Best time ever to be a freethinker is now! By James A. Haught

FFRF member Jim Haught gave this talk July 25 in Charleston, W.Va., at an event jointly sponsored by the Charleston Secular Humanist Community Center and the Morgantown Atheists.

By James A. Haught

In the entire history of civilization, the best time for us religious skeptics is now. America’s culture rapidly is swinging our way. The Secular Age is snowballing, right before our eyes. Post-Christian America is arriving at a gallop.

Once, we would have been burned at the stake as heretics, or thrown into prison for blasphemy. But now, finally, Western society is reaching a point at which old social stigmas against doubters are disappearing. We may become the new majority.

We live in a time of victory for honest, intelligent, rational, educated, scientific thinking. We are watching the relentless decline of supernatural religion, with its magical gods, devils, heavens, hells, angels, demons, miracles, revelations, virgin births, visions, resurrections, divine prophecies, holy visitations, incarnations, reincarnations, second comings and such bible stuff.

Year after year, the culture around us is evolving. Secularism is taking over America, just as it previously did in Europe, Canada, Australia, Japan and other advanced democracies. The supernatural mentality still prevails in the Muslim world — and in less-developed tropical zones — but the modern West is leaving it behind.

I’m in my 80s, so I’ve had a long time to see the transformation. Few remember what the bible belt was like in the 1950s. Back then, it was a crime for stores to open on the Sabbath. It was a crime to buy a cocktail or a lottery ticket. It was a crime to look at something like a Playboy magazine or to read a sexy book. (I remember when our mayor sent police to raid bookstores that sold Peyton Place.) It was a crime for an unmarried couple to share a bedroom. It was a felony to be gay, and homosexuals were sent to the old stone prison at Moundsville. It was a felony for a desperate girl to end a pregnancy. Jews weren’t allowed into Christian country clubs. Prayer was mandatory in school classrooms. Church-supported laws dominated.

That world has simply disappeared, decade after decade. The culture evolved. Sunday “blue laws” were undone. Teacher-led school prayers were banned. Gay sex became legal. Liquor clubs were approved. Abortion became legal. State governments became lottery operators. Censorship ended. Other church taboos gradually disappeared.

Within my lifetime, morality flip-flopped. Religion lost its grip on American society, yet it happened so gradually that hardly anyone noticed. Creeping secularism slowly won the day, defeating religion step by step.
Along with the transformation of laws, religion suffered drastic decline of church membership. After World War II, faith collapsed in Europe and other Western democracies. America seemed an exception, but the secular tidal wave finally arrived. Since the 1990s, surveys find a snowballing increase in young Americans who say their religion is “none.” A Pew Religious Landscape report in May found that “nones” have climbed to nearly one-fourth of America’s adult population, while the number of aging church members keeps shrinking. Significantly, 35% of those under age 34 eschew religion. The secular trend seems unstoppable.
Most people don’t quite grasp it, but the rapid American acceptance of gay equality, and the stunning Supreme Court ruling that made same-sex marriage legal nationwide, shook religion like an earthquake. David Brooks of The New York Times wrote:

“American culture is shifting away from orthodox Christian positions on homosexuality, premarital sex, contraception, out-of-wedlock childbearing, divorce and a range of other social issues. More and more Christians feel estranged from mainstream culture. They fear that they soon will be treated as social pariahs, the moral equivalent of segregationists because of their adherence to scriptural teaching on gay marriage. They fear that their colleges will be decertified, their religious institutions will lose their tax-exempt status. . . . The Supreme Court’s gay marriage decision landed like some sort of culminating body blow onto this beleaguered climate.”

Rod Dreher of The American Conservative wrote that the high court ruling “did not come from nowhere. It is the logical result of the Sexual Revolution, which valorized erotic liberty.” He added, “We have to accept that we really are living in a culturally post-Christian nation.”

Of course, millions of Americans still belong to churches and will continue to do so. But evolving public attitudes may relegate believers to low status, shunned by intelligent, educated, scientific-minded people. For example, Atlantic Monthly reported: “In 2012, roughly a quarter of American religious congregations reported instances of members ‘speaking in tongues,’ a 5-percentage-point bump from what was reported in 1998.”

Churchgoers of this sort are laughable to mainstream society. The culture doesn’t take them seriously. Lowbrow “holy roller” Christianity won’t wield much influence over this nation.

After decades of struggle ­— centuries, actually — freethinkers are witnessing a collapse of supernatural religion in America. We doubters no longer need hide our skepticism; we can declare it proudly. It is the hallmark of intelligence and education. We are the new dominant force, prevailing at last.

As I said at the start, the best time to be a skeptic is now.

James Haught is editor of West Virginia’s largest newspaper, the Charleston Gazette-Mail. His latest book is Religion Is Dying.

Freedom From Religion Foundation