By James A. Haught
This is a heady era for freethinkers — we nonconformists who doubt supernatural gods, devils, heavens, hells, miracles, angels, demons, prophecies, apparitions and other magical claims of religion.
Finally, after thousands of years of church domination, the cultural tide of Western civilization is flowing our direction. Religion is losing its grip on democratic societies. The Secular Age is blossoming rapidly. Doubters no longer need to conceal their mental honesty.
Ever since ancient Greece, some scientific thinkers questioned supernatural dogmas. But it was risky. The priesthood wielded great power, and killed nonconformists. During many periods, you could be executed for questioning invisible deities. Skeptics and other misfits were burned at the stake for a dozen centuries. After burnings ceased, you still could be thrown in prison for "blasphemy." Even today, people are killed in some Islamic lands for questioning holy dogmas.
However, Western civilization began to evolve away from religious control after The Enlightenment fostered scientific logic and reason. Ever since, in halting steps, gradual progress has been made toward intellectual inquiry. A breakthrough erupted in the 1850s when Charles Darwin postulated that all living things, including humans, evolved from simpler life forms. This jolted the church and triggered strong freethought in the late 1800s.
Regardless, religion kept an iron clutch on much of the culture. When I came of age in the 1950s in Appalachia's Bible Belt, church taboos ruled. It was a crime for stores to open on the Sabbath. It was a crime to buy a cocktail — or a lottery ticket — or look at the equivalent of a Playboy magazine or an R-rated movie, or even read about sex. Our Republican mayor in Charleston once sent police to raid bookstores selling "Peyton Place."
It was a crime for an unmarried couple to share a bedroom. It was a felony for a desperate girl to end a pregnancy. In some states, even birth control was illegal. School classes began with mandatory prayer. Jews weren't allowed into Christian-only country clubs.
Divorce was hush-hush. Back then, anyone who didn't belong to a proper, respectable church was held in contempt.
Gradually, the right to doubt and elude church suppression crept into daily life. The Supreme Court banned government-ordered school prayer in 1962 and mandatory classroom bible-reading in 1963. It allowed married couples to practice birth control in 1965 — and unwed couples to do so in 1972. A long series of rulings halted bluenose censorship of sexy books, magazines and movies. And religious displays on government property have been partly banned.
All those Bible Belt strictures of my youth slowly slipped away — thanks partly to the sexual revolution. Liquor clubs and lotteries became legal. Sexy magazines and movies were allowed. Sunday shopping blossomed. Unwed couples began living together. Abortion became legal. Church taboos simply evaporated.
Post-war secular surge
A secular surge swept Europe after World War II. Church attendance plummeted. Nations that had spent centuries killing people over religion — in Crusades, Inquisitions, witch hunts, pogroms, Reformation wars, persecutions, holy wars and massacres — decided that religion was inconsequential. Europe's transformation spread to Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and other advanced democracies.
At first, it seemed that America was an exception, a place where religion remained strong. But, in recent decades, America rapidly caught up with the Western world. Religion lost its grip on the country.
Church decline started in the 1960s when tall-steeple mainline denominations began losing members, then the erosion spread to evangelicals and Catholics. The Southern Baptist Church has lost 1 million members in the past decade. And so many white followers left Catholicism that one-tenth of U.S. adults now are ex-Catholics.
The number of Americans who say their faith is "none" soared remarkably since 1990. Now the "Nones" are America's largest group, almost 25 percent of the adult population — outnumbering Catholics (21 percent) and white evangelicals (16 percent).
Barack Obama was the first president to welcome skeptic groups to the White House and cite "those who have no religion" in his speeches. The Supreme Court ruling in favor of gay marriage was a crippling blow to hidebound Christianity.
Abruptly, almost overnight, the Secular Age has hit America like a tsunami. We who crusade for the scientific mentality, opposing supernaturalism, are winning the culture war, month after month, year after year. New studies find that skeptics have higher IQ than believers.
Sociologist Phil Zuckerman says Scandinavia has progressed until the populace generally assumes that only small children believe in invisible spirits, while intelligent adults are expected to outgrow this infantilism. I think America is creeping in that direction. Someday, I hope, it will be embarrassing for any American in educated circles to avow supernatural religion.
In his landmark book, The End of White Christian America, Robert P. Jones of the Public Religion Research Institute states that young Americans who say their religion is "none" generally are socially liberal, supporting gay rights, universal health care, women's right to choose, and the like. But they hardly vote. Apparently they shun politics as much as they shun religion. This gives white evangelicals — although fading — an advantage. White evangelicals turned out overwhelmingly in 2016 to put Donald Trump into the White House.
In a New York Times commentary, Jones wrote: "The waning number of white Christians in the country today may not have time on their side, but as the sun is slowly setting on the cultural world of white Christian America, they've managed, at least in this election, to rage against the dying of the light."
In an updated paperback of his book, Jones said white evangelicals abandoned their morality to support an uncouth, twice-divorced, gambling billionaire who boasts of grabbing women's genitals. He said the 2016 election may be the "death rattle" of fundamentalism in America.
I certainly hope so — and I hope secularism keeps snowballing until we scientific-minded freethinkers stand proud as the intelligent majority in this country.
James A. Haught is editor emeritus of West Virginia's largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette-Mail. This essay — a talk he delivered to the Pittsburgh Freethought Community — expands upon his 2014 book, Religion is Dying.