The Secularist's Corner

By Susan_Jacoby:

Here are my picks for the most important developments in secular thought and action during the past year, in order of importance. Do you agree or disagree? What developments would you add to his list? Read And Discuss….

In April, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reported that those with no religious affiliation—the unchurched--were the fastest-growing group in the American religious landscape. More than 16 percent said they belonged to no church and identified with no religious group. Fewer than half of those “Nones” had been raised without a religious affiliation. One of the more startling findings of the survey was that 25 percent of native-born Americans raised as Catholics had left the church. Among this group of ex-Catholics, 39 percent had not converted to another faith but were unaffiliated. I consider this an extremely positive development, because those who identify with no religion—whatever their beliefs or non-beliefs about the existence of a supreme being—are least likely to support religious intrusion on government and are least vulnerable to appeals from right-wing religion. Furthermore, the main reason cited for decline in religious affiliation was loss of belief in a particular religion’s teachings or in any religious teachings.

In his inaugural address, President Obama mentioned nonbelievers as a group of Americans worthy of respect. This is the first time a president, in a major address, has gone beyond the usual litany of respect for Americans of various religious faith and included Americans who reject religion.

One of the first actions of the Obama administration was to overturn the Bush administration’s policies banning research on new embryonic stem cell lines. In another science-friendly policy, the administration reversed the “gag rule” that had prevented international family planning programs receiving any American government money from even mentioning the option of abortion—even in countries in which hundreds of thousands of women have been raped by warring tribes.

This one is really a development of the decade. Predictions that the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 would bring about a “return to religion” proved unfounded. Church attendance spiked briefly in the first month after 9/11, after which the drop-off in churchgoing, and the rise of the unaffiliated, has continued until today.

The word “atheism,” long demonized in American political and social life, is losing some of its pejorative force—even though public opinion surveys continue to show that Americans are less likely to vote for an atheist for president than for an African-American (obviously, in view of the 2008 election), a woman, a gay, or any other member of a historically stigmatized group. I attribute this in large measure to the growing willingness of atheists to speak up and identify themselves instead of trying to hide behind other, less pejorative descriptions. It is unquestionable that the authors Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens deserve a good deal of credit for this by refusing to kowtow to the idea that all beliefs deserve respect simply because they are held by people of faith. The U.S. Constitution guarantees everyone a legal right to practice any sort of faith; it does not demand that religious beliefs be treated as facts. You may tell me that your god tells you the earth is flat, but you do not have the right to teach your beliefs in a public school with my tax dollars.

Washington Post: The Secularist's Corner