Seemingly everywhere you turn, there's some study that younger people are turning to religious apathy and atheism. Many people lament that, but I see this as an awesome development. Allow me to ironically preach a little bit.
Because most Americans are religious to some degree, the prevalent belief is that religion is a necessary source for morals, ethics and other behavioral standards. Coming from that stance, it’s not hard to see why an increasingly secular public is a cause for concern; without the thin blue line of spiritual consequence, what would keep us from just all killing each other and doing whatever we wanted? God forbid!
Well, I’m one of those scary people. Maybe I can explain.
I’ve always been very open about my lack of religion. I do not attend church and don’t pretend to harbor any certainty about the nature of the spiritual (which includes the notion that there is no God — I don’t know that either, so I don’t consider myself an atheist). And yet, I could not be remotely considered, by any metric, a wicked person. I live a very clean life, comparable to those prescribed by some very straight-and-narrow denominations. I abhor prejudice, war and killing. I try to be humble, or at least not appear on the lower rungs of reality TV.
I’ve been asked lots of times how I can have any morals if I don’t subscribe to religion. But that’s easy: of course I have morals. Very strong ones, in fact. And I have them not through fear of eternal damnation, but through an innate idea of right and wrong as it pertains to myself and others. And I’d argue that such a foundation is far stronger than one built upon faith.
Here’s the thing about religion: if it were somehow proven false, or if someone’s faith is otherwise shaken, then everything predicated upon it falls as well. I’ve had many friends who experienced a crisis of faith and went through a hard-partying and/or depressed phase as a result. I’ve had my low moments/eras, but I’ve mostly stayed on an even keel; I haven’t had any born-again moment, but neither have I had the hard slide. I credit that to a solid foundation I’ve built on the love of others and the values I keep, which came from life, not religion.
Few religions have much empirical basis, and some have facets that can be dismissed right off the bat. But no one will ever discover that the key to a harmonious society is to lie, cheat, steal and kill.
I see religion like I see newspapers: once upon a time, it was the only game in town. But now it isn’t, because people have other, more diverse avenues. And though that’s hurt the bottom lines of both, in many ways it serves to strengthen the bonds for those who still adhere. In other words, it means something to those who subscribe, rather than just be a catch-all for those who had no other choice. We should see it that way instead of assuming the monopolies of the past are the norm. With a smaller world and acceptance of diversity, this was necessary. And inevitable. Just as we need to harness that new normal for continued print media success, so must we learn to live with each others’ varying (or non-) beliefs. It’s the only way either can survive.
So far from being concerned about the swing away from religion, I welcome it. Atheism/agnosticism is in fact very good for fostering tolerance and peace. Most race- and culture-based prejudice and supremacy is based on the notion that a group is blessed above all others. Atheists don’t subscribe to such otherworldly endorsements. Furthermore, the idea that there’s no afterlife instills within nonbelievers a healthy respect for the life we know we have. No skeptic is about to strap on some explosives because they think it will bring them to some theoretical plane of paradise.
I’m very interested to see where we are as a nation, and world, in the next few decades. I like to think that, despite the hard-liners who always exist, we’ll be in a better spot. Crazy? Maybe. But if generational shifts away from acceptable discrimination and the rise of the Internet around the world continue, I’m hopeful. Because if I have faith in one thing, it’s humanity.