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Storming the Ivory Tower

Since moving to Big Think, there’s a viewpoint I’m encountering more and more often. This belief holds that the New Atheism is tilting at windmills, because most religion is moderate and harmless, and destructive fundamentalist beliefs are held only by an inconsequential minority. One commenter even absurdly accused me of “confusing fundamentalism with religion“, as if those two things were completely unrelated phenomena with nothing in common.

This ivory-tower view, if it was ever true, has failed to keep up with demographic realities. The moderate, “mainstream” Protestant churches that once dominated American culture are dwindling to irrelevance before our eyes. Their membership has fallen from over 50% of the population to just 8% in only a few decades (one researcher called it “flatline Protestantism“). In some cases, as with the Anglicans, they’re fracturing apart as conservative wings loudly refuse to cooperate with modern moral progress like recognizing same-sex marriage or ordaining women.

The Roman Catholic church hasn’t shrunk quite so much (although it is shrinking), but its leaders are doing their best to accelerate the departure of liberal and moderate members by moving relentlessly to the right, undoing even the small reforms of Vatican II, clamping down on dissent, and insisting that opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage are the defining traits of a Catholic.

Meanwhile, fundamentalist and evangelical churches already outnumber the moderate denominations, and more are constantly sprouting. About one-third of American adults considered themselves “born-again” Christians as of 2008, and as the ARIS report says, there is “a movement towards more conservative beliefs and particularly to a more ‘evangelical’ outlook among Christians” [p.8]. Gallup polls consistently show that between 40% and 50% of Americans are creationists. Bolstering these statistics, as Jerry Coyne points out, about 70% of Americans believe in Satan and demons, and an astonishing 52% expect Jesus to return physically to earth sometime in the next millennium.

And the fundamentalists are getting increasingly aggressive at imposing their beliefs on the rest of us. In many places, schools are so afraid of controversy that they either leave evolution out of the curriculum entirely or water it down so much as to effectively not teach it. As groups like the National Center for Science Education or Americans United will tell you, right-wing legislators and school boards are constantly trying to introduce creationism into classes, put up religious banners and monuments in public places, and otherwise test the boundaries of the church-state wall.

Women and gay people, especially, have borne the brunt of these theocratic assaults. Right-wing state legislatures, when they’re not trying to ban abortion altogether, are heaping more and more restrictions on a woman’s right to get one, making it so burdensome and inconvenient as to be out of reach for many women, especially poor women. They’re trying to make it harder to obtain contraception. They’re adamantly opposed to same-sex marriage, going so far as to ban government employers from offering domestic partner benefits to same-sex couples.

All this, of course, is just from an American-centric perspective. There are many other harms done by religion around the world, some of them much worse than anything I’ve described here. But from a vantage point at the top of the accommodationist ivory tower, it’s easy to overlook all this. Inhabitants of this rarefied realm gaze out over the battlements when they hear a clamor, and all they seem to see is that we, the atheists, are the ones causing trouble.

Part of what I aim to do is to (metaphorically) tear off the doors of the ivory tower and drag its inhabitants down to ground level, to show them the source of the clamor. Atheists aren’t causing trouble for no reason; we’re reacting to the real dangers posed by the aggressive imposition of religious ideas into law and public life. Of course, there’s a remaining question of how we can most effectively fight back, and whether sweeping attacks on religious belief might be counterproductive. I’ll address this further objection in an upcoming post.


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