Editors’ Note: This article is part of the Public Square 2014 Summer Series: Conversations on Religious Trends. Read other perspectives from the Patheos community here.
Who is winning the culture war between secularists and fundamentalists? It depends on where you look. Adam Lee over at Daylight Atheism suggests that the sensationalized media attention currently enjoyed by Evangelicals gives the illusion that they are doing better than they really are. He says that any apparent strength we see in them at present is the result of “consolidation, not growth.” I believe that he is right, statistically speaking. But as a Deep South resident who hears from friends all over with stories similar to my own, I look around and wonder if the end really is near. Living where I live, the coming of a secular era seems far from a given outcome.
It seems to me the notion that we are beholden to unseen masters has been increasingly taking over the American political scene for decades. A little over a century ago, it almost seemed like that idea was on its way out. But something changed, and over the course of the 20th century this country witnessed the steady mission creep of Fundamentalism. A subculture which once exhorted its members to be “in the world but not of it” gradually began educating and equipping its members for battle in a culture war to regain the dominance of the public square which their faith once enjoyed in the earlier days of our nation’s history. It matters not to them whether that place of privilege was consistent with the vision of religiously neutral governing that our nation’s founders foresaw as a necessary element of religious liberty. Honestly, they just liked being on top, and they want it to be that way again.
First there was the Fundamentalist movement at the turn of the 20th century which kicked into high gear after the famous Scopes Monkey trial. Then there was the gradual takeover of the religious education of our nation’s spiritual leaders through either the founding of new conservative seminaries or else the orchestrated takeover of old ones. Then began the political activism of the Moral Majority, which capitalized on one political party’s desperate dependence on the “Southern Strategy” for its survival. Then came the homeschool movement (largely a project of the fundamentalists) and even the founding of colleges catering to that specific crowd. Legal action groups were formed in order to train attorneys to use the law to leverage judicial favoritism toward their faith, and even the legislators themselves became targets for evangelism and assimilation into the larger agenda to take back America for Jesus, or at least for one particular version of him. Most people have no idea how much religious proselytizing and indoctrinating of legislators goes on behind the scenes at the local, state, and national levels.
Will this ensure their success? Maybe not. Perhaps their best concerted efforts will yet be unable to stem the rising tide of secularism which Adam describes. But in my opinion it is far from a done deal. I see at least three courses of action necessary in order to ensure that the Freethought movement doesn’t get choked out by a nationwide power grab by the fundamentalists.
Multiple Fronts in the Culture Wars
I see three essential things we need to do in response the mission creep of Fundamentalism. I believe that while as a movement we excel at the first, we are just now learning to do the second, and frankly we suck at the third. It needs work.
First, we will continue to change minds through writing, debating, and promoting science education. Because so many skeptics in this country came into their skepticism through an application of critical thinking skills and/or scientific reasoning, it makes sense that we would focus a lot of our energy in sharing that with others. We appeal to their intellects in hopes of opening their minds to a new way of seeing the world because that’s the path we ourselves took. Logical argumentation is certainly an indispensable weapon in our arsenal in the culture wars, and each passing year the secularist community gets better and better at it (Click here for an excellent project aimed at that very thing).
But of the three fronts we must fight on, I see this one as the most limited in effectiveness because not everyone is into debates, argumentation, or even science. Furthermore, the various religious traditions we are up against have spent centuries developing their own rationalizations for many of the issues we raise. And while their responses don’t hold nearly as much intellectual water as they think they do, it’s enough to placate them. Some minds just aren’t willing to be changed, no matter how lucid or cogent your arguments.
Second, we must overcome our reticence toward activism and mount the legal battles necessary to restore both freedom of religion and freedom from religion. I’m beginning to see the importance of training freethinkers to become lawyers, fundraisers, lobbyists, and legislators. The fundamentalists have been doing it for decades, and it has paid off tremendously. They are reaping the benefits of well-organized action in all three branches of government and it is slowly choking some of the most important institutions of social, scientific, educational, and even economic progress we have. On this matter, our progressive Christian friends want the very same things we want, and we should work together with them not only to change the public conversation but also to bring about real world action toward common legislative ends.
We are a nation of laws. If we want to see real and lasting change in any arena, we must learn to take positive action toward influencing the writing, interpreting, and enforcing of laws in our country.
We can’t just sit around and talk and blog about stuff. We have to start organizing and training our people to take practical and public action. The hard truth is that many people will never learn to agree with you about what they believe, but they do have to follow the laws that are in place. Just as we have to establish personal boundaries in our relationships with friends and family, we must maintain civic boundaries to check the growing hegemony of the more imperialistic strains of religion among us. Of course, all of this presupposes that we take practical steps to organize ourselves beyond discussion groups online. We need IRL communities to get any of this done.
Third, we must learn to appeal to others through the art we produce. We naturally express what motivates us and captures our wonder through the things we create. We write music, we make films, we write plays and tell stories and animate them—all of these things appeal to a person in a way that rational argumentation cannot touch. Art bypasses the defenses people have erected to protect their religious beliefs from outside criticism. Once again, religious communities have been capitalizing on this for centuries. It’s high time we produced more of our own art. There are so many avenues we can take, and so many different media we can employ to express what moves us and gets us up in the morning. We just need to encourage some of our more artistically and musically inclined members to get out there and show us what’s inside.
But this doesn’t have to be limited to the artistically gifted. I spent ten years in a house church network that practiced writing their own lyrics to popular music and singing those in their meetings. Anyone who can write words can do that, and no copyright law I’m aware of can keep people from writing their own lyrics and passing them around, indicating what tune they’re sung to (as long as money isn’t made in the process). This is an untapped fountain of fun, in my opinion, and I’d love to see some of us apply some of our clever brains to the task of writing fun songs to be sung by groups when they get together. Just as an experiment, a few friends and I are writing our own lyrics to “You’re Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone,” also known as “the cups song” from the movie Pitch Perfect (you’re welcome for today’s earworm). I hope to have that recorded and posted some day soon in order to give an example of what can be done.
And one more note: I recall sitting through a workshop once aimed at teaching Christians how to exert greater influence on the surrounding culture. The workshop facilitator quoted C.S. Lewis as saying (and I’m sorry I can’t locate any reference for this at the present):
What we need is not more Christians talking about Christianity, but more Christians writing about everything else.
I’d like to encourage the skeptic community to adopt the same mentality. We don’t necessarily need more stuff produced about atheism abstracted from the rest of life, although my life and relationships demand that I spend some time on that as well. We need skeptics writing, painting, singing, dancing, and acting out stories about every other aspect of life from their own individual perspective. Art gets past the intellectual defenses that religion has erected, which makes it perhaps the most effective of all three strategies I’ve suggested. Even legislation follows public sentiment, so if you can change that, you just might change everything else.