Saturday, July 6, 2013

Theocracy under fire.

Ten days ago, The Pew Forum released a report entitled, Canada's Changing Religious Landscape.  It has been tracking our religious landscape for years, documenting a dramatic rise in the unaffiliated.  A similar, but even faster growing, trend is underway in our northern neighbor.  The "nones" whom I call transcenders now account for about one in four Canadians compared with one in five here.

As in the US, participation in religious services is down (27%), but more so than here (46%).  These attendance numbers rely on self-reporting not headcounts, so they may be overstated reflecting that people like to think they're going to church regularly.  In Canada, more young people also live without religion than do their parents and grandparents.  That said, one of the interesting findings in this report is that between 1971 and today, the number of Canadian transcenders 65 and older has actually grown threefold (4% to 12%), which is actually a larger percentage increase than for any other cohort.  Yes 12% senior non-religious is only half of the combined (all ages) total 24%, but it is still a meaningful number.  It may not definitively negate the notion that the older we get the more religious, but it makes one wonder if the attitudinal gulf between generations may narrowing in the years ahead and at an accelerated pace.

All research must be taken with some caution.  Results are highly dependent on who the respondents were, what they were asked (wording counts) and how the study was carried out — there is difference, for example, between telephone and face-to-face interviews.  Pew's report relied heavily on telephone interviews undertaken by the Canadian arm of the highly respected General Social Survey. The two countries' numbers are not direct comparisons since the dates covered differ.  The latest Canadian count of transcenders is as of 2011; the latest US numbers are from 2012.  This in itself is not necessarily significant, but is an indication of the varied interpretive challenges we face in reading research results.

It isn't merely a matter of how to read research; it's also of who reads it.   You and I can encounter the exact same numbers and draw somewhat different conclusions based upon our own bias or interests.  A few days after releasing the Canadian study, Pew reported on another entitled Growth of the Nonreligious: Many Say Trend is Bad for American Society.  What they found was the 48% of overall respondents said that the trend was "bad" while only 11% thought it good.  No doubt 48% is "many" but if you add the 39% of Americans who said it didn't matter, then a larger (combined) number (50%) didn't think it was bad.  Let's call it 50-50.  The point is, headlining the people who think it bad as "many" colors the perception — it's true, but perhaps not necessarily as balanced as the body copy that follows would suggest.  In fact, it reports the even split.  We think of the media as the prime source of misleading (eye catching) headlines, but let's not think they are alone in that, or that their motives are sinister.

It is not surprising that citizens in our "religious country" think the current trend away from religion is not a good thing.  Needless to say, active churchgoers feel more strongly, especially among the more orthodox faiths.  Unfortunately, this is a singular study, so we have no way of knowing if attitudes are changing, something we might expect considering the "growth of the non-religious".  Even so, among the numbers that I found most interesting is that, while 74% of churchgoing "white" Catholics thought the growth of transcenders is a bad thing, only 39% of Hispanic Catholics felt that way.

This attitudinal difference between "white" and Hispanic members of the same faith may signal the potential impact of changing demographics in a country that is rapidly becoming more diversified.  And of course the role of changing demographics in the political landscape is of central importance.  That we are finally seeing some action on Immigration reform reflects the growing significance of Hispanics in the electorate, a group that is touted as the fastest growing in the land.  But, as pointed out in earlier posts, transcenders are growing even faster and still outnumber Latinos.  Little is said about that demographic and how it will play in the years to come.

Little is said, but that doesn't mean transcenders aren't noticed or that their growing numbers haven't produced a reaction.  Much of what moves the Tea Party ideology is to combat what they see as diminished religious values.  They definitely think the growth of the non-religious is a very bad thing, but also understand that in the face of rapidly changing demographics theirs may ultimately be a losing battle.  This explains their hyper-aggressive, almost frantic, enactment of anti-marriage equality and anti-abortion legislation in those states whose governments they now control (Texas for some time, North Carolina only in the last year).  Governors and legislators may take cover by invoking state's rights or fiscal conservatism, but these laws are all religiously based, and it's a religion of a certain orthodox kind.  The clock is ticking on their way of life (in some cases a way already passed).  Their only hope is that, once on the books, these laws may be hard to overturn.  There actions are have a terrible negative impact on LGBTs, women and indeed on all of us, but these fringe zealots are on the wrong side of history.  Their religion card just doesn't play the way it once did, their theocratic ways are under fire.

To be sure, the political divisions in this country are rooted in different approaches to economics and even to a clash between federal and state's rights.  But for certain religious orthodox the struggle is just as much between religion and secularism.  The vast majority of mainstream religious don't agree, but for these people God's governance and "traditional" (think marriage) ways based on divinely revealed law are on the line.  And that brings me to Egypt.  Much conventional and digital ink has spent against the proposition that the principle struggle engulfing the Muslim world is between Sunni and Shia.  There is much truth to that.  But an equal, and in some ways more far reaching, struggle is between those who believe in a religious verses secular state.

I am not alone is being torn between what looks like a setback for democracy in Egypt while recognizing that Mohamed Morsi's rule strayed far from the democratic way.  He may not be a cleric, but it would be fair to say he is more of a theocrat (Sharia Law, etc.) than a democrat.  By the way, the same can be said about many of those who now hold power in the states I mentioned, though they would vigorously deny it.  The Morsi government's demise can be attributed to a number of factors including economic decline and its sheer incompetence.  In some respects, his failure can be attributed to the fact that it is easier to criticize than to govern, doubly so if you have been on the outside for so long.   Oppositions like the Muslim Brotherhood that have been denied opportunities to govern at any level for decades simply lack the human infrastructure and experience to do so.  But it was ultimately Morsi's autocratic and undemocratic ways that did him in.  He came to power because Egyptians had just deposed one dictator; they didn't want another.

Seasoned observers like Tom Friedman and Roger Cohen have suggested that Morsi's downfall fits a pattern of growing resistance to religious rather than secular rule in Muslim countries.  The recent demonstrations against Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan reflect a pushback against his efforts to move away from years of secular governance.  The Egyptian situation is still in flux and making predictions about the outcome would be premature.  We also don't know how Turkey will turn out and whether the more moderate elected president in Iran will have any impact on its theocratic regime (though that seems unlikely). We Americans love our democracy and sometimes forget that others may not share our enthusiasm.  Unlike George W. Bush, I don't think a wish for democracy is innate to our species, much less democracy as we define it.  Too many of our fellow human beings have opted for something else.  Consider Putin's Russia as an example of that.

With regard to the Muslim world, we should remember that it is largely dominated by the religious orthodox.  Orthodoxy of this kind isn't democratic, just the opposite.  It fosters top down leadership by an elite and often by a singular autocratic leader.  That's true with the Ayatollah in Iran, the Wahhabi monarch in Saudi Arabia and, yes, the Pope in Rome.  The pope may not be a dictator in the political sense, but once in place is an absolute ruler with extraordinary powers.  Pope Francis just elevated two of his predecessors to sainthood effectively making them super human and potentially the object of prayer.  And he did so by fiat, in the case of John XXIII bypassing one of the requirements.  Absolute rulers can do such things. 

The growth of transcenders is unnerving orthodox religionists in the United States.  In a place where so many "secular" governments have been despotic —Iran, Egypt, Syria or Iraq — the suppressed religious have often led the revolutions.  Now in power, some of their populations seem to be feeling buyer's remorse, albeit not necessarily in rejecting religion from their own lives.  Whether the growth of transcenders in the West will be echoed in the East is unknown (and in the short term unlikely) but whether religious governance can prevail in the world of the Internet where what's happening here is quickly known there and visa-versa is an intriguing question.  Stay tuned. 
My book Transcenders: Living beyond religion and the religion wars is available in print and as an eBook.  Both versions are available at Amazon; the electronic iBooks version can be found at iTunes; a Nook version at Barnes & Noble.

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