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OpinionColumnistsCathy Young

Don't count religion out just yet

Church steeple.

Church steeple. Credit: iStock

Is religion on its way out? That's the question some are asking in the wake of a new Pew Research Center survey showing a dramatic rise in religiously unaffiliated Americans: from 16 percent of the population in 2007 to nearly 23 percent today.

For many secular liberals, the presumed decline of religion is a welcome sign of progress toward a more rational and enlightened world. But, as one of the "nones" -- Jewish by background but nonobservant and agnostic -- and a strong supporter of secular values, I'll offer my fellow secularists a heretical note of caution: Digging religion's grave may be both premature and unwise.

For one thing, the unaffiliated aren't necessarily nonreligious. While nearly a third of the "nones" (31 percent) describe themselves as atheist or agnostic, an equal number, surprisingly, say religion is important in their lives even though they don't identify with a specific religion. For another, present-day trends may be modified or reversed later; notably, actively religious people tend to have more children than the nonreligious, and while some of their children may become secularized, others will continue to follow their parents' faith. Nor do we know what future societal shifts or crises may lead to a religious revival.

Furthermore, as deplorable as faith-based obscurantism and bigotry may be -- from rejection of science to stigmatization of gays -- we should not underestimate humanity's capacity for intolerance and fanaticism, whether based on belief in a higher power or in something else. Many secular progressives in Europe and North America have made a religion of environmentalism, with an unspoiled Earth as their deity and industrial capitalism as their devil.

For others, the cult of choice is radical feminism and other "social justice" movements whose Great Satan is the straight white male. The idea that 21st Century America is a "patriarchy" is about as scientific and rational as the idea that God created Earth and humanity 6,000 years ago.

In today's overwhelmingly secular universities, anti-intellectualism is running rampant -- coming not from Christian fundamentalists, but from self-styled progressives seeking to stifle debates and censor ideas perceived as harmful to women, racial or ethnic minorities, gays, sexual assault survivors, and other traditionally disadvantaged groups. In what may be the most ironic twist, many of the progressives demand deference to Islamic fundamentalism -- the most dangerous form of religious bigotry in the modern world -- because, in their view, Muslims qualify as a marginalized minority.

There is no question that historically, the secular, rational values of the enlightenment have been a great boon to humanity, giving us unprecedented freedom, prosperity and advances in human well-being and human rights. But those values also have coexisted with a religion-based moral framework, and many human rights movements -- including the abolition of slavery and the U.S. civil rights movement -- had an explicitly religious element in their appeal to God as the source of human dignity. Meanwhile, the example of communism shows that atheism, like religion, can be put to monstrously oppressive uses.

The impulse to find a meaning larger than oneself seems to be an essential part of human nature; to dismiss that human need as a hang-up we can outgrow is reckless. It opens the way not only to illiberal secular cults, but also to the more radical religious ones -- which can fill the vacuum if more mainstream, and more tolerant, forms of religion are marginalized.

Secular liberalism is essential to a free society. But perhaps, to do good, it requires a pluralistic and respectful coexistence with religion.

Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics.