I came across a comment in the Guardian (h/t Barry) which discusses the demographic shift in religious belief in the U.S. and predicts long term doom for the Republicans. It’s entitled “Godless Millennials Could End the Political Power of the Religious Right.” The column notes the prospects for short term success for the Republicans but predicts long term problems because the short term success in deep red states ought to be even greater. I’ve seen the doom of one political party or another predicted too often to put much stock in it. In political circles, short term success is the only kind of success there is. The voting public doesn’t seem to have a sufficiently long term memory for political parties to build up (or cost themselves) a lot of equity. (Pundits seem to be even more immune from long term accountability for good or poor prognostications.) In the past, I’ve seen predictions of a permanent Republican majority. More recently, I’ve seen predictions that will put Democrats in the majority based on demographic shifts that are always just around the corner.
Normally, those demographic predictions are based on race — e.g. Latinos vote for Democrats more often. The Guardian comment discusses religious belief. Its premise is that Americans, particularly millennials are becoming more godless.
What we’re seeing may well be the first distant rumblings of a trend that’s been quietly gathering momentum for years: America is becoming less Christian. In every region of the country, in every Christian denomination, membership is either stagnant or declining. Meanwhile, the number of religiously unaffiliated people – atheists, agnostics, those who are indifferent to religion, or those who follow no conventional faith – is growing. In some surprising places, these “nones” (as in “none of the above”) now rank among the largest slices of the demographic pie.
Even in the deep South, the Republican base of white evangelical Christians is shrinking – and in some traditional conservative redoubts like Arkansas, Georgia and Kentucky, it’s declined as a percentage of the population by double digits. Even Alabama is becoming less Christian. Meanwhile, there’s been a corresponding increase in the religiously unaffiliated, who tend to vote more Democratic.
It may well be that the religious right loses its clout. However, the two party system being what it is, I would expect that if that happens, the Republicans will attempt to shift somewhat to stake out territory that gives them something close to a 51% stake in the electorate. (Power being what it is, political factions tend to want to be large enough to retain power but small enough that they share it as little as necessary.)
With that long lead up, what captured my interest is the premise. If America is becoming less religious — and I don’t pretend to know if the premise is sound — why now? The column suggests something like a backlash against the religious right’s treatment of gays and lesbians. Millennials regard bad treatment of those groups as an anachronism and hostile rhetoric against them as unacceptable. People who feel this way leave their various churches and, with such departures, the antipathy of the remainder toward gays and lesbians is higher as a percentage, and the rhetoric grows more extreme; causing a vicious cycle.
I’m more inclined to see aversion to rhetoric about the sinfulness of gays and lesbians as more of a symptom than a cause. I mean, why now? Certainly the public acceptance of gays and lesbians has grown dramatically. But why the sudden shift? I’m going to go with the Internet as a force multiplier accelerating the acceptance of the gay community. As I understand it, more people came out publicly as gay in the 70s and increasingly thereafter. This forced friends and acquaintances to deal with homosexuality as being something experienced by real people, including friends and relatives, and not as some kind of cartoonish abstraction that’s easy to hate. The Internet made it easier for people to come out and more likely that straight people would come into contact with gay people in every day life. The Internet does this by reducing isolation as an influencer of human behavior. By learning that other people think like you, it becomes easier to express your opinions and stand behind your beliefs. You learn that you’re not crazy and you’re not alone. You’re more likely to speak up and stand up for yourself.
When communities were formed almost exclusively by physical proximity, it was much harder to communicate and much harder to learn whether you were alone or whether your beliefs were shared by at least some others. When communities were formed by geography, it was much easier for powerful minorities to control the conversation and create the illusion of social norms and enforce that vision by, in effect, dividing and conquering.
I think I’ve mentioned a passage before from Howard Bloom’s “Global Brain.” He discusses a study by a guy named Schanck of a New York town in the 30s. It seems to have been populated by people who were nominally Baptists and the community was dominated by a minister’s daughter. Publicly almost all of them would declare the sinfulness of things like cards, liquor, and tobacco. Privately many of them would engage in those things.
How completely the anointed had commandeered collective perception became apparent when Schanck asked the closet dissenters how other people in the community felt about face cards, liquor, a smoke, and levity. Hoodwinked by suppression, each knew without a doubt that he was the sole transgressor in a saintly sea. He and he alone could not control his demons of depravity. None had the faintest inkling that he was part of a silenced near-majority.
Here was an arch lesson in the games subcultures play. reality is a mass hallucination. We gauge what’s real according to what others say. And others, like us, rein in their words, caving in to timidity. Thanks to conformity enforcement and to cowardice, a little power goes a long, long way.”
My suspicion, based in no small part – I must confess – on projection of my own experience, is that people aren’t just suddenly reacting to gays. Rather, I expect that a lot of people have long been dubious about the socially conservative behavioral components of religion — antipathy to, for example, gays, dancing, sex, gambling, alcohol. To one degree or another, probably based a lot on their geographic community, that large minority or even majority were perhaps too timid to speak up because they thought they were more isolated in their opinion than was actually the case. This might go not just for those behavioral components but also for a skepticism of religion itself. I grew up Presbyterian and in a family that wasn’t especially ardent about its religion, and I have never been shy about sharing my opinions. But even I felt a strong social conditioning against speaking out about my non-belief. The Internet (along with living in a geographic area with a wide range of beliefs and a non-trivial number of non-believers) has reduced that inhibition by bringing me into contact with others of similar thinking.
So, I wonder if that’s what’s really going on with the millennials. From day one, they grow up immersed in the Internet and exposed to the wide range of beliefs of the millions (are we at billions yet?) of people online. Social conformity based on isolation has to be reduced. (Social conformity based on a howling, mostly anonymous mob might be a thing, however.) What this means for politics is anyone’s guess, however. Prognostications are usually wrong.