Rising intelligence, education and the scientific outlook have altered the culture until more people doubt the magical claims of churches.
Back in the 1960s, the TV show That Was the Week that Was delighted cynical viewers. One episode showed Democratic Party insiders choosing a running mate for President Lyndon Johnson. The discussion went like this:
“We need a balanced ticket. Mr. Johnson is a southerner, so we need a northerner for veep. And Johnson is conservative, so we need someone more progressive. And Johnson is religious, so we need someone less so. And Johnson is sober, so we need someone a bit looser.
So what we need is: a northern, liberal, atheist drunk.
Now the question is: Which one?”
The skit was funny because it contained a nugget of truth: Progressive northern Americans were losing belief in supernatural gods and devils, and ignoring church strictures against alcohol and other Puritanical taboos.
The cultural history of America is fascinating. There was an evangelical Great Awakening in the mid-1700s that drew multitudes of believers into churches. Then a Second Great Awakening in the early 1800s that did likewise. Then a Third Great Awakening in the late 1800s, ditto.
Well, I think America is enjoying a Fourth Great Awakening—a rational shift away from religion, a growing realization that gods and devils, heavens and hells, miracles and prophecies, are just fairy tales, unfit for intelligent, educated people. We’re living through an awakening to atheism.
A new Secular Age is snowballing around us. Thousands of reports have been written about the remarkably rapid collapse of religion in western democracies. Researchers generally cite three causes:
- The transformation of white evangelicals into a narrow-minded wing of the Republican Party is so repulsive that it alienates modern young people.
- Standards of living have grown so comfortable and secure that fewer people need supernatural gods to beg for help.
- Decline of young married couples with children reduces the basic segment of church membership.
All those explanations surely offer parts of the truth. And I propose a fourth cause:
Rising intelligence, education and the scientific outlook have altered the culture until more people doubt the magical claims of churches. Smarter people see that religion simply isn’t true. No invisible god created the universe and cancer, earthquakes, spina bifida, hurricanes, etc. No invisible god impregnated a virgin to make a half-human, half-divine son. People don’t live after they die, heading to a happy heaven or horrible hell. That’s all mumbo-jumbo.
We’re in a scientific age, when supernatural stories can’t be swallowed without evidence.
For centuries, the brightest thinkers have seen this reality. In Ancient Greece, Prodicus said: “The gods of popular belief do not exist.” Ever since, a few top writers and leaders have seen this truth.
I turned 90 this past month. I’m sad that I won’t see the evolution of western culture much longer. But I hope the Fourth Great Awakening keeps rolling until religion is generally considered a silly myth.
(Haught is editor emeritus of West Virginia’s largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette-Mail, and a senior editor of Free Inquiry magazine.)