My daughter Anna sent me a Talking Points Memo by Steve Benen referring to Ross Douthat’s short piece in The Atlantic Monthly (“Crises of Faith”), which points to “a mass secularism that looks to Europe and sees a model for America to follow…” This is a first for America. Douthat’s point is that there is for the first time more than a tiny minority of publicly identified secularists in America. The definition of secular for him is polling data showing “no religious preference” or “no religious affiliation”. Particularly noteworthy is that 20% of 18-25 year-olds report no religious affiliation, up from 11% in the late 1980’s. A related finding is that 38% of Howard Dean activists described themselves as “secular” in a Pew study.
Douthart is actually interested in a different issue. He finds that Europe is becoming more religious while the U.S. is becoming more secular. Social science suggests, he says, that there is more controversy over religion in a society when the religious and non-religious groupings are closer to even. On the other hand, when a society is markedly religious or non-religious, there is less tension. So religion may become more contentious than ever. Douthart also suggests the possibility that Americans are becoming less religious as a symbolic act of hostility against the religious right.
I can attest to a fairly high level of liberal hostility to religion and to the generation gap between believers and non-believers on the left as well. When I speak on these matters to left-wing groups or am interviewed by left-wingers, passions run high in favor of keeping faith out of politics. And it is pretty rare to find 20-somethings who are themselves believers on the left, though obviously there must be many such persons.
This is all true despite the constant emphasis on God by all the Democratic Party Presidential hopefuls. The people who speak to me excuse such public comments out of simple political expediency to get rid of the Republicans.
All this points to a long-term secular trend in America. Yet, it must be remembered, as Douthart readily admits, that America remains enormously pro-religion in a public sense compared to Europe and will remain so for many years—while people my age die off, for example.
The question is, what will replace religion in America? In Europe there remains a high level of social cohesion. Europe is the land of universal health care, strong unions and small shops, especially compared to America. Secularism there has been humane. America in contrast is a land of individualism in which economic growth and military power have been potent symbols. When all those secular 18-25 year-olds have careers and children, what kind of society will they build? In America at least, materialism is the likely alternative to organized religion.