Monday, September 17, 2018

Interview from the Archive: David Niose says, for no small number of Americans, Christian beliefs "don’t seem plausible in the modern world"

Editor's note: This article was originally published on March 18, 2017.

This is the second part of my discussion with David Niose. The first article is available here. 
Story by Joseph Ford Cotto 
"The Christian share of the U.S. population is declining, while the number of U.S. adults who do not identify with any organized religion is growing, according to an extensive new survey by the Pew Research Center," the organization reported in May 2015, when its most recent report about faith -- or lack thereof -- in our country was published.
Pew continued: "Moreover, these changes are taking place across the religious landscape, affecting all regions of the country and many demographic groups. While the drop in Christian affiliation is particularly pronounced among young adults, it is occurring among Americans of all ages."
Specifically, the Center noted that "(b)etween 2007 and 2014, the Christian share of the population fell from 78.4% to 70.6%, driven mainly by declines among mainline Protestants and Catholics. The unaffiliated experienced the most growth, and the share of Americans who belong to non-Christian faiths also increased."
One can imagine how much farther this number has fallen since 2014. Like it or not, America is in the midst of serious cultural change.
David Niose has much to say about this.
He is, as his profile at Psychology Today explains, "an attorney who has served as president of two Washington-based humanist advocacy groups, the American Humanist Association and the Secular Coalition for America. He is author of Nonbeliever Nation: The Rise of Secular Americans and Fighting Back the Right: Reclaiming America from the Attack on Reason. He currently serves as legal director of the AHA."
Niose is the man behind Our Humanity, Naturally, a PT blog which the publication says "presents issues of life, society, and philosophy from the naturalistic standpoint of Humanism. A progressive philosophy of positive values without dogma and superstition, Humanism is becoming more prevalent among those concerned about anti-intellectual and dysfunctional trends in modern society."
Niose recently spoke with me about many issues pertaining to the shifting sands of American religious life. Some of our conversation is included below.


Joseph Ford Cotto: Mainline Protestantism -- from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to Episcopalianism -- is also in steep decline, even though its more elastic, modernist doctrines comport with the mainstream of 21st-century American life. What accounts for such a situation? 

David Niose: Many of the same factors that have led to problems for Catholicism. To many, the underlying foundational doctrines of Christianity don’t seem plausible in the modern world. Keep in mind that the entire Christian structure is based on the belief that Jesus came, as they say, “in fulfillment of the scriptures.” Well, what does that mean? It means that to be a believing Christian one must accept the idea that ancient men received special messages—prophecy—from God. These men didn’t know where the sun went at night, but we’re seriously supposed to believe that they received divine prophecy? For many of us, common sense dictates otherwise.

Cotto: Non-Orthodox Judaism has failed to exempt itself from the downward spiral other religions find themselves in. Might this be attributed to soaring intermarriage rates or is it that those born into non-Orthodox Judaism (a determination which changes depending on the denomination) no longer see their ancestral tradition as relevant to their lives?

Niose: Again, the secularization of the modern world—whether we’re talking about former Christians, Muslims, or Jews who have left the religious tradition of their upbringing—is most often a result of ancient theology simply having little relevance in the modern world. These theologies once served various functions—as a source of truth, as a place for social connection, as a basis for morality—that people today no longer rely upon religion to provide. Each religious group has seen unique factors and experiences that have affected secularization in that group, but the common theme across all major religions is that modernity itself is challenging the credibility and legitimacy of ancient theology.


Editor's note: I spoke with Niose (then president of the AHA) in 2012, covering much of the same ground we recently traversed. It was something of a different age, though perhaps more similar to now than 2007, given the trajectory of change in America's religious landscape. Back then, I was a columnist for The Washington Times's Communities page. Our old discussion has since been removed from TWT's website, along with many other articles from the same period. Nonetheless, I saved it, and Niose's half-decade-old perspective might prove no less timely than the interview above. A portion of this chat follows.

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?

Niose: The attraction of fundamentalism is that it provides firm answers that validate the fear of modernity that many people feel. The attraction of secularity is that it offers fulfillment while being grounded in reality, but it does so by making a complete break with most aspects of traditional theology. Keeping this in mind, we can see that mainline churches are often seen as theological and philosophical vanilla, completely lacking in boldness. They don't reject modernity the way fundamentalist churches do, but they don't reject ancient theology the way a secular worldview does.

They try to have it both ways, and I think many people see that as unfulfilling and lacking credibility.

Cotto: You have written in the past that America's secular coalition consists of far more than atheists and agnostics. What other groups actively participate?
Niose: The key is understanding the difference between religious identity and religious belief. Only about two percent of Americans actually identify as atheist or agnostic, but a much greater percentage than that - arguably about one in five - do not actually affirm a god-belief. Many of these nonbelievers surely avoid the atheist label because there is a stigma attached to it, though thankfully that stigma seems to be slowly diminishing. 

Religious categorization is a difficult and imperfect exercise, for numerous reasons. Many people are apathetic and ambivalent about religion, while many others will identify with the religion of their upbringing even though they reject its core beliefs. So besides self-identified atheists and agnostics, there are many people connected to the movement who identify in other ways - humanist, nonreligious, secular, freethinker, etc. - and they are part of the broad coalition.

Cotto: Whether they should be rooted in theism or politics, various ideologies often attract droves of willing participants searching for a universal truth of some kind. In the long run, what do you think that this does to any given society?

Niose: Claims of universal truth or "Absolute Truth" tend to be dangerous. The pragmatic, naturalistic approach of humanism helps avoid such traps.

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