FLORIDA, December 12, 2012 — Greg Epstein serves as the Humanist chaplain at Harvard. An ordained rabbi, he is the author of the bestseller Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe.
America is becoming a more and more secular country. This fact is disturbing to many on the religious right, but it is opening doors for millions to question their own religious beliefs and established theistic doctrine. Our nation’s theological landscape is shaping up for a future quite unlike its past.
Despite this, negative stereotypes about atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, and others persist. Non-theists face an atmosphere of prejudice (polls show that Americans would prefer a Muslim as president to an atheist, and not many would vote for a Muslim) and misunderstanding. Many have begun to speak out about the facts behind secularism.
In this first part of a candid discussion, Rabbi Epstein explains many of the issues key to American secularism. Is our nation really a Christian one? Why is church attendance on the downturn? Are the rights of secular Americans routinely infringed upon?
Joseph F. Cotto: Many people, especially in politics, claim that America is a “Christian nation.” Very often, this idea is supported by the claim that our Founding Fathers drafted and ratified the Constitution on theological grounds. What is your opinion on this subject?
Rabbi Greg Epstein: The claim that America is a Christian nation has been widely and well refuted. The Constitution very clearly and purposefully does not include any mention of a god. If anything, some American founders were religious, others were more like what we would, today, call Humanists. I give a summary of the history of all of this in my book Good Without God and there are many other great books that lay out the details.
Cotto: While the majority of Americans identify with Christianity in one form or another, church attendance has decreased rapidly over the last several years. Meanwhile, the number of those describing themselves as secular has skyrocketed. Why do you think this change is taking place?
Rabbi Epstein: I think the three main reasons, among many others, are: 1) the increase in knowledge of the world around us, due to science and free inquiry, that is challenging religious beliefs and making people re-think their religious affiliations and values; 2) the many failures and evils perpetuated by some prominent religious organizations, and the attempt by some significant numbers of very conservative religious people to dominate American politics in the name of religion and “faith” as a whole; and 3) the “flattening” of the world, where young people today are more interconnected than ever before because of technology.
Today’s youth are very much aware of the diversity of their world and they simply cannot accept the validity of any community or ethical teaching or God that claims one group of people is fundamentally better or more worthy than others.
Cotto: Despite the fact that American secularism is on an upswing, it must be noted that fundamentalist Christianity has seen a remarkable rise in popularity. All the while, mainline Protestant churches are in serious decline. What do you suppose might account for this trend?
Rabbi Epstein: Actually fundamentalist Christianity is not really on the upswing. The percentage of Americans who are evangelical Christians is around 25 percent. That number has held more or less steady for decades now. The issue is just that conservative Christians got very politically active starting back in the 1970’s, and they were able to amass huge political power by driving a wedge between other groups.
The Secular community and its progressive religious allies are finally beginning to successfully beat back this strategy, as seen in particular in this year’s election. Progressive values like women’s equality, gay rights, immigration rights, etc. swept to victory across the country.
Cotto: America’s secular coalition consists of far more than atheists and agnostics. What other groups actively participate?
Rabbi Epstein: There are many types of secular Americans—too many to list here, so folks should check out secular.org and other resources like my book for detail. But in particular many nonreligious Americans like to call themselves Humanists, meaning nonreligious people who have a strong commitment to living positive lives based on reason and compassion, as part of a community. Humanists can also affirm their cultural backgrounds—for example, I am a member of the Society for Humanistic Judaism; I have Humanist friends who honor their Christian or Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist cultural roots.
Cotto: Many people believe that the rights of secular Americans are often infringed upon. Do you share this view?
Rabbi Epstein: Yes, I think any time someone suggests you can’t be good without god, or even raises that as a question, it’s prejudice. It may even be discrimination. There are examples like those of Jessica Ahlquist (look her up) where young people have been demonized just for speaking up about who they are and about the separation of church and state.
That said, I think the best way for us to defend secular Americans, in addition to fighting for our constitutional rights, is to remind our fellow Americans that all we really want is to be valued as an equal community with an equal voice, and that we’re really fighting for a nation that is more reasonable and compassionate on behalf of all—better health care, equality for women and minorities, a healthy environment, plenty of investment in science and technology to solve human problems. Those are the sorts of things we represent.
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