“Madness is something rare in individuals–but in groups, parties, peoples, ages it is the rule.”
-Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil
Recent polls and statistics on American religion confirm what we already know, that secularism is replacing theism. The doomsday scenario of evangelicals and fundamentalists is now waiting at the waters edge, more and more new generations of Americans do not cling to superstition. For the first time in history more people identify with no religion than with Christian Evangelicals, which is no small change. We can look back to just a few years ago when atheism and even secular belief have been openly chided as un-American heresy. George H.W. Bush famously commented from America’s highest level of office, “No, I don’t know that atheists should be regarded as citizens, nor should they be regarded as patriotic.”
In an extremely short amount of time, the United States has to an extent shifted from that perspective to one where religion is now often a pariah. In a bitter moment of irony, this change was shown by George W. Bush, the boy-king of populist conservatism. In a radical move from his father’s beliefs, he proclaimed “No President should ever try to impose religion on our society…the great tradition of America is one where people can worship the way they want to worship. And if they choose not to worship, they’re just as patriotic….”
How is this possible?
The clearest explanation is that despite the historical context of religion, it is now being superseded by a more informed public. The Internet has drastically improved global access to information, it is harder to hide the truth. Religious extremism, bigotry, and affectation becomes more and more exposed every day. If it were not for the cultural baggage association with theism,one could even make the argument that belief would have left America some time ago. Religiosity has become what anthropologists consider a cultural survival: a social remnant much like our vestigial tonsils or appendix. The structures of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam may have once provided us with a necessary escapism or even a physical practicality, but that time seems to have faded away.
One important reason that there are still a majority of Americans clinging to their spiritual ideology is because it is easier than the alternative. No one wants to have the conversation with their mother, grandparents, old friends and so on, about how they have shed an everyday appeal to ignorance that was so often revered.
Slavoj Zizek qualifies the change as simply, “With regard to religion, we no longer ‘really believe’, we simply follow (some of) the religious rituals and mores as part of our respect for the ‘lifestyle’ of the community to which we belong.”
Take for example the existence of the traditional handshake, it remains a custom across the world but no longer serves its intended function. In ancient history and prehistory the custom developed as a way of showing a guest that you were unarmed. Presenting an open hand to an acquaintance assured both parties that no one would receive a blade across the throat.
For America, the time has come when people no longer wish to live under the shadow of this sort of impractical nicety. Our country and our world is in the midst of a change that will push society away from tradition for the sake of tradition,and towards more active thinking.