Atheists Out of the Closet

Athiests are coming out of the closet. And in South Carolina, no less; a place noted for the strength of its religious and political values, strongly conservative and deeply held. That’s the gist of the NY Times piece on "emerging" athiests and secular humanists.

A Pew study on religious attitudes across the country provides context. Four in ten in the Pew survey say they abandoned the faith they were taught as children. In this fluid situation the largest group is people who disconnect from faith. Pew calls them unaffiliated. Roman Catholics lead the dropouts followed by the general category of "Protestants." The majority of those who move from their childhood faith do so before age 24 and are likely to change more than once. Religious churning.

A study like this provides a snapshot but it doesn’t get at the deeper emotional, psychological or spiritual issues that are at work. I wonder what people are turning away from, or giving up. Dogma? Belief in the transcendent? A sense of the sacred in life? The community in which they were nurtured?

And I wonder about what is being taught, and not sticking, in religious education. What is happening in our interior life that leads to this turn? More pertinent, how does secularization occur in the internal spiritual landscape that includes our rational thinking and emotions?

And how is that interior churning affected by the exterior, existential circumstances in which we live? As we become urbanized and disconnected from the natural order must we rediscover our place in the universe?  Does it signify the end of the Enlightenment and the dawning of a New Awareness, as some say? Is it the final stages of deconstruction or the ongoing work of empowered individualism that has been underway for the last several years in Western culture?

I am most interested in what leads us to define ourselves apart from the sacred, to devalue the transcendent and holy, and put ourselves in its place. And I wonder how faith becomes irrelevant to those who are nurtured in faith communities? Or, how faith communities fail in the nurturing?

And, finally, I ask if people are turning away from religious answers that no longer make sense, or are they discovering new questions for which old religious teachings don’t work? Is this an existential quest, and if it is, why is that not understood as the essence of faith, a search for meaning?

The Times article surmizes many causes, one of which is the embrace by the Bush Administration of the religious right. Thinking, caring people were put off by these extremists who made news and attempted to force their narrow values onto the rest of us. I suspect the damage done in this era will be long-lasting. But I also suspect that’s not the most significant issue. This churning is not merely reactive. Among those I know who have given up religion, it’s a thoughtful struggle to understand life in a more authentic and consistent way. It is reflective beyond merely rejecting right wing ideology.

I recall a thoroughly enjoyable conversation on a flight across the Atlantic with a Dutch pyschotherapist who made a point, in a kind way, to let me know he was not a religious believer. He is never the less a humanist and a remarkable person. He was returning from a volunteer mission to Peru that doubled as a vacation. The values he described and how they integrate into his life were impressive. I was in a better mood after our conversation than before.

I’m also intrigued by the desire for community that the Times article identifies. We need to be connected with people of like mind regardless of our religious sensibilities, it seems.

I take away from this religious churning and the emerging rejection of religion a challenge to listen and understand (in so far as that is possible). As we move into a new century and face unprecedented change, our humanity is being redefined. So too, is our relationship to the world and the whole of creation. The challenge to theology is to take us far beyond the bumper stickers and attention-drawing rhetoric and help us in the search for meaning and purpose. For me, that is a function of faith.

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