UK’s Telegraph finds atheists in Florida — film at 11

UK’s Telegraph finds atheists in Florida — film at 11 December 17, 2013

Here’s a shocker: America is becoming more secular, atheism is on the rise and — get this! — for now there are more observant Muslims than Jews in Florida. Of course, it depends on whether you define a Jew as one who practices the Jewish faith or simply identifies culturally.

That’s the somewhat-breathless reporting of The Telegraph‘s blogs editor Damian Thompson — a journalist once labeled by The Church Times “as a ‘blood-crazed ferret,'” according to his online biography.

Over to you, Damian:

Did you know there are — possibly — now more religious Muslims than religious Jews in Florida? I know, it seems incredible. Miami Beach has had 15 Jewish mayors, there are getting on for 200 synagogues in South Florida – and, of course, it was the hunting ground of the despicable Bernie Madoff.

It also seems incredible because the journalistic evidence is thin. I realize that this is a blog post and, thus, a form of commentary? But facts on the ground matter, even in blogging.

Thompson cites figures from the website, which is geared more towards the real estate industry, as evidence, albeit scanty, that Muslims outnumber Jews in the Sunshine State:

There are still more Jews than Muslims in Florida, loosely defined; these figures measure Judaism as a religion. That said, even to compare the two 20 years ago would have seemed ridiculous. Florida has a small but vibrant, growing Muslim community, half of it from India, followed by Pakistanis – only 150,000 registered voters to date. As you’d expect, 80 per cent voted for Obama in the last two elections; but in other elections they’re swing voters, and in Florida you ignore those at your peril. As for the Jewish community, the retirement communities are reflecting the national picture.

He then goes on to quote a Newsmax article about the October 2013 Pew Research study showing a decline in Jewish population. Thompson then spells it all out for you:

My point is that the religious geography of America is changing – partly as a result of immigration (Hispanic, chiefly) but also because the Washington Post maps show how washed out and feeble Catholicism and mainline Protestantism have become. They may occupy the same territory that they did 50 years ago, but the Post’s map below tells a dismal story. This is religious participation by county:

Again, click through to the Washington Post for an interactive map. But the redder the colour, the more “participants” there are — meaning people who identify with a particular religion. I just checked the Boston area and it’s about 60 per cent, falling sharply in neighbouring counties. So 40 per cent of people in Boston have no religion at all, and it’s more than half in many counties. As for the 47 per cent of Bostonians who are Catholic “participants” – well, there isn’t much participation going on come Sunday morning. We’re talking about 17 per cent Mass attendance these days — and it was only 20 per cent before the clergy scandals broke. The story is the same in many other supposedly Catholic cities –fewer than one in five Catholics go to church regularly. Compare that to the 70 per cent in the 1950s (itself much higher than in the 19th century.)

You think Protestantism is holding its ground? Take another look at the map. Many counties in the Bible Belt and Midwest are uniformly Protestant — 70 or 80 per cent – if only in name. That makes them red. But this article from an evangelical Christian website reports widespread scepticism among researchers about the much-quoted figure that 40 per cent of Protestants are weekly churchgoers. That’s what they tell pollsters. Try other systems of measurement – an old but effective trick involves counting cars outside congregations – and you’re looking at 20 per cent. Much like the Catholics, in fact.[Emphasis in original.]

All these numbers crunching bring to mind the quote Mark Twain attributed — probably mistakenly — to Benjamin Disraeli, the late British Prime Minister, about “lies, damnable lies and statistics.”

You can find a survey to suggest just about anything, it seems, and while America’s religious landscape certainly has its challenges, I’m not entirely sure that this country is about to become, say, Denmark or France just yet, despite Thompson’s final assertion:

Let’s put this simply: America is secularizing just like Europe — and all that talk of “American exceptionalism”, the free market in religion that kept it thriving, has turned out to be hogwash. We can discuss why on another occasion. But some of us saw this coming a long time ago. And, please, don’t kid yourself that Pope Francis, wonderful man that he is, can do more than add a percentage point here or there.

What Thompson doesn’t know about “American exceptionalism” is just as impressive. Yes, Alexis de Tocqueville talked about the distinctiveness of America, and mentioned its Puritan roots. But the phrase didn’t come into being until the American Communist movement started bandying about the phrase in the 1930s, long after de Tocqueville had assumed room temperature. Exceptionalism, I would submit, isn’t hogwash, in large part because it is not solely and exclusively about religion.

Thompson also goes to 3-year-old data, the basis of the Washington Post article’s charts, without any thought of seeking out independent experts and, you know, interviewing them. This may be a way to fill a blogging quota, but in attempting to understand and analyze America’s relationship with religion, it falls more than a little short, I believe.

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3 responses to “UK’s Telegraph finds atheists in Florida — film at 11”

  1. The assumption that one can equate having no religion with not going to church is very problematic. I know many people who firmly believe in their religion but miss church fairly regularly because of the reality of the modern retail business.
    On the other hand, to lead from the rise in the number of Muslims in Florida to secularization is to mix apples and oranges. If these are religious Muslims, building mosques, they are the antithesis of secularization.

    • What does your opinion have to do with the journalism issues of the story? Please read “Why We’re Here” before you post again on this and other articles. Focus your comments on why the journalists failed/succeeded and what could be done better to bring the topic to a proper balance.

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