Monday, June 3, 2019

Interview: David Niose says "as history rolls forward and brings secularity with it, fundamentalism becomes an opposing force"

Editor's note: This interview was originally published in March 2017.

This is the third part of my discussion with David Niose. The first and second articles are available. 
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: The various movements within Orthodox Judaism, Mormonism, Evangelical Protestantism, and the Islamic traditions continually gain power even as religion declines overall. Do these groups share any reason for defying the trend?

David Niose: It’s interesting that fundamentalism remains strong within all the major religious groups, even as society overall seems to be trending secular. Much has been written about this, and I think the common argument is that fundamentalism can be understood as a reaction to the perceived threat of modernity, a means through which those who fear modernity or are displaced by modernity can find comfort and security. There’s a dialectical element to this—as history rolls forward and brings secularity with it, fundamentalism becomes an opposing force, an anti-thesis. And fundamentalism, with its unambiguous rejection of contemporary beliefs and values, serves this role much better than moderate, mainstream religions that are less resistant to modernity.

Cotto: Despite comprising a very small segment of the American populace, New Age religion appears to be holding its own, if not growing. Do you think that its less regimented approach to spirituality speaks to a desire for transcendence in an era where supernatural beliefs are harder and harder to maintain? 
Niose: Yes, I think that’s a big part of it.

Cotto: Across the world, untold billions rely on supernatural faith just to get through the day. It has been suggested that religious communities which hold outlandishly impossible beliefs are more effective at creating tightly-bound congregations than more intellectual creeds. In America, do you believe that this is presently the case? 

Niose: It is true that fundamentalist churches, which seem to be the most defiantly anti-intellectual—insisting for example on the biblical literalist view that the world is less than 10,000 years old—seem to be stronger than mainstream churches. Again, it can be seen as a dialectical clash, with fundamentalism being fueled by forces that, for various reasons, are resistant to what history seems to be delivering.


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: One of your highest priorities as president of the American Humanist Association has been to stand up for the rights of secular individuals. Currently, how do you believe that the rights of secular Americans are infringed upon?

Niose: In many ways. Every church-state dispute, for example, is a matter that directly or indirectly involves the rights of seculars.  Seculars are an invisible minority in America, so much so that the government and media rarely think about them or consider their interests when discussing policy.

About one-quarter of the House of Representatives belongs to the Congressional Prayer Caucus, an entity that is ardently discriminatory toward secular individuals, constantly proposing ways to exalt religion - usually a thinly guised Christianity - in public life. CPC members have proposed declaring a "Year of the Bible," for example, and they have proposed - in the midst of tight budgets - erecting "In God We Trust" signs in all public buildings, including classrooms. 

Little thought is given to what the taxpaying atheist or agnostic family might think of sending their child to school each day to face such overt religiosity. It is no secret that many fundamentalists feel that church-state separation is a myth, and if this view ever prevails it will be America's seculars who will be most under threat. And even beyond church-state separation, we see governmental privileging of religion in many areas, from "conscience clause" exemptions for health care providers to the rewriting of history and science text books. Many fundamentalists see public education as an evil that must be dismantled, so it's clear that the rights seculars, as well as other rational Americans, are under attack. 

We could go further and look at religious favoritism in the military, exclusion of atheists from the Boy Scouts, and the general tendency to see believers as more patriotic. Unfair prejudice against nonbelievers is far too common.