The Decline of Creeds and (Eventually) a More Secular, Humanist America

Editors' Note: This article is part of the Patheos Public Square on the Future of Faith in America: Humanism. Read other perspectives here.

Recent surveys confirm that the percentage of Americans who do not identify with any religion — the so-called "nones" — continues to increase rapidly, with about 23 percent of Americans now having no religious affiliation, up from about 16 percent in 2007. This trend is especially marked in the younger demographic, with 35 percent of those between the ages of 18 and 33 considered nones. There is no reason to think the growth of the nones is a temporary, aberrational shift in religious affiliation, so one can conservatively project that in five years nones will comprise over a quarter of the population.

Of course, as we are often reminded, "none" does not equate with atheist. Many nones retain some vague religious belief, including a belief in some sort of deity. But the principal importance of these surveys is not the head count of atheists. Instead, the importance of these surveys is that they indicate Americans are increasingly rejecting religious dogma, and with it the notion that there is a particular, rigid creed they need to abide by. Not all nones are atheists, but the overwhelming majority of nones either reject belief in God or consider religion and/or religious doctrine unimportant. More and more Americans do not accept the notion of a religious authority to which they must defer, whether it's a priest, minister, rabbi, or some sacred text, nor do they think the doctrinal differences among religions to be especially significant or relevant.

From a humanist perspective, the rejection of dogmatic thinking is more important than the outright rejection of God. Humanism has sometimes been concisely (and imprecisely) defined as atheism plus ethics. I would modify this rough definition by saying that humanism reflects an approach to ethics not based on God or, for that matter, any privileged authority. For humanists, no assertion, no purported principle, has any binding force other than the force of its own persuasiveness, as determined by logic, reason, and evidence.

The perspective of the nones is congenial to humanist philosophy. The nones don't believe we should rely on some purported revelation from God to address matters of common concern. Instead of pointing to some alleged command or revelation from God to resolve ethical or public policy questions, many Americans now realize they should use reason and evidence to examine the consequences of different courses of action and how they relate to the promotion of common human interests. In other words, they adopt a secular approach to issues of morality and public policy.

This secularization of the discussion of ethical and public policy questions has resulted in rapid changes in beliefs and practices. To take perhaps the best example, same-sex marriage would have been considered a laughable, fringe idea just thirty years ago. However, once Americans began to consider same-sex relationships on their own terms, apart from any religious condemnations or commands, most of them concluded there was no persuasive evidence-based reason to prohibit same-sex marriage.

But are these changes in religious belief sufficient to cause the United States to become thoroughly secular in outlook within the next five years? Probably not. The embrace of secularism is far from universal in the United States. Indeed, "secularism" often serves as the bogeyman of those on the religious right. Moreover, although identification with particular religions is declining, it is declining less rapidly among those who are fundamentalists. Religion and religious doctrine retain their importance for many Americans. In the short term, we are headed to a polarized America, with much of the nation broadly secular in attitude but with a substantial percentage of Americans not only adhering to traditional religious beliefs, but also insisting that these beliefs shape public policy. A divisive culture war, and perhaps even outright violence, cannot be ruled out.

However, I'm cautiously optimistic that even most of those with strong religious beliefs will eventually realize that in a religiously pluralistic country, indeed one that is becoming even more diverse, the attempt to impose one's dogma on others is a prescription for stalemate at best. The only way forward for all of us in our pluralistic society — one that now includes a substantial number of people who think either God doesn't exist or he's irrelevant to our daily lives — is to keep religion out of the sphere of public policy.

We will know when most Americans come to regard religion as a purely private matter: when open atheists are elected to high public office, not because they are atheists but because their beliefs with respect to the existence of God are rightly considered irrelevant to their qualifications. We're not there yet, and we probably will not be there in five years, but if the trend away from creeds continues, we will be there in less than a generation.