10 Signs Religious Fundamentalism Is in Decline
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Days may be dark right now—after all, as the memes proclaim, axial tilt is the reason for the season. But things are looking bright for those who would like to see humanity more grounded in science and reason. If you are a nonbeliever in the mood for a party, here are 10 reasons to celebrate.
1. Coming out atheist is up and coming. In May 2013, after a deadly tornado destroyed her home, young mother Rebecca Vitsmun gave an unexpected answer when CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked whether she thanked the Lord for her decision to flee. Vitsmun tells the story in a sometimes-tearful interview with Seth Andrews, host of the Thinking Atheist. “I had this moment in which I realized you either lie or tell the truth, and I’m not a liar.” In that moment, Vitsmun outed herself not only to a national media audience but also to her Christian parents and friends.
Vitsmun’s situation was extraordinary, but candor about nonbelief is becoming more and more commonplace. From Hollywood celebs like Angelina Jolie to high school students, skeptics are opening up about their beliefs and values—or simply declining to lie when asked. (A quick-read book, Mom, Dad, I’m an Atheist, offers tips for those who are contemplating when, where and how best to come out.)
2. The cutting edge of freethought is less cutting and edgy. In generations past, coming out as an atheist required a devil-may-care attitude. The social and even financial costs were so high that most admitted atheists were also unflinching social activists, people who had a high degree of zeal and high tolerance for conflict. Most were also white males who were comparatively safe taking on the religious establishment. Until recently, then, atheism was virtually synonymous with anti-theism, and even today people complain that pioneers of the New Atheist movement like Dawkins, Harris, Dennett, and the late great Hitchens are unnecessarily antagonistic.
But thanks in part to their courage and flame-throwing, a new generation is emerging, one that sees atheism not as an end point, but as a beginning. Alain de Botton’s TED talk and book, Atheism 2.0, simply posits the nonexistence of God and then goes on to discuss what humanity can glean from the rubble of religious traditions. Many younger people are casting aside labels and adopting what fits from religious holidays and traditions, in the same way that they mix and match cultural, racial or sexual identities. As boundaries soften, more women, Hispanics and blacks are joining or even leading the conversations.
3. Biblical sexuality is getting binned. Finally. In the last part of December, marriage equality became law in two more states: New Mexico and—drumroll—Utah! Even more exciting is the fact that legal changes can barely keep up with shifting attitudes about queer sexuality. Things are changing when it comes to straight sex, too, and not in keeping with biblical priorities. Perhaps the most consistent sexual theme in the Bible is that a woman’s consent is not needed or even preferred before sex. By demanding an end to rape culture, today’s young women and men are making the Bible writers look as if they were members of a tribal, Iron Age culture in which women were property like livestock and children—to be traded, sold and won in battle. Small wonder the culture warriors have ramped up their fight against contraception and abortion. Imagine if, on top of everything else, all women got access to expensive top-tier contraceptives and the power to end ill-conceived childbearing.
4. Recovering believers are reclaiming their lives. Most atheists and agnostics are former believers, which means that many carry old psychological baggage from childhood beliefs or some post-childhood cycle of conversion and deconversion. While many former believers slip out of religion unscathed, some do not, and believers in recovery now have a name: reclaimers. A small but growing number of cognitive scientists are exploring the relationship between religion and mental illnesses like depression, anxiety disorders and panic. Marlene Winell, a California consultant who works full time with recovering fundamentalists, has brought attention to a pattern she calls Religious Trauma Syndrome. Darrel Ray has created a matching service for secular clients and therapists, while Kathleen Taylor at Oxford has raised the question of whether religious fundamentalism itself may one day be treatable.