Is America losing its religion? Diana Nyad and Derek Thompson on non-belief

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For many atheists the connection to the outside world; to nature, wildlife and humanity provides comfort and wonder. Sometimes that means pursuing an impossible dream regardless of the destination.  In today’s world, millennials church and religion has been replaced by personal pursuits like hiking, travel, or yoga. KCRW’s Joanthan Bastian talks with self-described atheist and long distance swimmer Diana Nyad and the Atlantic’s Derek Thompson about not believing in God and the increasing lack of religiosity in America. 

The following interview excerpts have been abbreviated and edited for clarity. 

KCRW: What were your early memories about religion and God that led to where you are today? 

Diana Nyad:  “I don't remember really reading an exciting book on the subject when I was young, but I was quite young, when I was almost defiant about God. I say.‘’that sounds wonderful, I hear you, I believe you, I'm just asking you not to put that on me.’ So I remember being in the little courtyard in the elementary school in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. And I'm not the only one, who would refuse to say the pledge of allegiance, because they don't want to say that,  that phrase, “One nation under God.” So I went to the principal and said ‘I can't do it, I can't say that phrase, I don't believe it. It would be a lie for me.’  And she said, ‘that's fine, don't say it out loud, just mouth the words’ and I said, ‘Well, no, that's just as much of a lie.’  She said, ‘well just stand there and don't mouth anything. Just let all the other kids say the Pledge of Allegiance.’ And I said, ‘No, that doesn't work for me either.’ 

So she asked me what I would prefer? And I told her I would prefer it if we take the phrase ‘under God’ out of the Pledge of Allegiance. She couldn’t do that so suggested that each morning, during the pledge of allegiance, I could go to my locker or read a book over on the bench. My mother never had a problem with me, it didn't make it a drama but I do remember clearly being that young, maybe age eight, or nine at the time.”

How did your lack of belief factor into some of your incredible athletic pursuits; swimming all those miles from Cuba to Florida swimming all those miles. What were your inner resources?

Nyad: “I've often said that if you spend a good chunk of your life, Michael Jordan on the basketball court, Martina Navratilova on the tennis court, me out in the ocean, you develop a reverence for that arena. I'm sure that Michael Jordan could sit in an empty high school gymnasium and have a reverence for the hardwood of the basketball court. Martina Navratilova, when she finally retired at Wimbledon, she knelt, cried and plucked a couple of pieces of the Wimbledon grass and put them in her pocket. 

For me, I'm standing right on the edges of the East River in New York and remembering that glorious sunny day, August 6, 1975 and swimming around with tugboat captains honking their horns. When I stood on the edge of the Florida shore, the Cuban shore, the Caribbean shore and looked across at those azure waters and what that meant physically and emotionally, this noble quest to connect our two countries.  

I think that it started when I was younger, but when I was in my older years, in my 60s chasing that big Cuba, that motherlode of a dream, you're filled with, this is the arena where I compete and where I give my all and are willing to display the courage to fail, because the chances of failure were so high. It defined me, as a human being, someone willing to pursue something perhaps impossible, probably impossible, and not worry if the destination never became mine. But it was worth all the life lessons and all the deep friendships that were made from pursuing that quest.

There were people on our team who were religious, and they say that they saw God out there, and when we saw the final beach, coming into Key West, after all those failures, and all those hundreds and hundreds of hours of grueling training swims, there are people who felt God and saw God, and I felt a rapture. I felt all the history of the effort and the belief and the spirit of never, ever giving up. If you get knocked down, you get up, and you can get up again and again and again, and one day, you will make it to your other store. So that kind of grandiosity, of how to live a life and how to be a person you can admire, it almost has religious tones, because it's so overblown, it's so big.”

Derek Thompson, tell us about this rise in secularism and why so many people are turning from organized religion? 

Derek Thompson: “There's really two interesting stories that need to be told when it comes to the accelerated growth of this unaffiliated group, sometimes called the nones- nones, which is essentially a proxy for secularism. The first story is that there really wasn't any growth in religious affiliation between the 1950s and the 1990s — the share of the population that identified as religiously unaffiliated hovered around 6%, for 40 years. 

Suddenly, in the early 1990s, it started to rise and rise and rise and rise like a hockey stick moment in history — hockey stick moments in history are like the Industrial Revolution and they are always incredibly interesting, because you look at these graphs, and ask what happened at this inflection point? 

So what’s behind the rise of secularism in America today? The answer has to do two things, it has to explain why that number didn't change in the 1950s to 1980s. And also explain why it did change in about 1991, skyrocketing the rise of secularism. Those are the really important stories.

I'll offer two theories. The first theory is that America is overall a very religious country, there is no country, as rich as the United States that has been as religious as the United States. A lot of other countries that more or less have our average GDP per capita, or average income, that are a lot less religious - essentially across Europe. 

But the US has always had this religious advantage over its brethren in Western Europe and Central Europe. That's answer one, which is sort of a long historical answer. The second answer, which is more specific, was that in the second half of the 20th century we were locked in a Cold War against a godless, evil empire as it was called, the Soviet Union. 

So it's possible that as long as Americans felt like the outgroup, and that the polar identity against which we identified ourselves was godless that we, therefore were embarrassed about godlessness and we were less likely to say that we were religiously unaffiliated because it would make us sound potentially like communists or Soviet apologists. But then potentially, that might explain, in part, why that relationship broke in the early 1990s, as the USSR dissolved.”

After the Cold War era did Americans feel a new sense of spiritual freedom, an ability to move away from those older institutions?

Thompson: “Spiritual freedom is an interesting way to think about it, you could argue that religious affiliation, or secularism in the US was artificially kept by the Cold War. You had a sort of silent minority, a shy cohort of secularists who didn't want to tell pollsters that they didn't believe in God because they were afraid it would make them seem like communists. So that was suppressed for decades and it burst into light in the early 1990s. That's one thing that might be going on. 

A second thing in addition to that, was that in the 1970s, and 1980s religion was politicized in a way that it wasn’t in previous decades. The Republican Party made a very clear effort to align itself with a so called religious rights organizations like the Christian Coalition, Focus on the Family, Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority, these organizations became fundraising and organizing juggernauts for the Republican Party. Given this negative polarization, if Christianity is seen as a Republican identifier, the result was that more young liberals, identified as secular. 

Finally, it's important to point out that America's geopolitical foe in the 21st century, at least in the beginning of the 21st century, after 911 was not a godless state, like the Soviet Union, but rather a God fearing stateless movement, radical Islamic terrorism. It's possible that, as young people saw that the concept of religion held within its mosaic the possibility of both far right extremism and Islamic extremism. More and more moderate and liberal young people said I don't want to be part of either of those identifiers, and therefore I'm going to identify as unaffiliated.”

How did divorces contribute to less people attending church?

Thompson: “In the article I wrote for the Atlantic, I spoke to a Notre Dame, sociologist and religion professor named Christian Smith. Smith made this interesting point that there's been all of these important changes to the structure of the American family in the last half century. Divorce rates spiked in the 1970s through 1990s. That was followed by the state by state spread of no-fault divorce laws, and as divorce rates stabilized though the marriage rate started to plummet in the 1980s. This was due both to the decline of marriage within the working class and to delayed marriage among college educated couples; young people were not getting married. 

So how does that cash out in terms of religious affiliation? Well, there's historically been this package, you get married, then you go to church or temple, then you have kids, then you send them to Sunday school. So stable 1950s- style nuclear families were an important part of congregations. And that meant that any instability introduced to this model of the 1950s style nuclear family would destabilize families relationships with the church. So in addition as the nuclear family was destabilized, and you saw the rise of delayed adulthood; people graduating from college, moving to New York, Boston or Minneapolis and not going to get married that quickly. They were figuring themselves out in their 20s and early 30s. Typically that didn’t involve going to church every Sunday. 

And so, as long as you don't develop the habit of going to church, or temple in your 20’s, early 30s, then you by the time you get married and decide to have kids or are talking about kids, maybe temple and church aren't in the discussion for you in terms of how you're going to raise them. In summary, the instability to the 1950s style nuclear family also meant instability to the affiliation with church, that that nuclear family model had.”




Andrea Brody