Is the world gradually moving into a post-religious phase? Are millennials dropping religion in large numbers? Are evangelicals a driver in our politically divided society?
Phil Zuckerman, a professor of sociology and secular studies at Pitzer College and author of “Society Without God,” says "yes" to all these questions and will explain why at a talk starting at 7 p.m. Monday, March 13, at Rogue Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, 87 Fourth St., Ashland. Zuckerman also teaches classes as an adjunct at Claremont Graduate University.
“Secularism means doubting and deconstructing religion in any political claims,” he says. “Philosophically, it means debunking religious claims. It’s a large umbrella that includes agnosticism and atheism and other isms, but the most important one is humanism. Whatever problem is out there, whether in global warming, poverty, illness, you are taking a rational stand for all sentient beings and not relying on saviors, gurus or magical beings.”
Zuckerman, who created the degree-granting program of secularism at Pitzer College, one of The Claremont Colleges in Southern California, says secularism means being non-religious on a personal level — and on the political level means absolute separation of church and state.
“There are no gods or gurus or magical beings who are going to help us. It’s humans and humanism that are going to make this a better place in the here and now.”
In a phone interview, Zuckerman said, “Secularism as a moral vision is more suitable in the goal of treating people with humanness … and guarding our planet against destruction.”
The lecture of Zuckerman, 47, is called, "Secular vs Religious Morality in the Age of Trump." He pulls no punches in describing new president Donald Trump and his effect on our society’s morality, as well as the impact of self-described evangelicals, 81 percent of whom voted for him.
“Not only are we living in an era of alternate facts, under Trump, but alternate facts means lies and alternate morality,” he notes. “Immoral policies are being carried out under the guise of morality and we’re now in an era of true moral depravity.”
He says white evangelicals are the base Trump’s support and “need to be singled out for heavy responsibility in the moral depravity of today. They’ve created pain and suffering all over this planet.”
The religious right, he says, is the main reason younger people are “turned off to religion, even disgusted by it. It’s the opposition to gays, women’s rights, other ethnic groups — and if the younger people have a spiritual experience on their own, they embrace it and might say they believe in a higher power, but they’re not interested in taking it to a religious organization. They feel the awe but they won’t put labels on it.”
There are other causes to the long decline of Christianity. America has become a much more multi-cultural society and people are starting to get to know and like people of other religious traditions, he says.
“When you have a monopoly on religion and it’s the only show in town, as it was in the past, it takes on an aura of reality and truthfulness, but now that’s harder to maintain. People have a lot more education about the history of religion. The internet is another big factor and it’s correlated with losing faith. More women are working outside the home. Women are socializers and have always maintained engagement with religion — and that has declined.”
The Pew Research Center reports that three years ago, of the so-called Silent Generation, born 1928-45, 85 percent say they were Christian, tapering down with 78 percent of boomers, 70 percent of Generation X and 56 percent of younger millennials. Between 2007 and 2014, the Christian share of the population dropped from 78.4 to 70.6 percent, while unaffiliated climbed from 16.1 to 22.8 percent.
Zuckerman says a degree in secular studies is a good gateway to public policy, law, education, history, teaching or politics — although, at this time, if you want to run for office in a red state with that on your resume, “you are probably doomed, because they expect you to be a god-believer. But that stigma is going to fade as more and more of us come out. The degree was not created to get people jobs, but to enhance our world.”
Noted thinkers in the secular tradition — and the books he assigns in classes — include Bertrand Russell, John Stuart Mill, David Hume, Emma Goldman and Epicurus.
In his “Society Without God,” Zuckerman points out Denmark and Sweden are the least religious countries in the world, maybe in the history of the world, but have the lowest violent crime rate and the least corruption in the world. He has commented that religion is often conflated with patriotism, and that secular people tend to vote for progressive causes.
He is the author of several other books, including “Faith No More: Why People Reject Religion” and “Living the Secular Life: New Answers to Old Questions.”
His talk is free and open to the public.
— John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.