Like other secular humanists, I’ve been touting the Pew data about the drop in religiosity in America (and in the Jewish community). Sometimes I have weirdly mixed feelings about this. I do serve a congregation, after all, even if it is determinedly nontheistic. An overall drop in affiliation is not exactly a measure of job security for me! Nevertheless, the overall trend leaves me feeling happy and optimistic that Americans are slowly coming to their senses.
The vagueness of these polls has created a lot of questions about precisely what it is that American do believe about God and religion. (Is a “None” necessarily a nontheist? Is a “Jew of no religion” really a Secular Humanistic Jew in waiting?) But religious beliefs and identity are actually the least important indicator of what is going on in our country. What’s really interesting is how moral attitudes are shifting.
Americans are more likely now than in the early 2000s to find a variety of behaviors morally acceptable, including gay and lesbian relations, having a baby outside of marriage and sex between an unmarried man and woman. Moral acceptability of many of these issues is now at a record-high level.
Due to the struggle for same-sex marriage, we’re all pretty aware about changing attitudes toward lesbians and gays (the report did not address feelings about trans people). But this is not the only huge shift. Americans are rapidly moving to the left on a variety of moral issues, including the acceptability of non-marital sex, divorce, medical research on embryos, and assisted suicide. Abortion has also seen a slight shift in moral acceptability, though not as high as many of the other issues. Even polygamy – while still the subject of widespread disapproval – has jumped nine percent in moral acceptance. (I assume that we’re talking here about polyamory and not one-sided polygyny. I could be wrong.)
Many of these are exactly the kinds of moral stances supported by secular humanists; the kinds of positions that emerge from a human-based process of moral ratiocination.
The poll does not indicate how much of this progress is the result of changing beliefs about God, though I am intrigued by how it coincides with the polls about belief. In any case, I don’t think we’d be going too far out on a limb to say that the trend demonstrates a fairly precipitous and ongoing drop in the influence of religion on moral reasoning.
For many reasons I doubt that nontheism and rejection of the supernatural are going to erase God or “spirituality” from most people’s world views any time soon. People are still too needy. They don’t want to lose their invisible friend or abandon the idea that the “Universe” has plans for them. Yet those of us on the nontheistic side of this divide have cause to celebrate the fact that fewer and fewer of these people are consulting God’s representatives or ancient books and traditions when they consider issues of morality.