Living in a Religious Society

by S. T. Joshi
(American Rationalist, Vol. 62, No. 6, November/December 2016)

The number of atheists, agnostics, secularists, and the religiously indifferent may have reached around 30% of the American population, if recent surveys are reliable—and the number may in fact be higher than that, given the opprobrium that in certain circles still attaches to the very idea that one might be irreligious. Since, therefore, we are still a minority (although a larger minority than fundamentalist Christians, whose numbers have probably declined to under 20% of the populace), the question remains: How do we live in a society where the visible tokens of religion (churches, the motto on our currency, whole television channels devoted to Christian proselytizing, and much else besides) confront us from all directions?

The solution may be simpler than we think. Unless one has the misfortune to be a closeted atheist in some fundamentalist compound, or unless one is so fervently antireligious that one cannot resist attacking or lampooning people of faith in person or on social media, one can navigate the atheist/religious divide with a suitable amount of tact that does not in any way constitute a fatal compromise of one’s principles. My own experience, which may or may not be representative, may shed some light on the matter.

I came to this country with my family when I was five years old, in 1963. As immigrants from India, we had the good luck to live in a succession of university towns in the Midwest, where the overall political liberalism of our friends and acquaintances not only tolerated whatever Hindu customs my family wished to practice (as a matter of fact, only my mother was devout, and she observed her faith largely in private), but made little mention of the subject of religion. Even in that era, most educated Americans wore their religion lightly; it had already become bad form even to speak about the issue in public—it would be rather like talking about mending one’s underwear. I do recall one well-meaning American family taking me (without my two sisters or my parents) to a Catholic service when I was about eight years old, but the ceremony baffled and bored me and left no impression aside from the fact that I was denied the wafer: I had become somewhat hungry and could have used a snack about that time.

I’ve gone on to live in liberal enclaves, either on the East Coast or the West Coast, for most of my adult life. Living in New York City during the 1990s, I had a succession of Jewish girlfriends: they were themselves largely non-religious, but were in varying degrees eager to adhere to Jewish cultural traditions. One of them took me to her family’s Passover seder. Somehow it had become known that I was an atheist, and one earnest young female member of the family looked at me solemnly and asked, “Why don’t you believe in God?” I replied calmly, “It doesn’t seem to me that there is sufficient evidence to support belief in a deity.” The woman had nothing further to say on the subject, and the seder proceeded uneventfully.

The one time I lived in an area of the country that could be considered politically or religiously conservative was when I spent a few years (2005–08) in upstate New York, in the Finger Lakes area. Here, in spite of the proximity of the very liberal Ithaca and its intellectual cornerstone, Cornell University, I lived in a small town that seemed to have been unchanged since the 1950s. My then wife had secured a job at the small public library in town; and on her first day on the job she was asked bluntly by an elderly staff worker, “How many children do you have and what church do you attend?” My wife answered “None” and “Catholic,” respectively. But in all those three years she attended exactly one service at the local Catholic church. Why? Well, this church’s congregation had dwindled to such an extent that it could no longer support a live-in priest; instead, a roving priest would conduct a single service at 8:30 A.M., then move on to at least two other churches in the area. That service was far too early for my wife, who liked to sleep in on a Sunday!

Aside from those three years, I have lived in Seattle since 2001. Washington is a state with one of the lowest rates of church attendance in the nation, and Seattle itself is famously secular. I cannot recall a single discussion of religion among my neighbors—Christian, Jewish, or unaffiliated. I quickly joined a community choir—one of dozens in the city—as I found choral singing a welcome form of diversion from my literary duties. The choir director was a very pious African American man who concluded each rehearsal with an explicit prayer to Jesus. Did that bother me? Not in the least. It was his choir; he was a private individual, not a government official; and I could endure sitting quietly and unobtrusively through thirty seconds of a prayer in exchange for the abundant musical training I was absorbing. I have had the great privilege of singing some of the great (sacred) choral works of Western culture—Handel’s Messiah, Bach’s B Minor Mass, Mendelssohn’s Elijah, Requiems by Verdi, Fauré, Duruflé, Rutter, and others, and much else. To this day I shed tears (as Handel himself did) when I hear the gorgeous alto solo “He was despisèd.”

As Reynold Spector has pointed out in the latest issue of THE AMERICAN RATIONALIST [Vol. 62, No. 6 (Nov/Dec 2016)], there is no denying that religion has been the source of an enormous quantity of the great art, music, architecture, and (to a lesser degree) literature in the West, and it would be foolish and self-defeating not to appreciate it merely because one happens not to agree with its religious orientation. If a religious person counters that I cannot really “understand” the essence of St. Peter’s in Rome or Bach’s St. Matthew Passion or Milton’s Paradise Lost because I am an unbeliever, I can counter that the average religious person who is untrained in architecture, music theory, or literary analysis is similarly at a disadvantage. One could go further: on this same principle, no one today (indeed, no one for at least fifteen hundred years) can “understand” Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey because no one since about 500 C.E. has believed in the Greek pantheon. There is no illegitimacy in a purely aesthetic appreciation of religious art; many of the creators of such art were themselves not especially pious, and such works are not intrinsically dissimilar to great secular works of art, ranging from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony to the plays of Shakespeare, which are resolutely secular.

In short, I believe that in most circumstances it is fairly easy for atheists to avoid the taint of religion in their daily lives. I am not, of course, recommending utter passivity in the face of religious encroachments upon our rights and freedoms—as in current claims that “religious freedom” is an excuse to discriminate against same-sex couples, the transgendered, and other groups whom some Christians abominate. Such encroachments must always be combated, politically and legally: not only are they in themselves obnoxious, but there is always the possibility that they could be turned against atheists in ways that would constrain our own freedom of thought, action, and association.

I am, however, not persuaded by the claims of certain atheist activists that the death of religious belief is imminent. We have heard confident assertions of this sort before, and they have always been proven false. However much religion—especially the Christian religion—may be on the wane in both Europe and the United States, I think we are obliged to acknowledge that it will be an all but permanent factor in the intellectual and social makeup of a large segment of the American public. The great majority of Americans—and perhaps human beings in general—lack both the education and the courage to lead a purely secular life; and even if religion becomes a purely private matter with little influence on our laws, our political institutions, or even on our behavior, it is unlikely to disappear altogether. As such, potential conflicts between the religious and the irreligious will be an ever-present reality. I see no reason to create needless discord among our religious acquaintances by speaking abusively about their faith, so long as we also make it clear that our own atheism is firmly and intelligently held. A détente may be the best we can hope for—but that is probably good enough.