The New Secularism

Paul Waldman, in the Prospect:

In 1984, 7.3 percent of respondents answered "none" when the General Social Survey asked what their religious preference was. Twenty years later, nearly twice as many, 14.3 percent, gave the same answer. Of course, the number of non-religious people will varies depending on how you ask the question. (For instance, the National Election Studies asks respondents whether religion plays an important part of their lives; in 2004, 23 percent said no.) But however you define them, no one doubts that their numbers are increasing.

So the question now is whether non-believers will, in large numbers, begin to define themselves as a tribe of their own ... Whatever the answer is, the possibility does seem real for secularism to achieve a new awakening of its own as a political and social movement.

This dovetails - unsurprisingly, since we're looking at some of the same data - with my piece in the latest Atlantic, which you could read for the price of, say, two lunches at Subway if you felt like taking advantage of this only-for-blog-readers subscription deal. (But no pressure.) The argument, in short, is that just as the elite-level secularization of the 1960s and '70s (in the intelligentsia, the Courts, and the Democratic Party) produced backlash in the form of the religious right, so now that backlash has bred its own backlash, in the form of a mass secularism whose attitudes toward religion, politics, and church-state separation are more European than anything we've seen before in American political life. This, not the supposed right-wing religious revival that conservatives champion and liberals dread, is the newest new thing in American political life, and the trend that's likely to have the most impact on the culture wars over the next decade or so.