Despite it all, atheists are still growing

In a world with so much cause for doom and gloom, one of the persistent bright spots is the steady growth of the nonreligious, atheists and agnostics. Year by year and decade by decade, organized religion keeps losing strength, while nonbelievers are gaining. Where white Christians once commanded an absolute majority of the U.S. population, with political power to match, they’re now an aging, shrinking minority hanging on by their fingernails. It’s only America’s undemocratic system that’s allowed them to cling to power as long as they have.

The latest evidence of this comes from a 2023 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute, or PRRI for short. Between November and December of last year, they interviews 5,600 Americans to build a picture of religious change. The results broadly echo previous studies on the topic, and give more positive signs for what lies ahead.

Let’s start with the big-print headline finding: All American religious groups are either holding steady or losing membership. The nonreligious are the only major demographic category that’s growing.

Around one-quarter of Americans (26%) identify as religiously unaffiliated in 2023, a 5 percentage point increase from 21% in 2013. Nearly one in five Americans (18%) left a religious tradition to become religiously unaffiliated, over one-third of whom were previously Catholic (35%) and mainline/non-evangelical Protestant (35%).

As you can see from PRRI’s graphic of these findings, the nonreligious are now larger than any single religious group in America. We outnumber white evangelicals, mainline Protestants, and Catholics by a statistically significant margin:

A bar graph showing the religious composition of America in 2013 and 2023

The complication in many of these surveys is that they lump together “the nonreligious” – a catch-all category that includes people who may believe in God, but reject organized religion – with explicitly secular people. We may be similar politically and culturally, but not necessarily philosophically. However, this time, as PRRI notes, the latest wave of growth is coming specifically from atheists and agnostics:

While the percentage of Americans who describe themselves as “nothing in particular” is similar to a decade ago (16% in 2013 to 17% in 2023), the numbers of both atheists and agnostics have doubled since 2013 (from 2% to 4% and from 2% to 5%, respectively).

And, contrary to wishful-thinking apologists who claim that the nonreligious are just disaffected believers who’ll come back to church eventually, PRRI also found that most nonreligious Americans aren’t seeking to join a religion:

The vast majority of the religiously unaffiliated appear content to stay that way — only 9% of religiously unaffiliated Americans say the statement “I am looking for a religion that would be right for me” currently describes them very or somewhat well.

…In 2023, one in ten Americans (10%) report growing up without a religious identity, while 18% of Americans say they became unaffiliated after growing up in another religious tradition. In comparison, very few Americans who grew up without a religious identity joined another religion later in life (3%).

As for why people are leaving religion, there are several main reasons. The most common, in this year as in previous years, is that they simply stopped believing their religion’s teachings (67% of respondents). Hatred and discrimination against LGBTQ people (47%) and clergy abuse scandals (31%) are reliable runners-up.

However, two reasons appeared in the survey that I haven’t seen in previous years. One is people who said religion was bad for their mental health (32%). PRRI notes this answer was more common among LGBTQ Americans, but not exclusive to them.

This makes sense, even if your identity isn’t under attack. As many ex-believers will testify, leaving their religion was like a weight lifting off their shoulders. It’s a reprieve from the fear tactics of fundamentalism – the mindset of sin, shame, judgment, condemnation, and hell. For LGBTQ people, it’s confirmation that they’re not doomed to a loveless life of self-flagellation. For women, it’s freedom from the double standards of religious patriarchy. For all kinds of people, it’s the power to reject smothering expectations and the freedom to choose your own purpose.

The other interesting reason, which has also gained in prominence, are those who left because their church was too political (20%). This tracks with the ostentatious cruelty of white nationalist Christianity in America. Countless churches – mostly evangelical Protestant, but some Catholic as well – have taken a hard right turn in the last decade, becoming outposts of anti-democratic rage and enthusiastic support of fascism. It’s not surprising that people appalled by this are abandoning faith. If anything, I expected this number to be higher!

As religion shrinks and fades, the power base for Christian nationalism and other varieties of supremacist politics will decline along with it. The world will become more peaceful, more democratic and less polarized. In the fever of our current moment, that may seem an unlikely prospect. But that’s just because the human mind has an easier time imagining sudden, dramatic change. It’s harder to envision the cumulative effect of slow change over time – but that kind of change is just as real and at least as important for understanding the shape of the future.

The algorithmic wasteland

A wasteland of dry earth and a dead tree

“What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water.”

—T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land

I logged onto Facebook for the first time in a while, and I was shocked by how bad it’s become.

My feed was a torrent of spammy ads and irrelevant “suggested” posts from groups I’m not in. I had to scroll and scroll and scroll to find even a single post from one of my actual friends – i.e., the people I chose to connect with, the people whose presence is theoretically the reason for me to use this platform. I almost gave up before finding one.

On subsequent logins, the content-to-ad ratio seemed better, but only slightly. The site still felt like a wasteland, populated mostly by ads and spam, and only secondarily by human beings. I had to actively fight against it, dismissing or scrolling past a blizzard of annoying algorithmic junk, to see the content I wanted to see.

Using Facebook now is like wandering through an abandoned casino. The people are all gone; the gaming tables are collecting dust. But, somehow, the electricity is still on, so the signage is a tawdry blur of neon and scrolling marquees and chasing lights, calling out to you to play games whose dealers have long since departed. It’s the ghost of human interaction, lingering after the humans themselves have gone away.

What happened?

For one thing, the enshittification cycle is complete. Facebook’s algorithm has become hostile to its users, showing them more and more of the content advertisers want to show them, rather than the content they want to see. (I stopped posting my own content to Facebook a while ago, when it became clear that it was suppressing posts with external links. If I shared an article I wrote on my own site, no one would see it, even my friends who chose to follow me.) Under constant pressure for higher profit, the algorithm gets more and more aggressive about pushing ads, until the noise is drowning out the signal.

At the same time, they’ve given up on content moderation. Academic researchers and watchdogs who study social media have both noticed this:

Porn and nonconsensual imagery is easy to find on Facebook and Instagram. We have reported endlessly on the proliferation of paid advertisements for drugs, stolen credit cards, hacked accounts, and ads for electricians and roofers who appear to be soliciting potential customers with sex work. Its own verified influencers have their bodies regularly stolen by “AI influencers” in the service of promoting OnlyFans pages also full of stolen content.

…There are still people working on content moderation at Meta. But experts I spoke to who once had great insight into how Facebook makes its decisions say that they no longer know what is happening at the platform, and I’ve repeatedly found entire communities dedicated to posting porn, grotesque AI, spam, and scams operating openly on the platform.

Meta now at best inconsistently responds to our questions about these problems, and has declined repeated requests for on-the-record interviews for this and other investigations. Several of the professors who used to consult directly or indirectly with the company say they have not engaged with Meta in years. Some of the people I spoke to said that they are unsure whether their previous contacts still work at the company or, if they do, what they are doing there.

…Meta’s content moderation workforce, which it once talked endlessly about, is now rarely discussed publicly by the company (Accenture was at one point making $500 million a year from its Meta content moderation contract). Meta did not answer a series of detailed questions for this piece, including ones about its relationship with academia, its philosophical approach to content moderation, and what it thinks of AI spam and scams, or if there has been a shift in its overall content moderation strategy. It also declined a request to make anyone on its trust and safety teams available for an on-the-record interview.

It appears that Facebook decided that moderation was just too difficult to solve at scale – and more important, it’s an expense rather than a profit center – so they got rid of it. It’s a naive cost-cutting measure, and in the short term, it might’ve produced a small bump in the stock price. However, anyone who’s ever run a personal blog could’ve told you what happens next.

When you give up on moderation, you don’t get a flourishing garden of free speech and enlightened debate. Instead, the worst characters emerge from their slime pits, and when they find nothing to stop them, they take over the comment section. Any real discussion gets overrun by spam, abusive racist and sexist bile, and conspiracy blather. It’s like weeds taking over a garden. Eventually, people who put actual thought and effort into their contributions are driven away, and only the trolls remain. Facebook (and Twitter) are experiencing that on a broader scale.

And chatbot AI has made this problem far worse. It’s knocked down all barriers to spammers, scammers, and astroturf influence-buyers. Without the necessity of having human beings involved, it’s trivial for them to churn out garbage content on a colossal scale. Whatever genuine human conversation there was, it’s swamped by clickbait factories grasping at monetization or trying to manufacture fake consensus. The end state is a wasteland devoid of humanity. It’s a zombie business, staggering along on inertia until someone realizes that there are no people left, just endless hordes of bots advertising to bots.

It’s not a universal law that this has to happen in any community. It’s the intersection of social media with capitalism that’s to blame. The profit incentive demands that social media companies push as much junk content as possible, in order to squeeze the most money out of every user they have. It compels them to do only the bare minimum for moderation and safety – or less than the minimum, if they can get away with it. (See also; Elon Musk firing Twitter’s entire moderation team.)

When social media is run for profit, overseen by algorithms that decide what users get shown, this is almost inevitable. That’s why I favor non-profit, non-algorithmic social media like Mastodon (follow me there!), where users are the customers rather than the product, and where you see only the content you choose to see. It’s not free of all these problems – there are still spammers and abusive jerks, as there always have been in every collection of humans – but they tend to get weeded out. More important, the network itself isn’t promoting them.

For the good of America, Biden should become a dictator

I wasn’t cynical enough about this Supreme Court.

When they accepted Trump’s outlandish appeal over the January 6 prosecution and then sat on it for months, I assumed the delay was the point. I believed that with a Democratic president in office, they’d see the obvious downside of ruling that a president is immune to criminal charges. But I thought their intent was to stall and drag out the process until there was no longer a realistic chance of prosecuting Trump before the election.

I underestimated their depravity.

Their newest ruling, divided exactly down partisan lines, states that a president is immune to prosecution for all “official acts”. In and of itself, this wouldn’t necessarily be outrageous. It makes sense that federal officials shouldn’t face prosecution for performing their duties under the law, the same way that members of Congress can’t be sued for anything they say on the floor.

The massive, frightening problem is that this ruling is sweepingly vague about what does and doesn’t constitute an official act. It seems to suggest that any action taken with the powers of the presidency would count, even if it’s for clearly self-serving or nakedly dictatorial motives. Issued as it was in response to the January 6 prosecution, it implies that even attacking Congress and trying to steal an election is an official act!

For all intents and purposes, this is saying that a president is above the law and can’t be punished for anything he does. That’s not just my opinion. It’s straight from Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s searing dissent:

Justice Sonia Sotomayor made this argument in her sharply worded dissent, which Mark Osler, a University of St. Thomas law professor, called “the most chilling part” of the opinions released today.

Sotomayor wrote that the decision “effectively creates a law-free zone around the president, upsetting the status quo that has existed since the founding…. Orders the Navy’s Seal Team 6 to assassinate a political rival? Immune. Organizes a military coup to hold onto power? Immune. Takes a bribe in exchange for a pardon? Immune. Immune, immune, immune…. In every use of official power, the President is now a king above the law.”

Under this court’s logic, Richard Nixon shouldn’t have resigned, because he did nothing that was prosecutable. Concocting a plan to spy on his political rivals and secure reelection is an official act for which a president can’t be charged.

This is the clearest sign you could imagine of the bottomless contempt that the Republican justices have for the rest of us. They’ve granted Biden near-unlimited power – and they weren’t concerned about it, because they believe our side will play by the rules and theirs won’t. They believe that liberals are civil and polite and nice, that we’ll follow the rules even when we don’t have to. Meanwhile, the next Republican president will be freed to abuse his power to its full, terrible extent.

There’s only one possible response: Biden has to call their bluff. This isn’t the time for kindly Uncle Joe, this is the time for Dark Brandon.

One example I thought of would be his student debt forgiveness plan, which has been repeatedly blocked by Republican judges. Biden should announce that the plan is moving forward in its original form, and the courts no longer get a say in it. What’s anyone going to do about it? He’s immune to consequences for an official act, and if any lesser official faces prosecution for defying the court, he can just pardon them.

Another possibility: The Defense Production Act allows the president to take over civilian businesses for purposes of national security, specifically including energy and infrastructure. He should commandeer fossil fuel companies and have them start making windmills, solar panels and geothermal power – a WW2-scale mobilization to reorient the American economy toward a green transition. The Inflation Reduction Act is good, but this would be better.

One more obvious move, one that was even floated during the trial itself, would be for Biden to declare his political rivals “enemy combatants” engaged in terrorism, and have the military whisk them away to Guantanamo Bay, beyond the reach of the law, where they can be imprisoned indefinitely without a trial. He should do this to all the Supreme Court justices who voted for this decision and then appoint their replacements. It would be a fitting taste of the medicine they sought to give to others but never expected to take themselves.

These suggestions sound outlandish, and maybe they are. But it’s a long, frustrating pattern in American politics that the progressive left only cares about the moral high ground, while the religious right cares about power. They ask what they can get away with and who’s going to stop them – and if the answer is no one, they have no hesitation in brushing aside any rule that stands between them and what they want. That’s why we lose more often than we win.

We need to fight as dirty as them. Playing by the rules when your opponent doesn’t amounts to unilateral disarmament. The Supreme Court has ruled, almost literally, that when the president does it, that means it’s not illegal. They’ve handed our side a weapon, trusting that we won’t use it against them. Biden has to make them regret it.