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Evolving Away From Magic

By James A. Haught

May 24, 1998

America evolves constantly, in subtle increments that aren't noticed until you look back.

Remember the 1950s: Blacks were forbidden to enter white schools, restaurants, theaters, hotels, neighborhoods, pools and most workplaces. Gays were imprisoned for "sodomy." Unmarried couples were arrested on "fornication" charges. Looking at the equivalent of a Playboy magazine or R-rated movie could land you in jail. Ditto for buying a lottery ticket or cocktail. Divorce and unwed pregnancy were hush-hush disgraces. It was a crime in some states to sell condoms, even to married couples.

Today, that era seems as unreal as the Civil War. It slipped away, but most of us were too busy to see it leaving.

Which raises the question: What profound cultural shifts are creeping up on us now, undetected in the daily hubbub? Nobody can answer with certainty. Social tides are hard to chart. (Not even pundits saw that Soviet communism was about to evaporate.)

Well, I'll hazard a forecast anyway. I think America is going through another unseen transformation: the retreat of supernatural religion, at least among the educated class.

Although the Christian Coalition still can marshal millions of fundamentalists for Republican candidates, and the Promise Keepers can fill arenas, I think the mass of educated Americans steadily is turning scientific, losing confidence in supernatural answers.

Hardly anyone today, except crazed believers, trusts prayer instead of penicillin to cure an infected child. In fact, American society is so unanimous on this point that prayer-only parents are jailed when they let their children die.

Politicians still invoke deities loudly, but in truth, they don't really expect heaven to reach down and "bless" America. Government programs are based on pure humanism: people striving to improve daily life, without supernatural aid.

Even sophisticated ministers doubt the gods. Episcopal Bishop John Spong of New Jersey has just finished another book, "WhyChristianity Must Change or Die," belittling the notion that "God is a supernatural being who rules the universe from on high." Since there's no magical god, he concludes, there likewise is no divine, resurrected, invisible redeemer. Many intelligent preachers secretly share Spong's view, I'm sure, but they don't dare say so.

Slowly, subtly, America is becoming like Europe, where supernatural religion has faded to a tiny fringe. One indicator of U.S. change is the disappearance since the 1950s of all those puritanical taboos that were based mostly on church "thou shalt nots." Another indicator is the traumatic shrinkage of "mainline" Protestantism, once the domain of the elite.

America's Catholic hierarchy still denounces the "sin" of birth control, but members don't listen. Evangelists still rant against sex, but most Americans no longer think sex is "dirty." (U.S. sales of X-rated videos passed $4 billion in 1997.) Fundamentalists still call gays evil, but society at large is more tolerant. Preachers proclaim "God's will" on these topics, but it rings hollow.

Don't get me wrong - religion and supernaturalism still are mighty. Americans give $70 billion a year to churches, and more than 100 million people worship each Sunday. No politician could be elected if he admitted atheism. Mystical beliefs of every imaginable sort abound. Americans spend $300 million a year calling psychic hotlines.

But, insidiously, subconsciously, the scientific outlook is winning among the educated, I think. Yale scholar Stephen Carter wrote a book titled "The Culture of Disbelief," protesting that U.S. trend-setters no longer take religion seriously. Carter called it a sign of moral decay - but I call it a sign of rising mental honesty.

America is evolving - in a healthy direction. Despite all the pious posturing, if you look carefully through the daily tumult, you can see supernaturalism dying.

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