Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Zeitgeist, it's darker than you think

"Zeitgeist," it means "the spirit of the age and its society." It describes, according to Wikipedia, the intellectual, cultural, ethical, moral and political climate of an age. Supposedly, the Zeitgeist can only be interpreted for past ages. Of course, everyone who knows the word still tries to interpret the Zeitgeist of their own age. For example, Christopher Hitchens called the election of Barack Obama a "Zeitgeist Election."

Richard Dawkins talked about the shifting moral Zeitgeist:

That word, "Zeitgeist," does seem to be popular with a lot of so-called "new atheists." Which is a bit odd when you consider that the German Romantics who coined the word took the "spirit" part of its definition a bit more literally. Yet there certainly does seem to be a huge cultural shift in progress. It's why Harris, Hitchens, Dawkins and Dennett are selling more books now than they could have just a decade before. After all, it's not like no one had been publishing atheist books before.

Prometheus Books had been publishing atheistic books for decades before Sam Harris hit it big with "The End of Faith." A book that he wrote soon after 9/11 dealing with the dangerous nature of irrational and violent religions and adding a new vehemence in the atheist critique:

George Carlin could, in a way, sum up some of that a lot quicker:

Long before Sam Harris wrote his books, George H. Smith wrote "Atheism: The Case Against God," (1980) and James Porter Moreland and Kai Nielsen wrote "Does God Exist?: The Debate Between Theists & Atheists," and Lloyd M. Graham wrote "Deceptions And Myths Of The Bible." None of those books sold as well as anything written by Dawkins ever did and those few Prometheus books are just a tip on an iceberg of atheistic books that most of us don't even know about.

Prometheus Books still publish such books and they still don't approach the sales figures of Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris in spite of the times we live in. In the meantime the slow trend toward American unbelief continues with the latest polls and surveys noting that "More Americans Say They Have No Religion." Those of us saying we have no religion have gone up from 8.2 percent in 1990, to 14.2 percent in 2001, to 15 percent in 2008. While there are more Catholics in California, Texas and Florida, the increase is attributed mostly to Latino immigration. Christians who aren't Catholic are now a declining segment of the country. While still growing, the growth of non-belief has slowed a bit. Alas, at this rate, a percentage point or so per decade, I won't be around any more by the time non-belief is the majority opinion... if that ever were to happen.

Sam Harris's question about whether we can expect to survive our religious differences indefinitely is still an open question. And there is no real cure for the condition in sight. The only thing that has changed is that people who are asking that same question are now making money for being willing to voice it in public. It would seem that books decrying religion’s negative influence on the world becoming bestsellers is a good sign.

Another good sign might be Christian Science Monitor author, Michael Spencer, worrying about "The coming evangelical collapse." Spencer's predictions only apply to evangelicalism, only one group of protestant Christians now slowly losing ground.

In the "Protestant" 20th century, Evangelicals flourished. But they will soon be living in a very secular and religiously antagonistic 21st century.

This collapse will herald the arrival of an anti-Christian chapter of the post-Christian West. Intolerance of Christianity will rise to levels many of us have not believed possible in our lifetimes, and public policy will become hostile toward evangelical Christianity, seeing it as the opponent of the common good.

Millions of Evangelicals will quit. Thousands of ministries will end. Christian media will be reduced, if not eliminated. Many Christian schools will go into rapid decline. I'm convinced the grace and mission of God will reach to the ends of the earth. But the end of evangelicalism as we know it is close.

I wish... sort of. I just want them to be a lot less politically influential.

And this was one of the reasons Mr. Spencer identified for the coming collapse:

Evangelicals have identified their movement with the culture war and with political conservatism. This will prove to be a very costly mistake. Evangelicals will increasingly be seen as a threat to cultural progress. Public leaders will consider us bad for America, bad for education, bad for children, and bad for society.

The evangelical investment in moral, social, and political issues has depleted our resources and exposed our weaknesses. Being against gay marriage and being rhetorically pro-life will not make up for the fact that massive majorities of Evangelicals can't articulate the Gospel with any coherence. We fell for the trap of believing in a cause more than a faith.

And, indeed, I do think they are bad for America, bad for education, bad for children, and bad for society. But the unstable mix of Christianity and Ayn Rand style libertarianism was doomed to failure and loaded with potential conflicts from the beginning. We'll now, I think, see those conflicts surfacing in the GOP.

However, Mr. Spencer's concept of a coming "anti-Christian age in Western history" is off the mark. Christians are still a big majority and the numbers of non-believers is not growing fast enough for any kind of "anti-Christian age." What is more likely is that new politically influential Christian leaders, like Rick Warren, will come under the sway of Barack Obama and work on Obama's policies, forcing concessions from him. As more light is shed on the Bush Administration's failures, and perhaps even crimes, the GOP will be abandoned by large chunks of what was once the Christian right. Then we might wind up with something worse -- a Christian left.

For awhile it seemed that evangelicals had gained a lot of political power and the Bush administration was the representation of that power and influence. Rove once talked of a permanent Republican majority. But the mix was unstable and Obama made a clear effort to appeal to fundamentalist and evangelical Christians. It was a key to his success. And his political move could create a new, more stable and less conflicted, political force that still embraces all the scientific ignorance we saw in the Christian right.

It really depends on the outcome of the "science wars." A slightly increasing number of non-believers is irrelevant if we are recruiting them only from the already more rational side of the Christian faith. What you want to really see is a shift in science literacy and you want to see opinions on things like evolution changing. But they're not. has a page showing that as of 2007 the creationist view seems to have gained ground when compared to earlier polls. Yet, at the same time, support for naturalistic evolution had also increased. It suggests that we are becoming more polarized and belief in the compromise "theistic evolution" position, evolution but under God's guidance, lost ground.

The forces of ignorance as represented by people like Ben Stein, Ray Comfort and Vox Day have their counterparts on the left, like Tony Campolo and Deepak Chopra.

We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.
-- Carl Sagan

If you'd like to get an idea of how deep that ignorance goes then I suggest taking a little internet trip over to Ray Comfort's site and checking out the comments of some of Ray's followers. For example, Chris Geiser who writes:

They are not lying they are just misinformed and blinded by their own lasciviousness and concupiscence and probate minds. They won’t even allow creationists to have any public say in what they have discovered scientifically without any bias. I am not surprised, however, that scientists discredit creationists, because ‘science’ back in the day did not agree with peoples’ theories of how the Earth is a sphere and I believe they made quite an effort to shut them up. They only got credit when the world found out they were right all along. They believed it to be true and they had enough faith to journey out onto uncharted ocean to prove their theory, and I am sure they didn’t go on those seemingly suicidal expeditions because they had a death wish, but because they had faith. They did not go with the crowd and play it safe.

As they say on PZ's blog: "The stupid - it burns!"

I don’t swallow any lies. I only take in Truth. I do not rely on any man to give me truth but only God from His Word and from having faith and by praying. If a man says anything that aligns with scripture than I know he is telling the truth. Science books today are written by men who seek to hide information on how God’s hand has a place in history. I believe Ray posted a while ago on how it is possible that the Grand Canyon was formed during and shortly after the great flood and it sure seems reasonable to me and it aligns with scripture.

How can such ignorance not be part of the Zeitgeist when polls show such opinions are horrifyingly common in America?

If only it were a Poe.

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