Nobody hears the 20 million

Playboy, February 1998

(Printed in Forum section, slightly revised)

By James A. Haught

America is more religious than any other advanced nation.

A recent Yankelovich poll found that 90 percent of Americans believe in God, compared to just 48 percent of Britons; and 76 percent think hell is a real place, compared to just 16 percent of Germans.

More than 100 million Americans attend church each Sunday, a vastly higher ratio than in Europe. No U.S. politician who openly questioned religion could be elected.

American fundamentalism is surging in what some call the Third Great Awakening. Radio and television teem with evangelists.

Americans donate an astounding $70 billion yearly to churches and ministries -- more than the national budgets of most countries.

That's a colossal commitment to the supernatural.

But there's more: "Spirituality" is booming in this country, with multitudes hooked on astrology horoscopes, psychic predictions, faith-healing, UFO abductions, aura reading, clairvoyant visions, ESP, tarot cards, demonic possession, "channeling" of occult voices, and the like. New Age books on angels, prophecies and "visitations" sell millions of copies. Incredibly, Americans spend $300 million a year on calls to psychic hot-lines.

At the extreme fringe, a few castrate themselves and "shed their containers," thinking that suicide will take them to a UFO behind the Hale-Bopp Comet.

Amid this hubbub, there's just one voice that isn't heard: the view of skeptics like me who suspect that the whole mystical myriad -- deities and devils, messiahs and miracles, saints and seers, auras and angels, heavens and hells and holy ghosts -- is just imaginary nonsense.

If 90 percent believe in God, that means 10 percent don't. Since America has 200 million adults, there must be about 20 million of us doubters. But we are mostly unseen. The agnostic viewpoint rarely gets media coverage. Did you ever see a national TV show or major magazine article questioning the reality of invisible beings or life after death? There seems to be an unspoken taboo against any challenge to prevailing dogma. Maybe it's because believers are so touchy that it would be "theologically incorrect" to step on toes.

Well, I don't want to hurt anyone's feelings, but I'd like to make a pitch for the 20 million. We deserve a chance to toss our beliefs into the national stew. Free speech ought to include the right to raise doubts.

To begin with, I'm sure that the 20 million include many of America's brightest and best: scholars, scientists, reformers, writers, historians, philosophers, and other outstanding people. This "cognitive elite" perceives that there's no reliable evidence of a spirit realm. Among university faculties, research lab staffs and the like, religious believers have become oddities.

Further, I'll bet the 20 million encompass much of America's educated professional class and other intelligent folks. They can see the obvious bounty of science, and the embarrassing failures of magical beliefs. If their children get pneumonia, they trust penicillin more than prayer. They can see that it's up to people to solve human problems, because appeals to heaven produce zilch.

"Many religious beliefs decline as education level rises," pollster George Gallup reported in The People's Religion: American Faith in the 1990s. He also reported that church convictions have lost much of their grip since the 1950s.

That's an enigma of America: Alongside the upsurge of fundamentalism is a contradictory rise in irreligion. Even the National Council of Churches, in its latest Handbook of Denominations, acknowledges "the ongoing, growing, and powerful movement called secularism, a way of understanding and living that is indifferent to religion -- in fact, not even concerned enough to pay it any attention, much less oppose it."

You can see the trend in the demise of old church "thou shalt nots." In the 1950s, in many states, looking at the equivalent of a Playboy magazine or an R-rated movie could land you in jail, buying a cocktail or a lottery ticket was a crime, married couples were forbidden to buy birth-control devices, homosexuals were thrown in prison, working on Sunday was a violation of "blue laws," unmarried couples who slept together risked jail, blacks and whites were forbidden to intermarry, etc. A girl who became pregnant was thrown out of school and ostracized. A doctor who halted a pregnancy risked prison. Now those taboos have vanished like frost in sunshine.

Religious Right leaders who lament the "moral decline" since the 1950s actually are trying to revive puritanism.

You can also see America's transition in the slump of that pillar of middle-class respectability, mainline Protestantism. Over the past generation, seven large, liberal, "high-steeple," well-educated, non-fundamentalist, Protestant denominations lost 7 million members, while the U.S. population rose 60 million. This dramatic change implies that educated people have less need of religion.

Not long ago, Yale professor Stephen Carter wrote a book protesting "The Culture of Disbelief" that is spreading among America's trend-setters. Carter called it a symptom of moral decay -- but I call it a sign of rising honesty. Refusal to swallow mystical pronouncements of priests is a step toward integrity, in my eyes.

Of course, the culture of disbelief still is small, compared to the huge culture of belief. But I have a hunch that America is evolving toward Europe's pattern, with steady shrinkage of the supernatural. (As for moral decay, don't forget that religion-saturated America has far worse rates of murder, rape, robbery, drug abuse, street violence, unwed pregnancy and other evils than does "godless" Europe.)

The world's superpower of religion won't change overnight, but the winds are shifting. Soon it may be acceptable for thinking people to express skepticism in major American media, without risk. That would be a breakthrough.

Over the years, some bold nonconformists have dared to doubt. Thomas Edison said "religion is all bunk." Sigmund Freud called religion a childish neurosis and declared himself "an out-and-out unbeliever."

Albert Einstein wrote that he couldn't imagine a personal God or a hereafter, "although feeble souls harbor such thoughts through fear or ridiculous egotism."

Thomas Jefferson wrote, in a letter to John Adams: "The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter."

That day has come for much of Europe. I hope it comes in America.

If it does, our 20 million may grow to 40 million, and it will be safe to say, right out in public, that supernaturalism is silly.