Is there hope for atheism?


Maybe. As disgusted as I am with the regressives making the most noise (and the most profit) in the current iteration of the atheosphere, there are some promising indicators. Gregory Paul has an encouraging article, The Great and Amazingly Rapid Secularization of the Increasingly Proevolution United States, that is full of surveys and graphs that show a steady, consistent trend: secularism is growing. Maybe not your usual aggressive atheists, but lots of people are fed up with the efforts of a minority to impose theocracy on us. The United States is a weird outlier with greater religiosity than other ‘first world’ nations, but we’re getting better.

As for the demographic future, there is every reason to expect the USA to continue to secularize more towards the western norm at a fast pace despite the frantic but inherently insufficient effective counter efforts of organized theism. The unprecedented nonreligiosity of youth and the dechurching power of modernity cannot be overcome, which is why there never has been a serious religious revival in any advanced democracy. Because the rise of proevolution atheism is a largely automatic, casual lifestyle conversion in response to subtle but powerful socioeconomic forces usually done without deep thought, it will remain true that neither side can do much to alter the course of events one way or another.

Atheist evangelism isn’t going to be effective, but just setting an example and letting the churched drift our way naturally might.

My personal cause, accepting naturalism as the best scientific approach, also gets a mention — he favors what the NCSE has been doing in broadening their science outreach beyond just evolution, although he’s not enthusiastic about the success of trying to prop up theistic evolutionists.

As for the proevolution effort, the tactic of trying to educate theists to accept the evolution of humans over deep time is at best marginally effective – there is no such thing as a developed democracy that is both proevolution and highly religious and probably never will be – but if in the unlikely event it can be made to work it is the only means of speeding up the acceptance of bioevolution. The most practical strategy is to wait for the organic increase in the size of the atheist cohort to automatically boost proevolution opinion. As such the recent deemphasis of proevolution activity by the NCSE and AAAS is logical; but of course educational and legal efforts must continue as long as creationism is a serious societal and antiscientific issue – after all, we’re still dealing with flatearthers (whose views are often Bible based BTW).

Hey, let’s look on the bright side of Donald Trump! He’s been doing an excellent job of yanking out the moralizing rug from under the feet of the evangelicals. Given how often Christians whine about atheist morality or the lack thereof Trump is a useful tool for atheists.

And for as much trouble as it is causing, the theocon minority – in alliance with an increasing secular white nationalist cohort – has handed Ameroatheism a big gift that will last forever – that a socially deranged faith-based theocon collective helped make Trump president bares like nothing else that they have long been pulling a colossal, cynical con as they proclaimed that as followers of the perfect creator they are the advocates of principled, unchanging morality and decency. By exposing themselves as in the main morally relative opportunists with a propensity towards neoracism, theocons have permanently wrecked their hypocritical pretense of having high moral principles, so much so that a minority of theocons are in despair over what has happened to the future prospects of their ideology. They can never take it back, and for decades to come when theocons start going on about their godly morality we can always bring up Trump.

He may tear down the Republic and the rule of law, but yeah, he is a poison pill for evangelical Christianity otherwise. Hooray?

In another appeal to native pride, Mark Silk reports that The Pacific Northwest is the American religious future.

Early in this century, the academic center that I direct undertook a research project to examine religion and region in American public life. Of the eight regions we divided the country into, the most distinctive was the Pacific Northwest (PNW)—Washington, Oregon, and Alaska.

The distinctiveness had everything to do with the region’s low degree of religious identification—something that had been the case ever since Anglo-Americans began settling the place in the 19th century. For that reason, we subtitled the volume dedicated to it “the None Zone.”

He argues that the low levels of religiosity in the region compels the religious to be more cooperative in order to get anything done. So while the region isn’t majority atheist, the non-believers are dampening the competitive fervor among the evangelical types. I guess we’re like the boron control rods in a nuclear reactor, keeping the nuclear reactions of the masses from going critical.

Another feature of the region is environmentalism — and interestingly, that’s driving a greater polarization between the moderate religious/atheists and evangelical Protestantism.

The main avenue of religious common cause was environmentalism, which in our view had become the region’s dominant world view—its civil religion if you will. A gospel of sustainability and biodiversity was strongly in evidence in the Catholic and mainline Protestant churches, the non-Christian and New Age faiths, and among the Nones themselves. Yet the PNW also had its counterculture, located above all in its sizable evangelical community, where the region’s religious entrepreneurship was especially on display.

As one would expect, PNW evangelicalism was ranged against the dominant culture on abortion and gay rights. Most strikingly, however, the PNW was the one region where a majority of evangelicals took a negative view of environmentalism. Clearly, in this regional version of the national culture war, environmentalism had become part of a spiritual ideology that evangelicals felt obliged to set themselves against.

That brings back memories. There were people who hated environmental causes — loggers and ranchers, who were typically very conservative — against the majority I knew, who took it for granted that the natural beauty of the place needed to be cared for. I don’t recall associating the difference with degree of religiosity, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a correlation.

I really wouldn’t mind if the social attitudes of the whole USA became more like that of the Pacific Northwest…which also includes a nice chunk of Canada, don’t forget. It’s not perfect, but it would be better in many ways.

I’ll also note that there is a strong connection between Minnesota and Washington state, especially in my experience with my family, and many of the residents with Scandinavian roots. Minnesota also has an affinity to Canada. Maybe it’s not the lessened religiosity that makes a difference, but the bigger influence of Canada in these states. However it works, I’ll take it.

Comments

  1. weylguy says

    By exposing themselves as in the main morally relative opportunists with a propensity towards neoracism, theocons have permanently wrecked their hypocritical pretense of having high moral principles, so much so that a minority of theocons are in despair over what has happened to the future prospects of their ideology. They can never take it back, and for decades to come when theocons start going on about their godly morality we can always bring up Trump.

    Christians have been immune to their own breath-taking hypocrisy for 2,000 years. Why should they fear this kind of criticism now?

  2. bryanfeir says

    which also includes a nice chunk of Canada, don’t forget

    I’ve commented before that British Columbia and the State of Washington are more like each other than either of them is like the countries they’re actually part of.

    (Having lived in Victoria B.C., Seattle, and Toronto, I stand by that.)

    Unfortunately the ‘like each other’ includes that both have their loud regressive elements once you get far enough away from the coast.

  3. says

    Well, even within their progressive enclaves. Seattle does not have a commendable history on the matter of race, for instance.

  4. mnb0 says

    “The United States is a weird outlier.”
    Ah, here very well the opposite of the Law of the Handicap of a Headstart may apply: the Law of the Stimulative Arrears.

    “Lots of people are fed up with …..”
    That’s what I mean. The USA may end up being more secular than all other western countries. However that may not be good news for atheism as a movement, which largely is an American phenomenon. It’s may impression as a total outsider that the god-question will simply become irrelevant. Most people will simply stop listening to preachers. As a result of most Dutch politicians I have no idea whether they believe or not. What’s more, I don’t really care.

  5. alixmo says

    Which are the reasons for the significant difference in religiosity between Europe and the U.S.? It still puzzles me, a lot. Of ourse, I have my opinions (less social security, less welfare, weaker state in internal affairs than in Europe, more social inequality, more religious influence on early education). I am happy to learn more about this topic!

    https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/09/05/u-s-adults-are-more-religious-than-western-europeans/

    Also, I am not thrilled about the fact that quasi all of Africa, the Middle East and big parts of Asia are still very, very religious.

    If one compares the most religious countries (e.g. the map shown in a recent Pew study) with countries that score low on women’s rights (e.g. recent study mentioned in the Guardian) there is a huge correlation. Troubling. But not surprising: all big religions are very patriarchal in nature.

    The Pew research shows that China is still non-religious. I do not know how they were in pre-Communist times to compare the numbers with. I assume religiosity was much higher than now though.

    Obviously, the lack of early religious indoctrination kills religion quite effectively. (There are notable differences in ex-Communist countries, e.g. Poland – home of Pope John Paul II – still scoring high, whilst neighboring Czech Republic scoring low in religiosity, the Czechs also being highly supportive of abortion).

    On the other hand, early indoctrination paired with brutal punishments for apostasy keeps the numbers of believers hugely high, like e.g. in many Islamic countries.

    This is often even reinforced by poverty, strict hierarchies, authoritarian regimes, social inequality, lack of welfare, low quality rudimentary education. Those are the enemies of atheism and a fertile ground for religion.

  6. PaulBC says

    I think peak atheism is limited to the percentage of people who think that being right about a particular philosophical issue exceeds the benefits of fitting in with a group they enjoying associating with. To pick a number arbitrarily, I doubt it exceeds 20%.

    We will certainly continue to see the decline of organized religion. I.e., if a belief is not grounded in reality and, moreover, of practical use, it can only be enforced by fiat, and we’re going to see a breakdown of central authorities capable of doing this. So we’ll have a group of people who have pondered the existence of God (or other deities) and reached a reasoned conclusion in the negative. We’ll have other people who have healing crystals, magic wristbands, Ouija boards, etc. Perhaps they will attribute the efficacy to God, perhaps to other factors expressed in pseudoscientific terms. Note that these beliefs may be of practical use in a social sense: group markers, though they are not grounded in objective reality. But fully internalizing objective reality can be a disadvantage, putting you at odds with family, friends, and community.

    The only way I would see atheism becoming the dominant belief would be if forced, e.g., as in the former Soviet Union. Even then, it is an enforced expression of belief rather than internalized belief.

    Just checked wikipedia: “The 2010 Eurobarometer survey[1] found that, on average, 51% of the citizens of EU member states state that they “believe there is a God”, 26% “believe there is some sort of spirit or life force” while 20% “don’t believe there is any sort of spirit, God or life force”.”

    So based on that I am pretty confident about 20% as an estimate. The upper limit could be substantially higher, but I really doubt it would ever be a majority view. This is also not something that bothers me particularly, though it goes without saying that naturalism is the only reasonable approach to doing science.

  7. PaulBC says

    @alixmo “the reasons for the significant difference in religiosity between Europe and the U.S.? It still puzzles me, a lot. Of ourse, I have my opinions (less social security, less welfare, weaker state in internal affairs than in Europe, more social inequality, more religious influence on early education). I am happy to learn more about this topic!”

    There are historical reasons as well. In Europe, as I understand it anyway, religion is tied more to national and family background than to zealous belief. It is relatively easy to take it or leave it, ignore for all purposes except weddings, funerals, and holiday celebrations.

    While it’s possible to overstate the lasting effects, the US was founded by diverse groups of people seeking religious “freedom”–in some cases, the freedom to impose it on others, like Puritan Massachusetts, and in some cases, like Quaker Pennsylvania, a genuine attempt to create a society based on tolerance.

    My impression from knowing Western Europeans is that they are more comfortable acknowledging traditional elements of religion (like saying Christmas, not “holidays”) because it’s just culture, not faith. In the US, and of course it’s not like people don’t say “Merry Christmas” it is still more likely to turn into a religious issue rather than just a very routine acknowledgement of a dominant culture.

    I would argue that the First Amendment separation of church and state has really been a great benefit to believers, because they can’t fully routinize their faith. There may be more pragmatic reasons, as you suggest above.

  8. springa73 says

    Trump is certainly an embarrassment to conservative Christians, but I doubt he will seriously weaken them in the long run. The reason for this is that I think many people in the US don’t pay much attention to the lessons of history if they happened more than about 1 generation ago. Within 15 or 20 years, if a critic of religion brings up the hypocrisy of the religious right supporting Trump, a lot of people will just say “but that was so long ago, it isn’t relevant to what’s going on today.”

  9. PaulBC says

    @springa73 “Trump is certainly an embarrassment to conservative Christians,”

    Few of them are acting like they’re embarrassed. Trump has put the lie to any notion that this group represents a belief system beyond the desire to preserve what they perceive as the rightful, dominant culture.

  10. bryanfeir says

    @PZ:
    Nor does Victoria. There was a big push for black settlement in Western Canada early on (my parents did some research on that for the Saanich Fair at one point) but a good chunk of that was basically to make it less likely that racist Americans would try to settle in the nascent colony of British Columbia while the border was still in flux. Once the border stabilized, extra support for incoming black farmers largely vanished.

    @alixmo, PaulBC:
    One of the side effects of not having a national religion in the U.S. was that it made it all the easier for smaller split-off sects and cults to start up, because there was no overarching force opposing them. Nothing like ‘The Great Awakening’ really happened in Europe. As far as I can see, the only other place that seems to have been a breeding ground for breakaway sects of Christianity even close to the U.S. is Germany. Of course, following the 30 Years War there wasn’t really a national religion in what is now Germany (like most other European countries) so much as a religious detente as people pieced things back together.

    (And, of course, a number of the breakaway sects from Germany, such as Mennonites, were among the ‘Palatines’ who went to New England anyway.)

    Canada had its own religious issues, given that even at formation Ontario/Upper Canada was primarily Anglican and Quebec/Lower Canada was primarily Catholic, but those were mostly kept below the boiling point. Mostly.

  11. ColonelZen says

    I wish I were so sanguine. While far from expert, with my superficial knowledge I look at history and see the Ionian greeks, Rome, and the Islamic enlightenment as overt times in history where secular and more moderate humanist values were ascendant and then fell to religious iconoclasm. Times are different now, but enough different to insure a different outcome. I don’t know why I’d think so… in all the cited eras there were advantages and benefits of the “enlightened” society that contributed to the overall weal …. and yet darkness came.

    I do not know that darkness will not come again.

    — TWZ

  12. anthrosciguy says

    @10
    Part of that early on push was BC’s first Governor, James Douglas (whose mother was part Creole, BTW) bringing in black settlers from the western USA (much of the NW was pretty prejudiced, and Oregon even codified it in law) on condition they vote for joining Canada as a province. There was at the time the strong possibility that the US-Canadian border would be somewhere between Victoria and Nanaimo. Plus Douglas wrung concessions from the Feds especially regarding building the railroad further west.

    Victoria was pretty cosmopolitan back then, but that was mostly gold field jumping off, furs, and the resulting commerce. Doesnt mean there wasn’t plenty o’ prejudice.

  13. psanity says

    That would be eastern Washington.

    Also, @springa73:

    I think many people in the US don’t pay much attention to the lessons of history if they happened more than about 15 minutes ago.

    Fixed that for you.

  14. nomdeplume says

    America secularising in a sort of natural progression as the young generations come through? Well, maybe, but way too slowly if the world is to survive. And I wouldn’t count on no reversals – religion is far too useful to the ruling classes for it to be allowed to run down.

  15. Pierce R. Butler says

    … Trump is a useful tool for atheists.

    We said the same about GW Bush; after eight lloonngg years, the results still came out negative.

  16. PaulBC says

    I don’t really believe in the cyclic situation suggested in 11. and 15.

    There is no reason to believe that history will inevitably advance towards more people believing things that are correct, but I do think that the advance of global communication makes it less likely that contiguous blocs of people will all adhere to the same beliefs. It is just a lot harder to maintain that situation than it was when belief was passed through tradition and folklore.

    So I think the future could involve a wide diversity of superstitious beliefs and behaviors, but I very much doubt we will ever again have uniformly enforced doctrine. It’ll be more or less a market-driven free-for-all.

  17. PaulBC says

    @Pierce R. Butler
    “… Trump is a useful tool for atheists.
    We said the same about GW Bush; after eight lloonngg years, the results still came out negative.”

    I agree completely, though I don’t remember how naive I was about Bush at this point. It is clear that conservative Christianity in America is not about adhering to morals or even religious practices but preserving a traditional way of life and traditional prejudices. Trump is entirely consistent with this.

    The fact that he’s a blatant liar and adulterer would never have been a huge issue to begin with. As the champion of the right, he is permitted certain privileges.

    It might be slightly more problematic that in his celebrity guise he was likely to associate with gay and transgendered people, and may not even internalize a huge prejudice against them. He fixes that by making sure he says all the right things to his supporters. Trump is nearly the perfect candidate for the Christian right. It was never about theology, and never about morals. It is about preserving patriarchy, and Trump fits the bill.

  18. John Morales says

    PaulBC [to another[:

    @Pierce R. Butler
    “… Trump is a useful tool for atheists.
    We said the same about GW Bush; after eight lloonngg years, the results still came out negative.”

    I agree completely

    Hm. What about the packing of courts with conservatives? High Court, even.

  19. alixmo says

    @Paul BC,

    Thank you for the answers! Those are all very valid, interesting points. This is a situation that has many causes, so all factors may have contributed.

    Still, it amazes me that even later waves of immigration to the U.S. did not weaken the religious fervor considerably (or maybe they did…!). That is why I assume that the weak state (in the sense of political structure in the “European”/politological sense, like in e.g. German “Staat”) in the U.S. may be the main reason for the lasting difference.

    The idea, or even ideology, of the “small state” is so prevalent in the U.S., that it seems to me as an outsider quite intrinsic to its political system. Not only U.S. libertarians seem to distrust the state and many citizens want to make it so small that they can “drown it in the bathtub”. Europe tends to put much more emphasis on the state, which (after WWII) did have many advantages, in my opinion.

    The welfare states of Europe and their very different juridical systems are (so I see it) the main reason why many people are now only nominally “believers”. You described it quite well, religion here is not that strong, it lacks fervor, is often merely cultural, folklorist. And I am so glad about that, regarding the problems resulting from the patriarchal nature of organised religions.

    In my (surely limited) experience, many people in Germany are “functional” atheists, even if they would answer a poll about their believe in “God” with Yes. My parents and other family members etc. would do so, yet, they never pray, never go to church, never read the Bible, never listen to or read what the Pope, priests or preachers have to say. There is this great disinterest in religion. And all social strata are similar in this respect; the working class and the poor are also not religious. Good!

    Religion is arguably mostly irrelevant in modern life. If the U.S. and developing countries would get their social-economic problems in order, would decrease the wealth gap/lessen economic inequality, would provide a welfare state including healthcare – adherence to organised religion would drop drastically. That is my prediction.

    You are right, some kind of superstition and “self-made religion”, some interest in “spirituality” may be left in many people. But, in the scheme of things, I do not consider that as problematic. In Europe, this has not caused much harm at all, and a strong state finds answers to e.g. the problem of anti-vaccers.

    As long as the U.S. and developing countries do not solve their social problems, religion will gladly fill the gap – of course, insufficiently, since the state does a much, much better job at helping the poor; charity is always just a trickle. But in a country with great poverty, a trickle may make a huge difference. Therefore, many U.S. citizens have to be members of a Church, in order to hope for help and assistance in times of need. It is a cheap life insurance.

    Only a strong welfare state can diminish poverty in an effective way – no surprise that many Churches are against a strong “big”, “meddling” state: it would immensly diminish their following.

    Europe already reduced its welfare state in the course of neoliberal economics and austerity. This is regrettable and should be undone. It makes people poorer, the wealth gap bigger. And it is (in my view) the main reason for the renaissance of the far right. And it may lead to a comeback of patriarchal, organised religiosity.

    I consider the European states and their much simpler and easier to understand and easier to apply juridical system as better than the U.S. version. (I may be wrong.) As a result of those states, European people, who do not have to worry as much about their livelihood, their safety and their health all the time, tend to see organised religions as intrusive, a nuisance and a waste of time.

    The “big”, anonymous welfare state takes away some perceived freedoms, yes. But it gives much freedom, too: among these is the freedom from an often very intrusive “community”, its authority, its “groupthink” and control. And for women, LGBTQ+ and freethinkers, the state is the keeper of freedoms and rights, against the will of patriarchal religions.

  20. Dunc says

    I suspect that part of the reason for greater religiosity in the US as compared to Europe may be that they didn’t spend a couple of centuries having massive wars over the subject. That’s the sort of thing that tends to make people a bit more circumspect about overt expressions of religiosity (either because it can get you killed, or because it can disturb the fragile peace) and really brings home the value of secularism.

  21. unclefrogy says

    well the times are not very simple and many things are changing or exerting influence toward change and yes it is not all in a good direction but the times are really different more different than at any time in the past.
    weapons of mass destruction abound, rivalry between religions and between religion and none belief, communication has never before been at this scale before and along with it comes surveillance that is almost completely invisible and ubiquitous, never before have the nations and the regions of the world been so involved so deeply in international trade, we are bound together by huge ships full of cargo going back and forth across the all the seas while the sky is full of people all the time.
    the planet is warming and things are getting pretty serious and we are just one bug away from a catastrophe of disease .many are already immune from our antibiotics.
    if we do not collapse and fall back into barbarism religion and it’s narrow and constricting parochial views will have to take a back seat maybe to be relegated to a purely ceremonial role Not many of the american christian sects have any hope of sustaining our current civilization if they managed to rest democracy to their gods yoke and the people with it.

    uncle frogy

  22. alixmo says

    @Dunc,

    That makes sense. But the U.S. should learn from example, they do not need to “feel” the dire result themselves; that would be the intelligent thing to do. At the moment, even in Europe, there are many people defending religion against criticism, downplaying the risks evolved. Those people ignore history, to all our detriment.

    @unclefrogy,

    Indeed. Religions are not suited for solving the great and pressing international problems of our time. This is easily demonstrated with the disinterest and sometimes hostility towards environmental issues.

    Lots of our world-wide problems are also related to women’s rights and women’s bodily autonomy/reproductive rights. Having more rights for women is linked to e.g. more peace and prosperity and a better environment. That stands in direct conflict with patriarchal religions, which all want to control women and use their bodies at whim, often as mere “incubators” (to put it harshly).

    Fighting for women’ s rights always means fighting organised, patriarchal religions. Even well-meaning people who see themselves as feminists often forget that. The media forgets that, for sure; easily proven by their mostly pro- religous reporting and opinion sections. This I see with much worry. Religions in the past only changed through pressure, e.i. the lack of attendance and Church membership – which were also results of harsh criticism.

    @bryanfeir,

    Most of the breakaway sects in Germany either died out or migrated to the U.S. and even Australia (Barrossa Valley). Germany is (nominally) mostly Lutheran and Catholic. There are smaller sects/denominations, but they are not very important and mostly recent “imports” from the U.S. Islam is the third big player in Germany now, and therefore demanding more rights. Since the Christian Churches are enjoying (too many, in my view) privileges granted by the state, Islamic organizations, claiming to speak for all Muslim people living in Germany, want those, too.

    In my opinion, the solution can only be: diminish/take away those undue privileges all together.

  23. KG says

    I suspect that part of the reason for greater religiosity in the US as compared to Europe may be that they didn’t spend a couple of centuries having massive wars over the subject. – Dunc@21

    I don’t think the timing supports that as a cause of the difference. It may well have played a part in the initial trend toward secularization that got going in the late 1600s. But most immigrants to what became the USA left Europe after that. Europe saw a big wave of secularization in the 20th century, coincident with the establishement of welfare states. So, significantly, did the other “Anglosphere” countries outside Europe: Canada, Australia, New Zealand. Any explanation of the contrast between Europe and the USa has to account for that.

  24. khms says

    #20 @alixmo

    I consider the European states and their much simpler and easier to understand and easier to apply juridical system as better than the U.S. version.

    I consider the US system pretty much terminally broken, there are so many problems.

    However, I’d like to point out that there is no such thing as “the European juridical system”. In fact, there are at least three very different families of such systems around in Europe. In GB, there’s the common law -derived system (related to the US system – I consider it rather ironic that the place where people rail against judges making law have a system derived from one where that was the main way law was made); then there are the rather popular systems derived from the Code Napoleon, and then Germany for example derives much of its law from the old Roman law. And of course every state (past and present) has adjusted the hell out of their law, in every imaginable direction.

  25. Dunc says

    KG, @ #24 – fair point. However, I still think we’re more aware of and more closely tied to that history here than they are in the US. For example it’s not like Orange Walks (with bonus sectarian violence) are a big thing in the US (AFAIK), despite the principle event they celebrate having occurred in 1690. Nothing like having a highly-visible bunch of dickheads parading around causing trouble to make your religion look bad… But yeah, you do have a point, especially about the contrast with the rest of the Anglosphere.

    Back to the drawing board…

  26. alixmo says

    @khms,#25,

    you are absolutely right! I am no legal expert, therefore, I should have done some research before posting. What I tried (clumsily) to point to was the difference between a “generic” Civil Law (which I called “European”, forgetting e.g. that the UK is not on board with that) and the U.S. Common Law. I mainly wanted to state my preference for Codified Law, law deriving from statutes and legislation, over Case Law. There are other benefits of Civil Law, but this is surely the most important. I think, Civil Law is easier to understand, even for lay-people, and cheaper.

  27. PaulBC says

    @alixmo
    “The idea, or even ideology, of the “small state” is so prevalent in the U.S., that it seems to me as an outsider quite intrinsic to its political system. Not only U.S. libertarians seem to distrust the state and many citizens want to make it so small that they can “drown it in the bathtub”. Europe tends to put much more emphasis on the state, which (after WWII) did have many advantages, in my opinion.”

    I think this is not a permanent, historical situation but the direct outgrowth of the toxic individualism promoted by Ronald Reagan. Ironically, the people who voted for Reagan nearly 40 years ago would make a lot of exceptions when the strong state helps them personally (e.g. interferes to keep the market from taking their job away, or regulates elements of personal conduct that they’re against). Trumpism is not a small state movement except with respect to its handling of corporations: deregulate and cut taxes and enrich the donor class.

    The United States believed in a strong state and mixed economy from the end of WWII through the beginning of Reagan’s presidency, and that would still be the norm if it hadn’t been eliminated intentionally by private interests who benefit from a weak state. There is nothing cultural or natural about that. Take the rhetoric of JFK for instance. This is what a unified nation sounds like (and he was a popular president): “We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.” Funny, you don’t hear that anymore, but it’s not because of something intrinsic to culture; it’s because this sense of unified purpose was intentionally attacked.

    The bathtub comment comes from Grover Norquist, who’s a tax activist, and represents an extreme. Yes, plenty of normal people get hoodwinked by this rhetoric, but it’s the outcome of an intentional program to destroy the ability of the US to function as anything other than the “libertarian ideal” of a state that funds a military and enforces some degree of contract law to allow moneyed interests to function. We see where that has brought us. This is not even the ideal of Trump supporters, who would be fine with a nanny state as long as it was a nanny state that supported their traditional interests and prejudices.

    Finally, it is possible for me to overstate this case. I lived in Switzerland for a year, and I did get a very different sense of the public attitude towards government, which seemed alien to me as an American. My view is that most Americans accept the premise that you have as much government as you need, but no more, the differences stemming from the question of how much do you need. I felt that in Swiss culture, the government is almost viewed as a kind of benevolence, organizing force and not something to be minimized as part of the optimization. I could be wrong, it was a very confusing time for me.

  28. PaulBC says

    @alixmo
    “Since the Christian Churches are enjoying (too many, in my view) privileges granted by the state, Islamic organizations, claiming to speak for all Muslim people living in Germany, want those, too.

    In my opinion, the solution can only be: diminish/take away those undue privileges all together.”

    I think this gets to the point of what is throwing much of the world into turmoil right now and driving nationalist movements in Europe (which we liberal Americans often treat as “the adults in the room”). Are traditional Christian populations willing to give up “privileges” just so they can deny them to those of other religions, mostly Islam?

    Personally, I think blue state America gets this right. People of different religions can coexist. I have seen it myself. It helps, no doubt, that Christianity is not held zealously enough to feel overtly threatened by others, but I really believe it is possible to live together. I think it is also virtually impossible to take away “privileges” that are viewed as part of a long tradition. Though I would be happy to remove tax exempt status from all churches, for instance, it obviously cannot be denied to other religions (I would prefer to see Scientology redefined as an organized crime syndicate, but even that is tough). Most likely that does need to be extended. I also consider the outward display of religion (e.g. a Sikh wearing a dastar) to be a fundamental right, not a privilege at all.

  29. alixmo says

    @PaulBC, #28,

    Generally speaking (there are differences between the European countries, but they can be neglected here), all of Europe has a “state-positive” view compared to the U.S. What you saw in Switzerland is rather the norm. What confused you then about Europe, confuses me about the U.S.; the generalizing term “the West” is often misleading, because it ignores the huge differences that do exist between the U.S. and Europe. And the concept of the “state” is the main obstacle.

    Grover Norquist is of course an anti-state extremists, but he is not alone. In general, even the average U.S. citizen is more doubtful and more worried, more critical about the state than the average European. And this is not only the case since Reagan.

    Yes, the U.S. were more social from FDR on till Reagan came in (and neoliberal economics ruled), but not compared to Euorpe. And Reagan was successful because of this rather “typical” U.S. sentiment of freedom being connected with a small state, less taxes and loads of “self sufficiency” and personal responsibility. The state always has a hard time getting sympathy in such a climate of “suspicion”. FDR was mostly able to do what he did because of the hard times the world and the U.S. went through.

    The anti-state attitude, I argue, is as old as the U.S. itself, with the Founding Fathers themselves worried and suspicious of “tyranny”. Their ample checks and balances and a system that does not allow porportional representation (which is proven to help the left gain influence) but protects property rights vehemently, is still the main obstacle against the establishment of a true welfare state.

    European constitutions and welfare states are relatively new, coming from a time when social democrats/socialists/communist parties had greater influence (and Europe feared the “competition” from the Soviet Union). The U.S. constitution does not reflect this struggle by the workers for welfare and porportional representation, because of its age.

    (About the Trump-administration: they do try to demolish the state, e.g. the EPA and other agencies, they do try to deregulate. But we are all so fixated on Trump’s antics and the most glaring wrong-doings, everything else hardly gets attention.)

    My conclusion still is, that the U.S. has a strong anti-state attitude compared to Europe, on all sides of the political spectrum (not only libertarians, even leftists can, in extreme cases, go as far as to form complex anti-state “conspiracy theories”). That prohibits the formation of a true welfare state.

    Which in turn keeps people living in economic insecurity – fostering the need of religious affiliations/”communities” filling this gap.

  30. alixmo says

    @PaulBC, #29,

    the differences between the U.S. and Europe seem the obstacle in our conversation here. The privileges that I talk about are mostly concerning the two leading CHURCHES in Germany, the Lutheran and the Catholic Church. This is not a matter of Christian people/believers, this is about huge privileges, including the power to collect taxes, that those Churches have in Germany. It is (mostly) not about restricting the average believer.

    Also, you being from the U.S., you hugely overestimate the interest of (nominally Christian) German people in religion altogether. We actually do not care, as I stated in my comment #20 (and which can be proven e.g. by polls). Most Germans hardly know about the extend of influence granted to the Churches, and they care so little, I would be surprised to see protests if they find out. Being rather irreligious, they underestimate the importance of the Churches (a common mistake. Unfortunately, the few people who are religious are much more persistent.)

    For people from the U.S., the European attitude towards religion must seem alien – just like the overly religious attitude of the U.S. is alien to me.

    Weirdly, even if religion itself is of little interest to the average German, the Churches still have much say and much privileges, granted by the state. They have direct contact to and therefore influence on the government; have the right to collect “Church” taxes, run kindergartens, schools, hospitals and elderly care homes. Careful: they “run” the places – but e.g. the hospitals are to a HUGE part financed by the state. Still, the Churches have powers over their employees, that are otherwise unheard of in Germany, like: they do not like strikes or allow worker’s representation, they may fire an employee because of a divorce or sexual orientation. The state may/is about to change some of that, but that this exists at all in Germany is an outrage.

    Now, those privileges have to go. That is my firm opinion.

    Instead, some Muslim groups (remember: there is no strict clergy in Sunni Islam, there is no Church!) claim to represent all Muslims in Germany and want the same undue privileges the Churches enjoy. (The most powerful of those Islamic groups are strongly connected to President Erdogan’ s party in Turkey.)

    Most of these groups are very conservative, not at all progressive – which means “patriarchal”. Therefore, I see the German state having the duty of protecting girls and women with Islamic background against those groups who claim (on which grounds??) authority over them.

    (I demand the same for “Christian” girls, “Jewish” girls, “Hindu” girls etc. – actually, I find those terms offensive: nobody is “born” with a religion, we are all “trained” into them…! And Human Rights should be universal, not depending on your “religious affiliation”!)

    I hope you see the problem here. With religion, it always comes back to patriarchal hierarchies and oppression of girls and women.

    There is a conflict of rights (freedom of religion versus women’s equality) that we cannot deny if we do not want to cause harm.

    At the moment, freedom of religion is winning over women’s rights, all the time. Why? Because there are no allies on the women’s side.

    On the contrary. Religious groups, despite the lack of religious enthusiasm in the population, (mis)use their (undue) influence to hamper the state trying to help girls e.g. by not allowing headscarves (hijab) in Primary Schools.

    Forbidding that would be a non-brainer (for reasons I told you in detail in another thread) – but minuscule religious minorities rather throw those girls and female emancipation/equality “under the bus”, out of fear over their own privileges! Like the privilege to butcher animals according to kosher rules… Yes, the right of a little girl is less important than the fear of losing the privilege of slaughtering an animal in kosher (not animal-friendly) ways!

    I get your concern about religious freedom (even if I see it as by-product of the pro-religion bias of U.S. culture, to be perfectly honest). But the freedom of young girls to grow up in freedom, with as much choice, dignity and chances of personal development as possible, should rank higher than the freedom of a patriarchal ideology to indoctrinate the next generation.

    This should not be controversial. That it still is, shows that the issue of religion is highly problematic and more, true, secularism is a must for the sake of girls/women (and LGBTQ+).

  31. Kagehi says

    I think we need a redefinition of “worlds”. 1st world – Those that have rejected most stupid ideas, including religion. 2nd world – those that still cling to dangerous ideas, like religion, with the tenacity of a dog pulling on a rope. 3rd world – what we used to call the 2nd world. 4th world – the ones that where once called third world, for lacking most modern technology, social practices, etc., and generally being more or less hell holes.

    But, yeah, we can’t keep calling the US a “1st world” country, and its not quite bad enough to be what we currently label as “2nd world”.

  32. PaulBC says

    @alixmo
    I agree that religions should not collect taxes. The idea is just too crazy for me to even wrap my head around, though I think I have heard of it before. Living in Europe was educational to me (and it’s almost a cliche) in the sense of understanding how American I am. Honestly, I’d like to see tax-exempt status eliminated in the US, but I am not holding my breath for it.

    As I said, even the most liberal American has the sense that government is a necessary… not “evil”… but kind of a drag. You need it the way you need sewers. You don’t build “big beautiful” sewers just to admire them. Of course, there are varying levels of realism about how much government you need (a lot more than libertarians think) but I accept that the goal is to minimize. Like the Declaration of Independence says, government is there “to secure these rights”. The people who wrote that did not have the Ayn Rand comic book fantasy view that individuals could always protect their own rights.

    I wonder how hard it would really be to remove subsidies from Catholic and Lutheran churches in Europe if the political will existed. (You make it sound as if people are apathetic.) In the US, it is right in the constitution that the government cannot establish a religion. Some of the consequences may be unintended, but they’re all good as far as I can tell. Prohibiting something like hijab for primary school girls is a matter of determining if it is an abuse on grounds other than religion. I’m not saying it’s easy. The US has long accepted that certain Native Americans can use peyote for religious reasons. It is not (as far as I know) a blanket license to use peyote and drive a car, putting others in danger.

    I feel that if the establishment clause is interpreted as intended, it is possible to prohibit abuse and public endangerment without prohibiting religion as such. Some atheists may counter “why not prohibit religion as such”? That is a different argument, but it’s a given to me that people have a fundamental right to believe stuff (whether it makes sense to me) and to put those beliefs into practice. Rights come in conflict, including this one, and government must sometimes step in to arbitrate which one has priority.

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