Demographics on our side?

These days I often run into the notion that in the US, demographics is on the side of nonbelief. The excessive politicization of the Religious Right has turned off the poor, minorities, and the young. The new generation of “millennials” or whatever is less identified with organized religion. So if we just ride out this latest, last-gasp wave of theocratic politics such as attacks on contraception, time is on our side.

I’m dubious. For a long time now, I have also regularly run into a version of this demographic argument in a political rather than religious context. Demographics, we have long been told, favors Democrats over Republicans. Conservative Republicans rely on a constituency of wealthy, middle-aged white males, turning off the poor, minorities, and the young. The new generation is less identified with conservative politics. So if we just ride out this latest wave of conservative politics like the Tea Party, time is on the Democrats’ side.
And yet, in the past decades, the Republicans have flourished even though they have been less and less embarrassed to present their fascist aspects in public. Democrats, whatever their advantage among the young or women, have themselves become in most respects a right-wing party. They represent a technocratic version of neoliberalism rather than a desire to directly turn everything over to business interests, but the practical difference is not exactly huge. And with Democrats, what we usually see is a passive politics of being not-as-bad as Republicans, or overtly being Republican-lite, rather than, say, presenting an alternative stance robustly defending the notion of non-market public goods.
And so it may be with religion. Ostensibly we are poised for a decline in conservative religiosity and a uptick in the fortunes of more liberal approaches to faith, including outright nonbelief. But again, there is also an air of passivity in the expectations resting on demographics. There is little out there that both presents a real alternative to the faith-soaked nature of American public culture and has a hope of making serious inroads into that culture. So we sit back and hope that demographics will work its long-term magic in our favor. But if recent political history is any indication, we may just end up with a culture that is superficially more liberal religiously, but as deeply mindless as anything in a megachurch service.

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About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University