Monday, March 31, 2014

The Growth of Atheism: Intermission

Up to now I’ve documented atheism’s roots and the cultural changes which fertilized its growth in the West, and the parallel decline of religion and the family.  I know that in some pockets of religious fervor this might seem only a story, a worry about where we might be going --- but I see more and more evidence of how far we have declined, and how so matter-of-factly it is accepted.  This is not just a story.

The editorial in the April 7, 2014 issue of Fortune magazine begins with a quote from the American novelist Philip Roth: 

“The power in any society is with those who get to impose the fantasy.  It is no longer, as it was for centuries throughout Europe, the church that imposes its fantasy on the populace, nor is it the totalitarian super state that imposes the fantasy, as it did for 12 years in Nazi Germany and for 69 years in the Soviet Union.  Now the fantasy that prevails is the all-consuming, voraciously consumed popular culture, seemingly spawned by, of all things, freedom.  The young especially live according to beliefs that are thought up for them by the society’s most unthinking people and by the businesses least impeded by innocent ends.”

Andy Serwer, Managing Editor of Fortune goes on to note in his editorial comments:

“For better or for worse, organized religion, government, sports, and, yes, big business have been discredited and hold much less sway over us.  And as pop culture becomes more tightly fused with technology … the power and immediacy of pop culture is heightened every second.  Condemnation?  Not necessarily.  Fact?  Absolutely…. One of the few institutions I could think of that even begin to rival the unfettered rise of popular culture is our colleges and universities, if only because they haven’t been discredited as the others have.  Americans still have tremendous respect for the likes of Yale, Indiana University, and Pomona.  But if the academy isn’t careful, admissions scandals, outrageous athletics policies, and hubris that comes with the riches of a place like today’s Stanford will bring them down too.”

I almost laughed at the Fortune article.  This “wise” editor first admits how far the culture has fallen, and then places hope in universities.  Maybe he is just ignorant.  Perhaps he doesn’t know that Princeton’s head of the Ethics Department believes that parents of unwanted children under the age of 5 should be permitted to kill them.  Or perhaps he didn’t read where the University of Illinois fired a teacher of a Comparative Religions class because he dared to read out of the Bible and discuss if it might be true.  Perhaps he doesn’t know that over 90% of college professors label themselves as liberal; the majority do not attend any church.  No, if we are to slow or stop our decline, it won’t be by relying on our colleges, which actively teach youths how to defy religion and their families --- and to “look out for yourself, number one.”

But while Fortune’s Mr Serwer big worry is that colleges might implement some “outrageous athletics policies,” over in the Wall Street Journal Mr Charles Murray wrote an article titled:  Advice For a Happy Life (Saturday, March 29, 2014).  While the article began as I expected, I was surprised to read his fourth point:  4. Take Religion Seriously.  Really?  This is what he wrote:
“Now that we're alone, here's where a lot of you stand when it comes to religion: It isn't for you. You don't mind if other people are devout, but you don't get it. Smart people don't believe that stuff anymore.  Some of you grew up with parents who weren't religious, and you've never given religion a thought. Others of you followed the religion of your parents as children but left religion behind as you were socialized by college.  By socialized, I don't mean that you studied theology under professors who persuaded you that Thomas Aquinas was wrong. You didn't study theology at all. None of the professors you admired were religious. When the topic of religion came up, they treated it dismissively or as a subject of humor. You went along with the zeitgeist.
My wife, prompted by the birth of our first child, had found a religious tradition in which she was comfortable. I began keeping her company and started reading on religion. I still describe myself as an agnostic, but my unbelief is getting shaky.
Taking religion seriously means work. It can easily require as much intellectual effort as a law degree.  I certainly have developed a far greater appreciation for Christianity, the tradition with which I'm most familiar. The Sunday school stories I learned as a child bear no resemblance to Christianity taken seriously. You've got to grapple with the real thing.  Start by jarring yourself out of unreflective atheism or agnosticism. A good way to do that is to read about contemporary cosmology. The universe isn't only stranger than we knew; it is stranger and vastly more unlikely than we could have imagined, and we aren't even close to discovering its last mysteries. That reading won't lead you to religion, but it may stop you from being unreflective.
Find ways to put yourself around people who are profoundly religious. You will encounter individuals whose intelligence, judgment and critical faculties are as impressive as those of your smartest atheist friends—and who also possess a disquieting confidence in an underlying reality behind the many religious dogmas.  They have learned to reconcile faith and reason, yes, but beyond that, they persuasively convey ways of knowing that transcend intellectual understanding. They exhibit in their own personae a kind of wisdom that goes beyond just having intelligence and good judgment.  Start reading religious literature. The past hundred years have produced excellent and accessible work, much of it written by people who came to adulthood as uninvolved in religion as you are.”
I said I was surprised by the article.  While admitting that “a lot” of youths (and himself, although he notes he is 47) don’t believe in God or religion, he does get around to thinking about it.  It’s a start.  I also thought it interesting WHY he began thinking about religion:  his family.  Building a family can be a start point for re-building a culture. 
But then, as if to re-emphasize the point, in today’s Wall Street Journal I read of a recent study which said that 2012 was the lowest fertility rate EVER recorded in American history.  It noted record low numbers of grandparents associating with their grandchildren.  It also noted that by 2020 25% of American women over 50 will NEVER have grandchildren. 
For any who would doubt the seriousness of the increase of atheism, the decrease of religion, the decrease of family, you only have to read the newspapers.  Mr. Roth hits the nail on the head in the first quote above.  At the heart of our culture’s decline is how we are using our freedom.  We are thinking --- and teaching --- that freedom is all about you and what you want, for yourself.  You have the freedom to make yourself happy, in any way you want.
In our country’s history, in the history of Christianity, that is not the definition of freedom.  And if we continue with this thinking, whether atheist, agnostic, or Christian, we will all be the worse for it.  We need to change course.  Somehow.  

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