Which Pew Are You In?
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Pittsburgh Tribune-Review - March 5, 2008

Don't you love surveys?

The front page of the Feb. 26 Washington Post carried a story about a poll conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. It suggested that Americans are fickle about their religious choices. [In Major Poll, U.S. Religious Identity Appears Very Slippery, By Michelle Boorstein and Jacqueline L. Salmon]

After the scandals that rocked the U.S. Catholic Church, it shouldn't surprise anyone, particularly Pope Benedict. The Catholic Church has lost more members than any religion practiced here. But it has replaced its losses from the massive immigration invasion by Latinos.

Thus, Catholics still claim 23.9 percent of those polled. The mainline Protestant faiths (18.1 percent) have lost out to the newer Evangelical Protestants (26.3 percent). Mormons and Jews each represent only 1.7 percent of the faithful. Muslims, Hindus, Jehovah's Witnesses and others register at under 1 percent.

Since I am a member of one of America's smallest denominations—atheists—I felt a surge of pride in knowing of my exclusive status. Of the 35,000 peopled polled by Pew, only 1.6 percent are in my pew.

Those "unaffiliated" with any religion have grown to 16.1 percent: 12.1 percent are "nothing in particular"; 2.4 percent are agnostics; and 1.6 percent atheists.

Of course, "belonging" may not correlate with believing. Having lived all over the United States, I have had many opportunities to speak with members of many corporate nomad families who admit that the best way to ingratiate or integrate into many American communities is by joining a church, particularly one that has members with clout in the place the newcomers land.

Many people change churches because they like or don't like the spiritual leader. But many can't seem to throw off the need to have spiritual feelings. Do they like being hectored for dues and warned about being sinners?

While "going to hell" is currently played down quite a bit, death is still a "biggie" in the quiver of outrageously ridiculous arrows the self-appointed righteous religious rulers have to hold sway over their flocks.

"Getting right with God" remains a primary inducement for most people's servitude to the fantasy of an afterlife. As I prepare to enter my 78th year, I read daily the numerous obituaries of people who didn't make that milestone and feel sublimely lucky to have done so in relatively good health.

For many years I have been "unchurched." As a widower, though, I remarried 14 years ago and my bride and I were delighted to call upon a clergyman relative from each of our two families to bless our union. These two are wonderful people, each with a sincere and abiding faith in his religion, whose moral compasses come not from their religious beliefs but from moral parents and the intrinsic goodness of some humans as compared with the intrinsic evil in others.

But as an atheist, I find Oxford don and Darwinian exponent Richard Dawkins' definitions of the various religious permutations enlightening:

"A theist believes in a supernatural intelligence who, in addition to his main work of creating the universe in the first place, is still around to oversee and influence the subsequent fate of his initial creation. ... He answers prayers, forgives or punishes sins; intervenes in the world by performing miracles; frets about good and bad deeds, and knows when we do them (or even think about doing them). A deist, too, believes in a supernatural intelligence, but one whose activities were confined to setting up the laws that govern the universe in the first place. Pantheists don't believe in a supernatural God at all, but use the word God as a non-supernatural synonym for nature, or for the Universe, or for the lawfulness that governs its workings. ... Pantheism is sexed-up atheism. Deism is watered-down theism."

None except atheism and perhaps pantheism requires courage or brains to adopt.

I must, however, confess that I evolved from being a "reverent agnostic" even as I became aware of these various standard gradations of belief. So where is agnosticism? Again Dawkins comes to our rescue by describing that position as "fence-sitting." Any doubts about the fact that no God exists, he says, have been reconfirmed by the advance of scientific knowledge and overall human experience. This essentially gutless position avoids commitment and again requires no brains.

A look at the history of religions shows conclusively that religions have done enormous harm and may lead us all to the ultimate downfall of life on this planet. Avoiding apocalypse will involve outgrowing the sway of organized, corrupt and secularized religious power.

What to do? First become an agnostic or a pantheist. Come to believe that there is no power greater than other human helpers that can restore us to sanity.

From there you quickly will graduate to the supremely satisfying comfort of atheism, thus avoiding the quagmire of stultifying belief in any religion, which, to paraphrase Dawkins, is jazzed up tooth-fairyism.

Donald A. Collins [email him], is a freelance writer living in Washington DC and a former long time member of the board of FAIR, the Federation for American Immigration Reform. His views are his own.

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