Long time, no see, I know. But I finally got around to writing a column for work about atheism and I wanted to share it.
I’ve been sitting on this idea for at least a year and a half, but I dilly-dallied on it because I couldn’t get in touch with the local group, my schedule didn’t always work to drive to New Haven, and a part of me wasn’t looking forward to all the fire and brimstone I’d receive from readers for admitting I was an atheist.
When I finally found a valid email for the local group, I started up again with research, and to start I was going to leave out my personal stuff, not only because of space constraints but also because of the threat of backlash. We have a strict-ish social media policy at work regarding sharing opinions because it could be used against us by readers/sources/etc., and I really didn’t want to lose my job because someone in a religious community didn’t trust me to write a fair article about them (I write about new pastors at area congregations from time to time).
As I was writing, I recognized very quickly that was going to be too long for one story, so I got permission to turn it into a two-part deal. I also decided that now that I had more space and a bit of confidence, I was going to include some of my personal stuff and then leave the rest here, though looking at the word count, that may have to wait for another post.
This is the full text of both columns, unedited in the sense that this is pre-copyfitting and edited in the sense that I don’t need to summarize something from six paragraphs ago. It’s also missing a placeholder sentence regarding hate mail because the story was just published online this morning and won’t be in mailboxes until Wednesday or Thursday, so I haven’t gotten any yet.
There’s been a rather annoying trend among clickbait titles lately of pointing out things that millennials have “killed.” A quick search shows articles capitalizing on the “deaths” of things like paper napkins, chain restaurants, the 9-to-5 work week, and even stuff the average 20-something can’t afford like a vacation cruise.
There’s also the accusation that millennials are killing religion. Most notably, we’ve been accused of causing the decline in church enrollment that leads to parish closures, but really we’re a convenient scapegoat for any sort of change that a certain religious group objects to. We’re contributing to the end times, if you will.
But how big is this rising tide of young godless heathens? According to a 2014 Pew study, about a third of millennials in the U.S. identify as “nones,” or unaffiliated with a religion. The average age of “nones” is 36, much lower than the average adult age of 46 and the average age of Protestants (52) and Catholics (49).
It’s not just millennials, though. The percentage decreases with older generations – Baby Boomers, for example, sit around 17 percent – but each generation group surveyed showed a small uptick in the percentage of “nones” from the previous Pew survey in 2007. A 2016 study showed 23 percent of all adults in the U.S. are “nones.”
Tom Krattenmaker, who writes about religion in public life and sits on the board of the Yale Humanist Community, has been studying this trend toward secularism. Referencing a 2016 study out of the Public Religion Research Institute, he said people leave with a religion or don’t identify with one in the first place primarily because they don’t believe in its teachings, regardless of their age. Other reasons included politicization, abuse scandals, treatment of LGBT people, and church views on science.
As an atheist myself, I agree with the PRRI assessment, but I can’t cite myself for obvious reasons, so I asked around to get reasons why other people left. Unfortunately, “outing” is still an issue (which I will discuss in the second installment of this piece), so finding people willing to be quoted was tricky.
I attended a meeting of the Atheist Humanist Society of Connecticut and Rhode Island in July, and the 10 or so people in attendance that night gave reasons ranging from finding other groups to be too “churchy” to wanting a group where they can have civil conversations that don’t get mired by religious conflict. Despite nationwide trends, the group was primarily older adults (well, older than me, anyway), and they noted that while membership was largely male and “engineer-types,” they were starting to see more women attending.
A super-not-scientific survey of “none” friends on Facebook found that many had also followed the “I just don’t believe it” assessment discussed in the PRRI study. One came to the realization after studying biblical theology at a Lutheran college (and quit shortly thereafter), and another who self-identified as a “recovering Catholic” came to it after listening to arguments by Sam Harris, one of the so-called “Four Horsemen of New Atheism.”
Other answers fit more like my own experience of not really believing in the first place, boiling down to too many questions with no or unsatisfying answers. For them, putting a god into the equation only complicates it, not simplifies it.
There is often concern from the religious community about this increase of non-believers. If you don’t believe in a higher power, what do you do with your life? How do you cope with daily stresses? How do you control the anti-religious urges to set churches on fire and eat live babies?
I’m being sarcastic here, obviously. But I’ve been asked those kinds of questions.
While there’s a wide variety of beliefs within the “nones,” one I see a lot is from the American Humanist Association: “good without a god.” In short, a person’s ability to do good in the world – helping little old ladies cross the street, running food drives, etc. – isn’t dependent on the presence of a higher power or that person’s belief in such.
However, being openly not religious or specifically an atheist can be a problem, even in a blue and relatively nonreligious state like Connecticut. Atheists and agnostics especially are generally viewed negatively by members of religious groups, according to a 2014 Pew study.
As a result, I had a bit of a hard time finding local people willing to be directly quoted about why they identified this way. When I attended the July meeting of AHSCTRI, a few people said they got backlash from family, friends and even employers for being an open atheist. Some said they weren’t public about it specifically for those reasons. I’ve never been threatened, but I’ve definitely been given a bit of side-eye and questioned.
Krattenmaker is working on a book about what people do after they leave the church, and he said an increasingly secular society will effectively become a big social experiment to see what takes the place of the church. Groups like the YHC are popping up all over the state and country to build community, find meaning, and live ethical lives without being religious.
I also went to one of the YHC’s Humanist Haven meetings in August to sit in on a discussion of what exactly these groups around the state are doing. There are about seven regional groups, including AHSCTRI, and they send delegates to the Connecticut Coalition of Reason. There are also smaller groups based around lunch meet-ups or other casual get-togethers.
They hold conferences and table at events to promote their groups to people who might not otherwise know they exist. They participate in rallies for causes they support and protest against ones they don’t. They have meetings with legislators to get bills passed on issues such as the standardization of oaths
(taking out the “So help me God” part)(UPDATED 8/23, h/t Pat McCann: it’s not to take out the God bit but rather to add “or under penalty or perjury,” since other groups also have issues swearing to God and this way no one has to out themselves). They noted there’s a lot less money involved than with religious organizations, so they rely on volunteers and making alliances with other groups.
For more information on the various atheist and humanist groups throughout the state, visit unitedcor.org/coalition-of-reason/connecticut.
I have to admit, I’m not a huge fan of my conclusion, but most conversations I have about being an atheist end in “so yeah,” so that’s the best I have.