Does the rise of people declaring themselves as non-religious indicate a sign of a disjointed, disaffected and lonely future? Sociologist and Baptist pastor Ryan Burge suggests that most of American “religious nones” abandon not only churches or synagogues but also the basic structures that unite society. He points out with concern their low level of education and political commitment. When a disaster strikes or poor people need help it will be difficult to mobilize others to support those in need. Religious communities are very effective in offering aid and relief.
According to Burge, most non-religious people are "adrift" in modern society. Perhaps they are responsible for the growing level of stress among Americans, their dissatisfaction with life, drug addiction and even suicide?
Non-religious as a disease
David Brooks offered a very similar litany of American misfortunes at one of the TED conferences: "The fastest-growing political party is unaffiliated. The fastest-growing religious movement is unaffiliated. Depression rates are rising, mental health problems are rising. The suicide rate has risen 30 percent since 1999….”
The United States is a country with rich traditions of religious tolerance. In countries like Poland, with the absolute dominance of Catholicism, non-religious people exist under much greater pressure. Teacher Grażyna Juszczyk, an atheist, removed the cross in the teachers' room, hanged without consulting the school staff. Because of this, according to the court judgment in Opole, she was humiliated and mentally harassed. When she won the case, as well as the appeal, the school apologized and paid her compensation. Then the prosecutor's office in Wrocław - a state office! - launched an appeal in the Supreme Court, the highest court of appeal in Poland.
The problem, however, does not concern only Polish officials or politicians seeking the Church's favor. In that same liberal and influential magazine "Polityka" that defended Grażyna Juszczyk, Adam Szostkiewicz recently wrote that unbelievers can have their own system of values and are sometimes immune to various destructive ideologies. In the same article, however, he noted (afraid of the future of society) that a lack of personal values can push people into the arms of various charlatans. He loosely quoted once-popular Catholic thinker Gilbert Chesterton: “He who does not believe in God will believe in anything.”
Those who are unaffiliated are judged even more negatively in the materials submitted the autumn session of Polish philosophers. They translated “none" as “nijaki” ("vague, “bland”).
As an atheist, when I am given a list of religious communities, I am forced to choose the "nones" option ("none of the above"). It would never occur to me that a rejection of religious communities and mass beliefs could define my worldview and my values. If I was asked which community I belong to, I would answer without hesitation: self-made beliefs and ways of life.
My image of the world is not bland. I am certainly not indifferent when it comes to what people personally believe in and how they might work together on this basis. It is just the opposite. In surveys, the most frequent reason nones give for leaving the Church is: I question a lot of religious teaching. Questioning is important and essential to me.
Independence of worldview does not mean that someone cannot hold well-structured beliefs. There are no people without a worldview. Nobody lives in the dark without a map. The world "none" is not a description of social reality, but rather a placeholder, waiting for theologians, philosophers, and religious experts to understand what phenomena they are talking about. Let me now give some hints to all those describers of society who treat us - people with self-made worldviews - as a kind of virus, rust or acid, which will dissolve a wonderful civilization, created by mass-produced religious beliefs and ideological theses.
A big problem with the shadows
First of all, please stop using negative terms: unaffiliated, atheists. That will help avoid misleading, nihilistic connotations.* People with the self-made beliefs and ways of life are not shadows of religious people. We are not looking back.
This does not mean, of course, that we are building our images of the world without using cultural memory or without communal participation. It only means that we do not buy beliefs in ready-made bundles, prepared wholesale-style for millions of people by priests or political ideologists. I prefer to use science.
We not only choose our beliefs. We also decide on what terms we wish to choose. We make a new and independent decision about the image of the world that seems credible to us.
Both sides of the story
Thanks to the Big History, a new scientific discipline, presenting the history of humanity from a great temporal distance, as part of the history of the Universe and life on Earth, we know that mass worldviews have in fact been the binders of ever-larger societies. But these often worshiped "binders" are neither eternal nor have they ever given us the Kingdom of God on Earth. (I popularize the academic research on the evolution of early Christian beliefs.)**
Throughout most of human history, mass beliefs and values have enabled us to cooperate instead of killing each other, but they also provided supernatural justification for exploitation and social inequality. This also applies to secular ideologies, not just to religion ones. The exception could be a modern liberal democracy, but this system is going through a very deep crisis. Yuval Harari points out that the ideological foundations of this system - humanism, human rights, the idea of free will - are not able to meet the realities of the information age.
We really need to look at both sides of the story; otherwise, we simplify new phenomena. Ryan Burge analyzing data about our alleged poor education and political activity did not include the most educated, i.e. agnostics and atheists. He used only data about so-called “nothings in particular.” (Non-affiliated who do not fit into religions + atheists + agnostics scheme). At the same time, he uses arguments like “religious traditions have spent decades building networks that operate behind the scenes to support those who are most vulnerable”, or “actively religious people are more likely to describe themselves as very happy.” I think with this kind of argument we need to look for comparisons of all non-religious, without cutting off those who are the most educated. Non-negative terms like “self-made beliefs and ways of life” may help avoid such mistakes.
The information age
Maybe we can look a little wider and a little further into that future we are so worried about? Perhaps our ancient - as Harari calls it - "industry of belief" is slowly losing its usefulness? Perhaps in a world of ever more powerful new technologies and shocking scientific discoveries, it makes more sense to negotiate our images of the world rather than to instill them, glorify and protect them at all costs? Some researchers of social systems say that in these new conditions, with faster and faster changes and increasing fragility, we may actually need a lot of different and competing visions of the world and ways of life in order to build an antifragile “World of Views.”
The next great cultural shift will not happen in a thousand or a hundred years. It can happen tomorrow afternoon. Our well-bonded and therefore inflexible schools, parliaments and Churches will not be able to react immediately. But it is different with people of self-made beliefs and lives. We have experience with watching our world falling apart and rebuilding it from scratch. We are ready.
Joanna Podgórska, Niewierzący w Polsce pod katolicką presją
Adam Szostkiewicz, Młoda niewierząca Hiszpania
Yuval Harari, We need a post-liberal order now
Victoras Veitas, Dawid Weinbaum, Living Cognitive Society: A "Digital" World of Views
*"The case for atheist or nonreligious deficits in life meaning was never adequately established to begin with. This is because most views on this topic rest on academic speculation as to the relationship between atheism, religion, and meaning in life, rather than empirical tests". Joseph Langston at al., What do you mean, what does it all mean? Atheism, non-religion and life meaning See also: Tara Isabella Burton, Why we should stop using the term religious ‘nones’
**Dariusz Kot, Jezus zapomniany: prorok apokaliptycznego Królestwa