Michael Gerson Didn’t Do His Homework

In the Washington Post, columnist Michael Gerson observes that while we’re still a country that takes religious seriously, the “Nones” are indeed on the rise and most of us vote Democratic. That leads him to draw this conclusion:

But the main tension is emerging between the parties. Religious conservatives remain the largest constituency within the Republican Party. So America is moving in the direction of having one secular party and one religious party, bringing polarization to a new level of intensity. This is movement in the direction of Europe, which has been cursed by the conflict between anticlerical parties and religious parties. For America, this could be a dangerous source of social division, with each side viewing the other as theocrats or pagans. There is no contempt like the contempt of the true believer or the militant skeptic.

Let’s put aside the nonsensical/falsely-dichotomized “militant skeptic” comment for a moment… Gerson makes a mistake that many pundits are making. He assumes that the Democratic party is the party of the non-religious while the Republican Party is the home of the hyper-religious.

He’s half right and half wrong. It’s true that the GOP is the home of GOD (at least as far as rabid believers go)… but the Democratic party does not have a comparable atheist base. Remember what happened last September when the DNC released the party platform?

Faith. Lots of it.

At the same time, the platform contained no explicit mention of “God” so there was an awkward vote moderated by Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to put the phrase “God-given potential” back into the platform:

The point being: The Democrats are plenty faithful. They’re not the party of godlessness. At best, they’re the party that supports church/state separation. The Democrats have a base consisting of non-theists, Jews, liberal Christians, and ethnic minorities of various faiths. For better or worse, there is still religion in the Democratic party. But unlike the Republicans, the Democrats aren’t necessarily going to try and legislate based on what someone’s religious text says. (Ideally, anyway. The Democrats do plenty to piss off atheists. Just not as much as Republicans do.)

Then, Gerson takes his hypothesis a step further and really goes off the deep end:

Those cheering the trend of religious disaffiliation should consider some broader social consequences. The rise of the nones is symptomatic of the decline of many forms of belonging. According to Pew, all of the recent growth in the nones has come among those who are not married. This indicates a group of people distrustful of institutions, with marriage being the most basic of institutions. The unaffiliated donate less to charity than do the affiliated. They participate in fewer volunteer organizations. Individualism can easily become atomization. Whatever else you may think of the communitarian creeds, they help create community.

Again, it’s just not true. The Nones enjoy community as much as religious people do… but in a different format. While Christians may congregate in churches, Nones may congregate online or in smaller groups.

About the marriage thing. Gerson is presumably referring to a Pew study from 2012 (PDF) that said 39% of the Nones are married compared to 51% of the general public. But remember that many of the Nones are younger in general… and we’re also less likely to *have* to get married at a young age. I mean, if you have no qualms about being in a serious relationship, having sex, or co-habitating, then it makes sense there’s no urgency to get married. Once you get past the age of 30, the numbers get much closer (54% of Nones are married compared to 61% of theists).

Finally, the charity and volunteering… this is just grasping at straws. Of course religious people do more of both. No one doubts that. But the reason for that, I’d argue, is that churches have a better infrastructure to allow for those things to happen. If you’re a Christian and you want to give to charity (not just tithe) and volunteer, your church likely has all sorts of opportunities for you to do so. If you’re an atheist… not so much. But groups like Foundation Beyond Belief are working to change that, something Gerson ignores entirely.

Gerson is just taking cheap swipes at non-religious people without doing his research. He’s being lazy and working off of his prejudices instead of the evidence. He should know better.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.