Why would a young person today be religious? Why, indeed?

Damon Linker recently argued in an article on The Week that “until religion comes to grips with and responds creatively to the fact of pluralism, it will find itself embroiled in a battle against reality.”

This declaration comes in the context of his struggle to identify what “if anything, can organized religions say in response to the rise of the nones? How might they make a case for religious faith and observance? Why should a young person choose to be seriously religious today?”

I spent my time, reading this article, wondering when Linker would – in fact – respond creatively to the fact of pluralism. In this essay, he has no response. I am sure Linker *has* a response to pluralism, but this time he leaves his readers in the dark as to what that response may be…

Meanwhile, Linker ponders “the great promise held out by the great monotheistic traditions: To grant us a coherent account of the whole of things.”

How can any single one religious tradition grant a coherent account of the whole of a pluralistic world?

Dismissively, Linker asserts without support that “atheists often act as if the findings of modern science (including critical biblical scholarship) make belief in traditional religion impossible, but that issue is typically overstated.”

Additionally, Linker implicitly blames the decrease in religious observance on the “pervasive irony and cynicism of our age” and “the often horrifying contrast between biblical moral teachings and the behavior of clerics and other ecclesiastical bureaucrats.”

Those issues aside, Linker severely underestimates the various challenges faced by monotheistic religion in the 21st century. There is not one giant hurdle that monotheistic religion can avoid – there are a multitude of obstacles which, collectively, endanger the viability of the “coherent account” of the monotheistic faiths.

In addition to pluralism (don’t worry, we’ll get there eventually), what are some of those challenges?

1. The politicization of religion: the relationship between nationalism, political ideology, and religious faith is an enduring and historic one. It is also deeply problematic. I suspect Linker would agree with me that, for example, the “religious right” has poisoned the image of Christianity for many young people; however, that is only a small part of the problem here. That patriotism and religious identification are believed to be connected, historically and in many countries today, undermines the veracity of faith as a divine ideal…because this political relationship simply reeks of human ends. Every opportunistic politician seizing religion as a wedge is another challenge to the idea that religion is not a human creation – this process is a testimony to the extreme humanity of religion.

2. The end of the charity monopoly: non-religious and secular organizations are fighting for a better world. No longer can the religious criticize atheists for indifference to suffering, or imply that a challenge to religious orthodoxy is a challenge to morality, when so many atheists are actively and publicly working to take better care of their fellow human beings. Chris Stedman wrote a fantastic article about a shift in the atheist community to increase civic engagement and spur a renewed focus on serving communities in need. Stedman also highlights the work of a wonderful organization called Foundation Beyond Belief, a group of secular people who are donating to a variety of charitable initiatives – and promoting local service through their Beyond Belief Network.

However, as we learned when TIME’s Joe Klein lambasted atheists for failing to help the victims of last year’s vicious tornado in Moore, Oklahoma when (very easily found) evidence pointed out that lots of atheist groups were, in fact, providing assistance to the victims after all – and both Klein and TIME refused to issue a full correction and/or apology – that episode demonstrated that sometimes, no matter what atheists do, prejudice will still blind the eyes of people determined to hold tightly to their ignorant and harmful assumptions.

3. The prevalence of technology: it is no longer possible to entirely stifle the questioning of religious beliefs or to imply that atheism, as an idea, is not in the mainstream.  The outpouring of atheist bloggers, videomakers, authors, musicians, and public speakers from the Internet is astounding and cannot be denied.  Atheists who live in communities that frown upon non-religious ideas can now communicate easily with other atheists to gain advice and encouragement, can more easily access resources about atheism, and can gain tools to organize in their schools and communities. 

4. More atheists are “coming out” and living openly: the stigmas of the past are not sustainable. Atheists, agnostics, and other secular people are energized, organized, and showing the world that we are ordinary, caring, active members of our families, businesses, and communities. Greta Christina’s new book, “Coming Out Atheist”, is one example which provides context for the growing number of atheists who are deciding to “come out”, and the impetus and support which is motivating more people to make that decision.

5. Atheists fighting for inclusion and a positive moral vision: Being an atheist won’t make you a better person. But there are atheists fighting for a larger moral vision – this is great news that is long overdue. While the seedy, sexist underbelly of the atheist community has been significantly exposed during the last few years, I am encouraged by all the atheists fighting for inclusion, equality, and social justice. It’s certainly been – and continues to be – a difficult struggle, but when I listen to people like Rebecca Watson continue to fight the good fight, I know we’re making a difference.

Further, I believe that in the future, atheists will increasingly stand for positive values, rather than a mere attack on religion. In the past, atheists were seen (and in many places still are seen) as morally inferior, as suspect, as untrustworthy. There is a time coming soon when atheists will be the frontline cavalry fighting for moral advancement. Many of us are participating in these struggles already. Adam Lee and PZ Myers are among the people who have argued in the past – and still argue – that atheists and progressives fighting together can be a powerful force to unleash social change.

Once our society crosses that point, it will become absurdly implausible to suggest that atheism erodes morality. Atheists are at the forefront of many advances in civil rights – and the more society evolves, the more atheists will be seen in a favorable light. As atheists, it’s up to us to make those changes happen.

6. Pluralism!: Atheists have the world’s best way to account for pluralism, hands down. Is it more likely that all of these religions *save for one* are flagrantly wrong, or is it more likely that all the religious people who have ever lived were somehow right — but collectively missed the mark?

Atheists shouldn’t be the ones seen as condescending to religious people: what we’re saying is that all religious people are following the same human tendencies, that all people value tradition and community and ritual, that we *understand* why people turn to religion…it is the religious exclusivists who hold a genuinely condescending view: that no one truly understands religion except for one tradition or one sect of one religion? Come on.

To atheists, all human beings – atheist, religious, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Sikh, Buddhist, pagan – are on an equal epistemological footing. But too often in the “great monotheistic traditions”, the implication is that members of their religion own a superior understanding of religion that everyone else has somehow missed. How is that assumption compatible with a pluralistic world?

I haven’t even touched evolution, neuroscience, critical Biblical scholarship, archaeology, comparative religion, or religious hypocrisy.

Atheism is on the upswing among the young. Ultimately, I am glad that Damon Linker published his article, because this is not the first, nor the last, time that our society will be asking the prescient and rapidly more popular question, “why would a young person today be religious?”

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One Response to Why would a young person today be religious? Why, indeed?

  1. Matt says:

    “Is it more likely that all of these religions *save for one* are flagrantly wrong, or is it more likely that all the religious people who have ever lived were somehow right — but collectively missed the mark?”

    “If you are an atheist you do have to believe that the main point in all the religions of the whole world is simply one huge mistake. If you are a Christian, you are free to think that all those religions, even the queerest ones, contain at least some hint of the truth. When I was an atheist I had to try to persuade myself that most of the human race have always been wrong about the question that mattered to them most; when I became a Christian I was able to take a more liberal view.” -Lewis

    ___

    “But too often in the “great monotheistic traditions”, the implication is that members of their religion own a superior understanding of religion that everyone else has somehow missed.”

    “I found it was [my agnostic teachers'] daily taunt against Christianity that it was the light of one people and had left all others to die in the dark. But I also found that it was their special boast for themselves that science and progress were the discovery of one people, and that all other peoples had died in the dark. Their chief insult to Christianity was actually their chief compliment to themselves, and there seemed to be a strange unfairness about all their relative insistence on the two things.” -Chesterton

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