One of the local newspapers today called my attention to an item on AlterNet in which Ted Cox recounts his abandonment of Mormonism and claims to be representative of growing numbers of Americans who are giving up religion. Cox describes a rationalist utopia in which a greater availability of information enables young people to discover how religious leaders are either wrong on facts or willfully misleading followers. Attempts to make religion more hip or more tolerant will fail, Cox predicts, because people can prove to themselves that no religion is right about everything.
Being no fan of religion myself, I wish I could share Cox's optimism. I suppose I can if we stick to Cox's actual subject: Americans with internet access and a willingness to do some self-assigned research. There probably are plenty of Americans for whom religion stands or falls entirely on whether it can accurately describe the world and the past. Many more, I fear, and more still in other parts of the world, apply different standards to faith, not just because they're intellectually uncurious, but because they seek and apparently get more out of religion than explanations of natural phenomena. The big thing they get, I suspect, is a sense of belonging that satisfies an urge stronger among them than among those who spend more time alone in front of computers. The feeling of belonging can give people a sense of strength and security for which they'll willing to swallow a lot. The need to belong can fluctuate over time, depending on how secure people feel. Even in America, I fear, the trends applauded by Cox probably aren't irreversible. Fifty or sixty years ago secular reason seemed to be on the march everywhere on earth, including the Arab world. If you think of that as an uphill climb, there's been some backsliding since then, and not only in the Arab or Muslim world. Maybe Cox has numbers to back up his optimism, but I don't share his faith for the long haul. Not until people again believe that they can achieve real progress on their own, acting collectively and politically, will they again turn away in meaningful numbers from promises of divine protection or postmortem rewards. That itself requires a kind of faith that isn't immediately verifiable -- a faith in collective and individual human potential. That faith has been under assault by generations by ideological skepticism, and by now the real challenge for secularists may be getting people to believe the possible rather than doubt the impossible.