I cannot prove it, but my strong impression is that for typical well-educated and relatively affluent Americans under forty years of age atheism is now the “default” position.
When I speak of atheists, I have three kinds in mind: (1) Outright atheists, persons who are quite frank as to their disbelief; (2) diffident atheists, usually known as agnostics, who don’t believe in God, but like to tell themselves and others that they are open-minded about the question – even though they are not; and (3) indifferent atheists, who so take it for granted that God doesn’t exist that they don’t take the trouble to affix the label atheist or agnostic to their state of mind.
It should also be noted that atheism has many semi-atheistic “fellow travelers” among Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish religious liberals.
In the old days in America, it took some effort to be an atheist. It required a certain amount of mental and moral work. You had to rebel against the taken-for-granted view that God exists. And then you had to find some reasons for rejecting that view. And then you had to find the courage or the pig-headedness to stick to that view despite the fact that you had few supporters.
By contrast, in the early decades of the glorious 21st century, it’s easy to be an atheist; almost as easy as falling off a log.
The shoe is now on the other foot. It is now the well-educated religious believer who has to rebel against the taken-for-granted view that God does not exist. It is the believer who has to find reasons for rejecting disbelief. It is the theistic believer who has to have the courage or the pig-headedness to stick to his belief in a highly secularized environment that is hostile to that belief.
It is probable, unless some great religious revolution takes place in the meantime, that this atheism will “trickle down” to the less educated and less privileged levels of society. For it is something of an iron law that the beliefs and values of society’s cultural elites sooner or later trickle down, though perhaps in diluted form, to the masses. In the Middle Ages, for instance, the Christian beliefs and values of priests and monks and nuns trickled down to the semi-Christianized masses, even though the Christianity of the masses was watered down with many doses of heresy and superstition.
And in the great days of Jesuit missionary activity, the Jesuits understood that if you wished to convert a society to Catholicism you’d have to begin, not with the peasants, but with the king and his court. Convert the king, and the peasantry will soon enough follow.
In sum, before many decades pass, the United States may be a society in which atheistic elites preside over semi-atheistic masses. Already one can see this social structure being formed. Atheistic elites tend to predominate in our great institutions devoted to the “cultural education” of the public – such institutions as mainstream journalism, the entertainment industry, and our best colleges and universities.
All this is very strange, for throughout the history of the human race some kind of theism (or polytheism) has been almost universal. Almost everybody has believed in God (or gods). Almost everybody has believed that some supernatural divine power (or powers) presides over the world.
This has been going on for so many millennia that until just the other day careful students of the subject concluded that human beings are religious by nature; there is something in our very nature that impels us to belief in God/gods. Atheism has therefore been rare and unnatural – rather like homosexuality.
Of course, living as we do in a marvelous age of scientific and psychological enlightenment, most of our cultural elites have arrived at the new understanding that homosexuality isn’t the least bit unnatural. Having made this great discovery, is it surprising that they have made the further great discovery that atheism too is not unnatural?
Let’s suppose that atheism comes to prevail generally in society. Will this do any significant harm to the generations who come after us? Those of us who have all our lives believed in the existence of God will answer “yes” to this question. But perhaps this is just a prejudice on our part. Do we have any good reasons to fear the triumph of atheism?
I suggest two reasons. For one, if God doesn’t exist, then human morality does not have a divine foundation; and if it doesn’t have a divine foundation, then it must have a purely human foundation. Morality will have to be recognized as a purely man-made thing. And if it is a man-made thing, then it can be changed by humans, and changed suddenly and radically. What was wicked yesterday (murder for example) can be good today. Of course, we’ll ease the transition from one to another by using soft names. We won’t call murder murder. We’ll call it abortion or euthanasia or whatever further soft names we can devise.
For another, if God exists (at least the rational God that western theology and philosophy have traditionally believed in, as opposed to the quite arbitrary God of Islam), then it makes sense to believe that nature, God’s creation, is intelligible; that nature can be grasped and understood by human reason. If we do away with this rational God, we do away with a rational creation. We open the door to arbitrary beliefs (e.g., that a man is a woman if he feels that he’s a woman). We open the door to the wildest of superstitions. We invite people to believe anything they like.
On some days, I don’t like it that, being an old man, I’ll soon have to leave the awfully interesting spectacle of human history. On other days, I thank God that I won’t have to be a spectator at the full collapse of our once-magnificent civilization.
*Image: Faust, Dancing with the Young Witch by Ernst Barlach, 1922 [North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, NC]. An illustration for Goethe’s “Walpurgisnacht” (or, fully, Die erste Walpurgisnacht) (“The First Walpurgis Night”), about the formerly pagan May Day festival re-christened for St. Walpurga, an 8th-century evangelist. The pagan (sometimes satanic) rites persist.