunteer here in the Commonwealth. In light of that omission, I’d like to share a few thoughts about what this huge number of non-believers means – and what it doesn’t mean.
What it doesn’t mean is that the nation is experiencing the effects of new, terrible developments in war or famine, the kinds of trauma that lead people away from belief in gods. Rather, we are beginning to see what happens when the single greatest obstacle to Atheism is removed. Until very recently, people who shrugged off the received wisdom about deities faced a dilemma: either profess false belief and be accepted, or be shunned as an arrogant and probably communist apostate. Enter the Internet. Information technology now provided almost every American with an exit from religious isolation, and with a portal to the information and community available online. My hypothesis is that as technology improves, religion loses its stick and rationality gets the carrot.
I don’t believe this demographic trend is temporary or cyclical. We Atheists have always been here – indeed, it is insulting, even slanderous, to suggest that everyone who has ever professed religious belief actually believes it – but truth be told it hasn’t always been polite, or safe, to make ourselves known. Now that it is easier and more comfortable to admit to disbelief, we are coming out of the woodwork. And the more of us that do, the more able we will be to offer a sense of community to those others who have yet to come out.
News of this survey may well embolden more Atheists to come out of the closet. They should know that groups such as the Humanist Association of Massachusetts, the Ethical Society of Boston, and our own Boston Atheists (a local affiliate of American Atheists), are always pleased to welcome new members. As for myself, I welcome these data as evidence that our society is becoming more tolerant and more rational… and that the increasingly vocal and visible Atheist constituency continues to grow into a thriving community.