Overview:

In the Western world, like a cornered, injured animal, religion is both weaker and more dangerous than ever.

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[Previous: The decline of religion: the good news]

Religion is in decline throughout the Western world, and this trend shows no signs of slowing down. From an atheist perspective, this is very good news.

Now, here’s the bad news.

Although religion is weaker, it’s far from dead. It still has millions of fervent members, and it wields cultural influence above and beyond its actual numbers, especially in America, which has always been unusually religious among the industrialized countries.

What’s worse, as they shrink, many churches are becoming more belligerently conservative. They’ve grown more insistent in their absolutism, more suspicious of outsiders, more fervent in their rejection of science and moral progress, more susceptible to fevered conspiracy theories, more hostile to democracy when it seems democracy isn’t going to deliver the outcome they desire.

The Fox-Newsification of Christianity

As I wrote previously, higher levels of education and increased political partisanship are driving people away from religion. But the downside of this trend is that, as the more educated, moderate and liberal members head for the exits, the ones left over are the hardcore conservatives and fundamentalists, who then have a freer hand in setting denominational policy.

This ideological sorting feeds on itself. As conservatives gain influence, more liberals get fed up and leave to seek greener pastures, which leads to conservatives gaining yet more influence. The leaders who rise to power in these circumstances are those who stand out as the most conservative, the most ideologically rigid, the most doctrinaire, in order to appeal to flocks that value those qualities above all else.

Meanwhile, as the churches have grown starkly conservative, the wider world has grown more liberal. The widespread acceptance of feminism and LGBTQ rights, greater flexibility in gender roles, the need for societal cooperation to fight the pandemic, the rising importance of racial justice and climate change as urgent causes—these are major moral issues that churches had little or nothing to say about at best, or outright fought against at worst. Instead, their ultra-conservative leaders have sought to fix their flocks’ attention on a list of right-wing grievances, from abortion to guns to school prayer to illegal immigration to “cancel culture”. You could describe it as the Fox Newsification of the Christian media landscape.

Evangelicals versus everybody

In America, the political divide can best be summarized as white evangelical Protestants versus everybody else. And this group’s self-imposed isolation feeds their sense of persecution. They feel that the culture has slipped away from them, that they’ve suddenly become an outcast and besieged minority in a country they once felt they ruled by right. This sense of privileged distress stokes their rage and paranoia.

The Christian right’s deification of Donald Trump, a depraved, adulterous tycoon who brags about his wealth and his power to sexually assault women, is the clarifying example. Trump is the antithesis of everything these Christians claim to stand for. But he promises them power, and that’s what they crave above all else, so they cling to him with cultish intensity.

The religious right wants to turn back the clock to a time when they didn’t have to share power or tolerate other viewpoints. And although that’s impossible, they’d gladly smash the world to pieces in the attempt. The January 6 insurrection was the biggest eruption of this mindset. It failed to disrupt the U.S. presidential election, but we can’t rest easy, because its instigators have every intention of trying again.

The political divide can best be summarized as white evangelical Protestants versus everybody else.

Nor is this problem confined to America. On the contrary, right-wing Christians professing admiration for thuggish strongmen and autocrats like Vladimir Putin, Hungary’s Viktor Orban or Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro show that this ideology is metastasizing across national borders. In the coming century, it’s very possible that religion will become a global anti-democratic force.

The end of the road

This, then, is the contours of our culture war. Religion is bleeding members, wounded and diminished, commanding less strength than it once did. But that makes it dangerous in the way a wounded animal is dangerous – more aggressive, more likely to lash out. Worse, the remaining members are the most recalcitrant, rage-filled and conspiracy-addled. They’ll be almost impossible to persuade, if it can be done at all. (One big symptom is the way the QAnon conspiracy theory is gobbling up evangelical churches.)

On the bright side, demographics are in our favor. The fundamentalists are old and getting older. Each younger generation is more secular than its predecessors. That’s why the religious right wants to seize power through undemocratic means – because they know democratic means won’t suffice anymore. That means atheists can win the culture war just by holding them at bay.

The big, looming question is what lies at the end of this road. Will religion keep dwindling to extinction, so that an enlightened future will view it as an artifact of the ignorant past? Or will there always be some non-zero number of people drawn to believe in gods, so that it eventually reaches a stable state? If the latter, will religion reemerge kinder and gentler, reconciled to modernity and no longer hungry for power… or will it become a violent insurgency seeking revenge on a world that’s left it behind?

DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...