The future of politics and morality in a secular America


Writing for a Jesuit university newspaper, religion may be too touchy a subject to approach. Religious affiliation means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, beyond just the scope of Catholicism, and people can be defensive about their beliefs just as much as they can be wary of others. Which they have every right to do: it’s human nature.

One trend in particular about religion that scares a lot of people is, actually, irreligion. Secularism, agnosticism, atheism, etc. All of these labels come with a huge stigma: having no religion equates to having no morals, and is often seen as a cop-out from having any real commitment to an ideology. In fact, in a 2015 poll by Gallup, only 58 percent of Americans would vote for an otherwise perfectly qualified candidate who identified as atheist; 93 percent would vote for any equally qualified Catholic. Nothing could be more testament to the distrust faced by those of a secular mindset.

But here’s the catch: non-religious affiliation is on the rise, despite lingering distrust, so maybe it’s time to talk about the elephant in the room. Controversial or not, the religious landscape of America is fast changing, and will undoubtedly shape our society in the near future. The only question is how, and how soon?

In 2014, the Pew Research Center surveyed more than 35,000 Americans about their religious affiliation. According to their research, the Christian faith has dropped from 78 percent of the population to  70 percent between 2007 and 2014. Within the same time span, those Americans who identified with no religion rose from 16 percent to 23 percent of the population. That’s nearly a quarter of Americans who no longer affiliate with any organized religion, a dramatic shift.

The big shift stems mainly from the Millennial generation, our generation, as we reach adulthood. While only 17 percent of Baby Boomers (born between ’45 and ’64) have no religion, 36 percent of Millennials (born in the 80s and 90s) do not. This is well above that 23 percent share of the total population, showing that the shift in ideology is driven mostly by a younger generation. But the change is also taking place across all age groups: from Baby Boomers to Generation X, people of all ages have seen a decrease in religious affiliation (14 to 17 percent for Baby Boomers, 19 to 23 percent of Generation X, and 25 to 34 percent for older Millenials). In other words, people of all ages are disassociating with their religions at an increasing rate.

But, what does this mean for the future? Optimists point to the fundamental backbone of our country’s democratic system: separation of Church and State. Realistically, religious affiliation motivates voter turnout immensely and affects candidate support as well. If a candidate claims to be Catholic, like we saw above, people will almost instinctively trust his moral platform over that of a Muslim, an atheist, or a Socialist. As wrong as that sounds, and I would hope that it does, the numbers show that this is the case. And of course, voters who are Christian, for example, tend to vote Republican (a whopping 77 percent of Protestants), whereas non-religious will largely vote Democratic (70 percent, in fact, in 2014). As people grow increasingly disappointed in the stagnancy and non-relatability of certain religions, perhaps partisan affiliation will become less religiously unbalanced. As a result, party platforms could change dramatically to no longer cater to religious demographics.

But on less of a political note, let’s talk morals. In a world where morality and community-oriented ethics have always been rooted in spiritual belief, religion losing its influence could scare some people. The question is, can a secular society still be moral?

Well, many would argue yes. Both the Dalai Lama and Pope Francis have defended the potential for atheists to “do good.” Similar moral concepts exist across religions: the Golden Rule, (treat others how you would want to be treated), for example. Killing, lying, and stealing are almost universally frowned upon. In fact, while we can see that basic empathy exists across all religions, Humanists would argue that it exists regardless of religion, and perhaps precedes it.

Now that’s a lot of philosophical musing to make sense of, but take it as food for thought. Religion may always be important to people, but maybe our government doesn’t need it to function fairly. Universal secular standards won’t necessarily signal an anti-religious America, but perhaps a moderate America more inclusive of religious plurality. Because, if we want our government to defend the religions that matter so much to people, should it be influenced by any one of them?

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