We might be leaving religion behind, but our grouping under the banner of atheism is a quick fix to a longer problem. So, what happens next?
Since around about 1970 in Australia, the trend of people stating they have “No Religion” on the census has been constantly, significantly, increasing – from 1966 when the sliver started to first appear in any noteworthy fashion, to the 2016 census where it had reached 29.6% of the total population.
In fact, the “not stated or unclear” is a further 9.6%, making the total potential non-religious group more like 39.2%. But even if we discard this group, “No religion” is now extremely comfortably the largest group in Australia – the next-largest being Catholics, at 22.6%. However, if you combine them with the Anglicans and “other Christian” segment they are still the largest at 52.2%.
If we take the last four census results, 2016, 2011, 2006 and 2001, the average growth of “No Religion” is about 3.5% per five years of the total population. At that rate of growth, we will have no religious people in the country by 2118. Obviously, this is extremely lacking as a scientific estimate, but it does show you the current trend that this country, along with the rest of the developed world, is on. The same is even seen in what is traditionally the extremely religious United States. The Pew Research centre found that people stating their religion as “None” increased in almost every single US state between 2007 and 2014. In fact between those two periods, the average increase across the entire country was 43%, from 16% to 23%. In 1990 it was only 8.2%, which goes to show how quickly it’s changing.
So, religiousness in the West is on a downward trend, and has seemingly constantly been on one for an entire century. Many people are abandoning organised (or unorganised) Christianity and looking for their answers elsewhere. In fact, a 2013 survey found that only about 8% of Australian Christians even attend church once a month, 47% of non-attendees explaining that it was “irrelevant to my life”, 26% “don’t accept how it’s taught”, while 19% “don’t believe in the bible”.
But, with that established, what happens next?
In the book Why Liberalism Failed (note: not the modern slang term for the left wing, but classical liberals who were in favour of people governing themselves, i.e.; modern democracy) it is illustrated how much modern western thought was centralised on the individual – that in line with the ideals of the self-determined classical liberal, each individual should be able to do as they please, provided it doesn’t harm anyone.
However, this has also been a double-edged sword of sorts. You see, western society was founded on a very complex, interwoven set of rules and customs and traditions. When we first set out, much like a young man with a newly-minted credit card, we dig into the vast wealth that’s been offered to us. By pursuing individualism above all else, we’ve taken those systems and networks that were in many ways forming the glue of our communities and we’ve pulled them apart. In many ways our destruction of this glue hasn’t been through intent, but purely by deciding that the previously accepted “God’s Law” was no longer valid in many cases, and humans had a very wide-ranging right to challenge religious laws and assertions – from not attending church to gay marriage. In fact this increase in the priority of individual thought was initiated by Luther, when he nailed his challenges to the door of the church in Germany and started the Reformation. This tumbling effect simply never stopped, creating much more liberally-minded states, albeit still religious. But you can see it’s a case of change by degrees, from the initial challenges to Catholic domination, through the Protestant (note they are named after their protesting nature) to those who have then protested Christianity itself. Slowly we have learned to question what we’re taught, and this has grown larger and larger, until it has consumed much of our own cultural bedrock.
Now that we’ve started to abandon our glue, what holds us together? We can only share atheism in the sense that we share a common opposition to Christian views; without religion our atheism becomes an absence of ideology, and voids itself.
Human beings are communal, social creatures in many ways. We need the bonds we form with other people, we need that interconnectedness. Anxiety and depression have become much more significant factors in our modern society; based on what we know about the effects loneliness have on an individual, we can fairly safely assume some correlation exists between the increased isolation and our increasing mental health dilemmas. In fact, one need only google “the health benefits of socialising” to see the vast array of literature on the topic from news and academic sources alike.
To bring us back to Christianity, for centuries the church (of one kind of another) formed the communal bedrock. It sat at the centre of a community that was largely immobile, and connected the citizens in those towns through programs, schools, activities and a common existential ideology. People experienced a commonality and sense of community via the churches and everything that they offered. In even more extreme examples, the Catholic church in Europe was above even the kings – it was the ultimate arbiter, and it governed everything from nations to the way you lived your life.
But now, following the course of the scientific revolution and the explosion of modern education, we’ve increasingly grown dissatisfied with the answers provided by our churches. To many, their theological answers seem naive. As Richard Dawkins asserted, God has become a kind of “gap filler” to explain the bits of the universe we don’t understand – however, as we continue to learn more and more, those gaps continue to shrink, until very little remains but an emotional conviction. In such an individualist, educated and sceptical society, the room for God shrinks every day.
But what this means is that in many ways we’ve lost our communal glue. We have no common thread that brings us together in our local communities; many of us no longer know any of our neighbours; we’ve started to become digital nomads of sorts, our communities and friendship groups aren’t around us physically but we are connected with them at all times through our computers and phones. But the question is now, is that enough? One suggested treatment for depression for instance is seeing friends and loved ones face to face, being in their presence and doing things with them, in person. Obviously, we used to be surrounded by our community, we lived next door to them and we saw them at the shop every day. The church was where we did this, when modernity pushed our towns and suburbs further apart and our “locality” became much larger.
But now that we’ve started to abandon our glue, what holds us together with those around us? What bonds us to our neighbours and the people in our towns? In fact, what bonds us to most of the country we live in? We can only share atheism in the sense that we share a common opposition to Christian views; without religion our atheism becomes an absence of ideology, and voids itself.
The question becomes, in the vast social and communal void left by our ever atheistic society, what do we fill it with? Nature abhors a vacuum, as they say, and we can see that people have been trying to fill it with all kinds of things, but nothing has ever struck the same common chord that was held for so long by religion. From the Communist wave of the 1960/’70s to the fascist uprisings in Europe and Latin America, we’ve tried to create new humanist “religions” to fill that void. In societies used to a deep sense of community the need was felt most dramatically. In fact, it’s interesting that the early 21st century has not seen the same resurgence of these movements, almost as though people are becoming comfortable with no glue at all.
The religious are still there, trying to “bring it back”…though they aren’t succeeding by any known metric. Nationalists are also trying to make our nations our religions, something I personally attribute with the resurgence of the right wing.
Many different people are trying to figure out what will be our common bond now, and seemingly, no one has figured it out.
The one common bond we can find is in the one thing we all share: our humanity. Wherever the answer is, it surely lies in our loneliness. Children seemingly of circumstance orbiting a star, one star in a sextillion (1 with 20 zeros), in a universe so vast it terrifies us to even contemplate. Because apparently, there is no plan, there is no purpose (or so we’ve come to realise).
We are simply here, and we’ve got trillions upon trillions of years and an unknowable vast space to discover it in.